I try to set an agenda for each conference by preparing, and asking, a small set of questions designed to promote intelligent and useful discussion. A good conference question cannot have an obvious right or wrong answer. Nothing stultifies conversation more quickly than an oral quiz masquerading as a discussion topic. At the same time, the question must be answerable, and this means that it must be the kind of question that could have a right answer, though not an obvious one. The question must be difficult and substantial, but at the same time it must be something about which an intelligent amateur on the subject-a student-could have some serious, independent thoughts. Finally, the question should be the kind of thing that leads the conversation back to the text itself, that forces the class to ask the further question, "What does X actually say about this issue, and does the argument make sense?"
In book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle seems to suggest that people who are physically beautiful tend to be happier than people who are not. Since he also draws a very strong connection between being happy and being virtuous, I ask my students: "Are beautiful people likely to be more virtuous than ugly ones?" The students react with horror at such a suggestion. Functioning now as a discussant, I'm apt to raise further questions. Can Aristotle really have been ignorant of the implications of his claim? Surely he would have anticipated the obvious objections. And isn't it true that most of us try, one way or another, to be as beautiful as we can because we think that this will make us happy? All of this leads us back to the text itself. It forces us to think about what Aristotle might mean by happiness, perhaps about nuances in the word beautiful (kalos), and about the Aristotelian theory of virtue. And with this last issue-the theory of virtue-we suddenly, amazingly find ourselves at the very heart of Aristotle's ethics.
Sometimes this process works, sometimes it doesn't. But when it does there is nothing more exhilarating, and nothing that contributes more to serious learning. And it's with this process in mind that we continue to search for ways-such as the 10:1 presidential initiative-to enrich Reed's academic program. As always at Reed, the goal is good teaching, and this means improving the quality and effectiveness of those endless arguments and debates between students and their professors.
Peter Steinberger is the dean of the faculty and the Robert H. and Blanche Day Ellis Professor of Political Science and Humanities at Reed. He has been a member of the faculty since 1977.