This spring, Dr. Paul Schafer, of Xavier's Philosophy Department, taught a fascinating service-learning course called Aristotle in New Orleans. Taking as his premise Aristotle's idea that we must not only theorize about the meaning of life, but that we must put our ideas into practice, Dr. Schafer led his students through a study of classical texts on rhetoric and ethics, then guided them through eight weeks of community engagement, coaching middle-school debate teams. The culminating event was a day-long debate tournament held on Tulane's campus on Saturday, April 8th, which Dr. Schafer described as a "grueling but fantastic experience," in which his students learned a great deal by seeing their middle-school pupils, from KIPP Believe and Esperanza Middle Schools, engage in formal tournament debate.
Texts for the 2000-level course included portions of Aristotle's The Art of Rhetoric and Nicomachean Ethics, Quintilian's Education of an Orator, and Plato's Five Dialogues. The Quintilian text emphasizes the claim that the ideal orator must also be a good person, an idea that ran like a thread through the course. Other discussions included the nature of philosophical argument, the role of argument and virtue in the good life, and Aristotle's claim that happiness is acquired mainly by chance. These ideas were discussed and argued in class, then put to the middle-school debaters as well, thus simultaneously exposing both groups to crucial questions, while providing opportunity to consider their relevance in the context of modern society, all within a supporting framework of formal debate in a school environment.
Outcomes included understanding Aristotle's philosophical method, his concept of ethics, and his vision of the way moral and intellectual virtues are developed. Students also learned what arguments are and how they function to help us think about the deep truths of life and reality – including what it means to live a good life. Then, once in the community, Xavier students learned first-hand the educational challenges that face middle school students in New Orleans. Also, as a result of eight weeks of working in small groups, the New Orleans middle school students gained valuable, engaged educational experience of the kind that has been shown to improve self-esteem and overall academic performance, which in turn leads to greater high-school graduation rates, more chances for success beyond high-school, and far greater chances of staying out of the criminal justice system.
The students coaching at Esperanza collaborated with Tulane students enrolled in a similar class with the same title. For more on that class, check out this interview with its teacher, Dr. Ryan McBride. These types of collaborative efforts provide opportunities to Xavier and Tulane students that have been shown to enhance their educational experience, by teaching skills of teamwork, problem solving, civic engagement, and cultural knowledge--the very skills most needed to thrive in a globalized society. The community engagement with middle schoolers then provides the next generation the same opportunities. Thus, service-learning classes such as Dr. Schafer's help to fulfill the public purpose of universities.