National Paideia Center seminar plan: from On Liberty (1859) John Stuart Mill Ideas and Values: free thought, truth, authority Pre-Seminar

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National Paideia Center

SEMINAR PLAN: from On Liberty (1859)

John Stuart Mill
Ideas and Values: free thought, truth, authority

Content – Present relevant background information:
Ask participants to take part in the following “Opinion Corners” activity:

  1. Post signs in the four corners of the classroom: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree.

  2. Write on the board the following quote from the text: “Ability level grouping is better for learning than mixed level grouping” or “ There is no necessity for mankind to know and understand all that can be said against or for their opinions”

  3. Have participants move to the corner that reflects their response to this statement.

  4. Give participants three to five minutes to discuss in their corners why they chose that response. Have each group select a spokesperson to share their ideas.

  5. Each spokesperson in turn summarizes that group’s thinking.

  6. (optional depending on time) Have participants spend about 5 minutes expressing the counter argument in writing.

Share appropriate points from the following background information:

    • John Stewart Mill was a social philosopher.

    • He married his long-time friend, Mrs. Harriet Taylor and with her was an advocate of women’s rights.

    • He wrote on politics and philosophy, including the very influential On Liberty (1859), —addressing the nature and limits of power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.

    • John Stuart Mill was born in London and taught by his father- a philosopher from Scotland; it was massive in scope and equipped Mill by the time he was 13 with the equivalent of a thorough university education.

    • Although Mill never actually broke off relations with his father (and his father’s intellectual circle), he suffered an emotional and intellectual crises when he was 20, leading to his eventually questioning all the received knowledge of his age.

Label the paragraphs and number the sentences of the text.

Read the excerpt from On Liberty at least once.

State directly that our purpose in participating in this dialogue is to gain understanding of the roles individual human beings play in a democratic society. More specifically, our purpose is to discuss the following ideas, among others: free thought, truth, authority

Process –Prepare participants to participate in seminar discussion with a version of the following script:

“A Paideia Seminar is a collaborative, intellectual dialogue about a text, facilitated with open-ended questions.
The main purpose of seminar is to arrive at a fuller understanding of the textual ideas and values, of ourselves, and of each other.
I am primarily responsible for asking challenging, open-ended questions, and I will take a variety of notes to keep up with the talk turns and flow of ideas. I will help move the discussion along in a productive direction by asking follow-up questions based on my notes.
I am asking you to think, listen, and speak candidly about your thoughts, reactions, and ideas. You can help each other do this by using each other’s names.
You do not need to raise your hands in order to speak; rather, the discussion is collaborative in that you try to stay focused on the main speaker and wait your turn to talk.
You should try to both agree and disagree in a courteous, thoughtful manner. For example, you might say, ‘I disagree with Joanna because…,’ focusing on the ideas involved, not the individuals.
Now, let’s think about how we normally participate in a discussion as a group. Is there a goal that we can set for ourselves that will help the flow and meaning of the seminar? For this seminar, I would suggest TO BUILD ON OTHERS COMMENTS.

[Set group goal and display it for all to see.]

Please consider the list of personal participation goals that I have listed on the board.”
To speak at least three times

To refer to the text

To ask a question

To speak out of uncertainty

Is there one that is a particular challenge for you personally? Will you choose one goal from the list and commit to achieving it during the discussion we are about to have?... Please write your personal goal at the top of your copy of the text.”

Opening – Identify main ideas from the text:
With participants new to seminar: What phrase or line is most important (round robin, give paragraph and sentence number)
With participants experienced with seminar: What phrase or line do you find most challenging? (hopping robin, give paragraph and sentence number)
Why is the phrase or line you chose challenging? (spontaneous discussion)

Core Focus/analyze textual details:
Why does Mill argue that if a man or woman “does not so much as know what [the reasons on the opposite side] are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion”?
What is the relationship between the ideas in paragraph A, sentence 6

“But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no group for preferring either opinion.”

and paragraph B, sentence 7

“That it is not needful for common men to be able to expose all the misstatements or fallacies of an ingenious opponent”?

Mill says (in sentence 3 of the first paragraph) that ‘What Cicero practiced as the means of forensic success, requires to be imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth.” What does he mean by “the truth?”
In the first sentence of the text, Mill states that when we turn to subjects including… “morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life…” Which of these subjects are his points most relevant to?
In the last sentence of the first paragraph, Mill uses the statement “portion of the truth.” What do you think he means by the portion of the truth?
In sentence 7 of the first paragraph the term “suspension of judgment” is used. Why do you think that it is so difficult to suspend judgment?

Closing – Personalize and apply the textual ideas:
What do Mill’s arguments for “the liberty of thought and discussion” have to do with teaching and learning?
Process – Assess individual and group participation in seminar discussion with an appropriate version of the following script:
“Thank you for your focused and thoughtful participation in our seminar.
As part of the post-seminar process, I would first like to ask you to take a few minutes to reflect on your relative success in meeting the personal process goal you set prior to beginning the discussion. Please review the goal you set for yourself and reflect in writing to what extent you met the goal. In addition, note why you think you performed as you did. (Pause for reflection.)
Would several volunteers please share your self-assessment and reflection….
Now I would like us to talk together about how we did in relation to the group process goal we set for ourselves (TO BUILD ON OTHERS COMMENTS). On a scale of one to ten, ten being perfect, how would you say we did? Why? (Pause for discussion.)
As always, our goal is continuous improvement: both as individual seminar participants and as citizens. Thanks again for your participation.”

Content – Extend application of textual and discussion ideas:
Ask participants to write for 4-5 minutes about a social issue. Include a statement that clearly states a core belief that is important to them personally.
Then, describe as many counter arguments, or different perspectives on the issue, as you can think of.

National Paideia Center

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