The College Tutorial

What does the typical college class in America look like today?

Sadly, the scale of American higher education has abandoned all sense of proportion. It is not unusual for a freshman biology or social science class to number 200 to 300 students or more (500 or even 1,000 is no longer uncommon). Many of the “smaller” classes are often taught, not by the well-published, terminally-degreed, expert faculty you paid for, but by “teaching assistants”—graduate students who in many cases are not much older or much more experienced than the undergraduates in their classes.

Colleges and universities were not always such impersonal academic warehouses, moving students through a vapid, water-downed curriculum like commodities in a supply chain. C.S. Lewis was famously a tough, demanding Oxford professor who pushed every student to the limits of that individual’s academic capability.

But how could Lewis discern the unique strengths and needs of individual students in a class of 200 Oxford undergraduates? That, of course, is a trick question. Lewis rarely taught in massive lecture halls. He did most of his educating in one-on-one tutorials, in which a single student would discuss critical texts and the student’s own research with a knowledgable, accomplished scholar/professor. Lewis illustrates the personal nature of the tutorial in That Hideous Strength, as one of the characters anticipates a student’s paper:

Dr. Dimble looked out of the window.  “There is my dullest pupil just ringing the bell,” he said. “I must go to the study and listen to an essay on Swift beginning, ‘Swift was born…’ Must try to keep my mind on it too, which won’t be easy.” – C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

The possibility of adjusting the education to the needs of all students—strong, weak, or otherwise—was once a hallmark of the tutorial method.

Before World War II, the tutorial was actually the norm in higher education. In response to a wave of matriculating students due to the GI Bill, colleges and universities began to pack more and more students into classes, rather than expand their faculties. They sacrificed educational quality for greater efficiency.

The College at Saint Constantine is defying that trend.

About half of our students’ general education experience is completed through the personally-tailored dialectic of the tutorial. In an age of impersonal, mass-market education, our students learn to consider and think through difficult questions, to dig deep and push past the surface, to examine both the “big ideas” and the contextual subtleties found in the greatest of the Great Texts.

Today’s college student preparing for a career and a meaningful life does not need to master standardized test-taking skills or collect a batch of deceptively pat answers to genuinely complex questions. They don’t simply need to check all the boxes on an institutional degree plan. They need to learn how to think and discern and adapt and solve. Those capabilities are not developed in a 300-seat classroom-factory, but they can be stimulated and nurtured through the Saint Constantine tutorial.

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