Reading Through Shared Inquiry

 (Editor’s Note: The concept of “Shared Inquiry” is sometimes confusing to newcomers to “Great Books” discussions, yet this combination of detailed textual analysis and respectful consideration of the experiences and opinions of others can open the mind to new thoughts and new ways of thinking.  As this essay by Tampa Bay Great Books Co-founder and Lead Moderator Patrick DeMarco reveals, discoveries during “Shared Inquiry” can change anyone’s ideas about literary works, including those of one of the country’s most-experienced and most-respected book group leaders!)

We usually think of reading as something solitary and private—the “lone voyage,” as it is sometimes called—but the impulse in human beings, I believe, to share their reading experiences with others can also be a powerful part of human nature.  The late Mortimer Adler, philosopher and co-founder of the Great Books adult education program in America, once remarked that after he had read a book, he would have an overwhelming urge to go out and talk to somebody about it.

Since the Great Books Foundation began in 1947, there has been a proliferation of book discussion groups who have gathered together to talk about their reading selections.  Of course, reading in groups has a much longer past—think of the intellectual salons in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.  It is also an experience with deep roots in our own personal histories.  Our earliest encounters with books were most probably as children with a parent or perhaps a sibling, a small group characterized by intimacy, comfort, and pleasure.

The term “shared inquiry” (coined by Adler and adopted by the Great Books Foundation) is a very appropriate and accurate description of what happens (or at least what should happen!) when people read a text in common and later come together to discuss it.  Shared inquiry involves, then, a collective  search for answers to fundamental questions raised by a text.  This search is inherently an active one. It involves taking what the author has given us and trying to grasp its full meaning, whenever that is possible.  Each participant attempts to interpret or reach some kind of understanding of the text, both my making inferences from the author’s words and by relating them to his/her own life experiences.

In shared inquiry, participants learn to give full consideration to the ideas of others, to weigh the merits of opposing arguments and to modify their initial opinions as the evidence demands.  Thus, careful listening to what is said is as important as expressing one’s own opinions!  Participants gain experience in communicating ideas and in supporting, testing, and expanding their own thoughts about a reading.

By the way, it is important to note that the aim of shared inquiry is NOT to reach some kind of “consensus,” or “final answer,” or “truth.”  Many participants in Great Books discussions find that they come out of the experience with more questions  than answers, yet still find that the process of coming together with other adults in an atmosphere of intellectual maturity and civility is valuable in itself!

Indeed, one of the more interesting by-products of shared inquiry, confirmed over and over by Great Books participants, is the experience of “seeing” a text differently by the end of the discussion from the way one “saw” it on initial reading.  Examples of this phenomenon abound, but I will relate just one from a personal perspective as a Great Books moderator.   Discussion leaders like myself often assume the role of an “impartial” moderator, posing open-ended focus and follow-up questions that can serve as a springboard for discussion.  However, if we leaders are truly honest with ourselves, we must confess that there is sometimes a subconscious (or maybe even conscious?) strategy to “steer” the conversation toward certain themes and conclusions.  Let me tell you what happened to me in this regard many years ago.

I was about to lead my first discussion of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and I was convinced in my own mind that the “key” to understanding this complex play was what I perceived to be the “immoral” charge by Hamlet’s dead father’s ghost to revenge his murder by Hamlet’s uncle.  I “saw” Hamlet clearly as an essentially noble, principled Christian believer who was troubled and later corrupted by this evil, “un-Christian” command by this father’s ghost.  So, I opened the discussion with a focus question about the ghost.  However, when the process of shared inquiry took over, my eyes were quickly opened (where were they during my initial reading?) to the profound ambiguity of the ghost’s words to Hamlet.  There was not a clear call to revenge and kill;  indeed, group participants pointed out evidence in the text that Hamlet had alternative courses of action that could have brought his uncle to some kind of public justice, but instead had impulsively (and rashly?) interpreted the ghost’s message as an invitation to murder his uncle.  To be sure, there are many and varied interpretations of this great and complex work of art, but the fact is that I “saw” a different play after a two-hour discussion of it.

Hasn’t this kind of learning experience happened to you, too?  If we read only in silence and solitude, could we ever have our thoughts, ideas, and assumptions challenged to move in a different direction?  The process of shared inquiry is a marvelous—and yes, often mysterious—process of recreating a work of art by simply getting together with other human beings and discussing it, and, with the dynamic of having different sets of eyes and ears in the room with us, of experiencing something vital that we hadn’t “seen” or “heard” two hours earlier.

By Patrick DeMarco
Secretary, Tampa Bay Great Books Council
Tampa, Florida
April 29, 2016