Annapolis Alum Brings the Liberal Arts to Austin
July 27, 2020 | By Les Poling
“It’s essential. I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but liberal arts education has a key role to play in preserving our democracy.”
Ted Hadzi-Antich Jr. (A04) is talking about teaching the liberal arts. The mentality sounds characteristic of a Johnnie—but for him, it extends far beyond the seminar tables in Santa Fe and Annapolis. It’s the reason why he helped develop the Great Questions Seminar program at Austin Community College, where he’s an associate professor and chair of the political science department.
Hadzi-Antich originally heard of the liberal arts—and St. John’s College—as a somewhat “unconventional” high school student in Buffalo, New York; someone with more of an interest in reading and discussing big ideas than specialized study or career preparation. His dad told him about a friend who decided to go to St. John’s “because in the dining room, people aren’t talking about sports, they’re talking about Plato,” Hadzi-Antich recalls. “My dad said, ‘you might like this place!’” After a weekend spent at St. John’s, he was hooked. “It was a small community of people who were trying to become more thoughtful about questions that were important. It really appealed to me.”
Upon graduating, he remembers standing in front of McDowell Hall and thinking, “I never want to leave this place. I never want to stop asking these questions, talking about these ideas, being a part of a community where people are serious about those things.” At the time, he was preparing for graduate school in Boston, where he thought he would find an intellectual environment similar to St. John’s. Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite the case. While there were elements of graduate study he cherished, he mostly found hyper-specific disciplinary research and scholarship, and he longed for the type of open, interdisciplinary learning he pursued in undergrad.
After grad school he moved to Austin, Texas, where he was as interested in music as academia—he spent the bulk of his time recording, playing gigs, and touring regionally. But he eventually realized he was less devoted to life on the road than the life of the mind (and his family). An adjunct position at Austin Community College turned into a full-time job as a government professor. And then, finally, he found an opportunity to recreate the community of learning he’d been yearning for.
At the time, there weren’t many discussion-based core texts courses at ACC. While Hadzi-Antich taught works and writers like the Federalist Papers and Du Bois, there wasn’t a full-on foundational books seminar. That being said, he remembers, “Whenever I stopped lecturing and had class discussion focused on text, that’s really when the students started to care about what was going on.” In response, he developed an introduction to political theory course, which he taught as a core books class; he even created a book club that ran for about five years, hanging posters around campus and meeting with students to discuss works like the Iliad and The Brothers Karamazov. So when the opportunity arose to propose a seminar-style liberal arts program to help with student success, he was well-prepared.
In the early 2010s, the incoming ACC provost wanted to implement a course to assist students struggling with the adjustment to college, the goal being to help them develop skills like “growth mindset” and “grit”—the ability to perceive classroom obstacles not as roadblocks or signs of failure, but challenges to be engaged with and used to learn. In contemplating student success, Hadzi-Antich couldn’t help but think of the liberal arts. To him, it’s one thing to tell somebody they can overcome challenges; it’s another thing entirely to present them with an experience that helps them grow and nurture those skills organically.
“I’m thinking about Plato’s Meno, and the theory of knowledge as recollection—which is very much in line with ‘growth mindset,’” he explains. “I’m thinking about how actually doing Euclidean geometry can be really instructive for students in helping them to understand that if they’re not strong in mathematics, they can become stronger.”
He references how powerful engaging in dialogue with other students can be; the practice of developing and writing your own thoughts in conversation with a great author. “If you’re presented with higher education as a continuation of your high school education, where it’s about reading a textbook and bubbling in multiple choice questions—we’re really doing you a disservice,” he says. “Because higher education is not just about acquiring useful skills. It’s about presenting the grand banquet of human thought and the opportunity to learn from the great minds ‘seated’ at that table with your peers and teachers.”
And so, after several years of bureaucratic work and course development, ACC began offering HUMA 1301: The Great Questions Seminar to first-year students: a core texts-based exploration of foundational human questions and thought in which faculty members are guides, not lecturers. While those familiar with St. John’s will recognize a great number of similarities with the Program, there are several key differences—not least of which has to do with the students in the classroom.
“In any way that you measure diversity, our classrooms are diverse,” says Hadzi-Antich. “It’s a population much more representative of the country at-large than found in a typical four-year liberal arts college classroom. So reading Homer in that context is a different experience. And having conversations about big questions with all of these different perspectives makes for unexpected and often exciting moments and breakthroughs.”
Several years later, the metrics demonstrate that, when considering fall-to-spring persistence and student GPAs, the Great Questions Seminar is just as effective as the standard student success course—which explicitly attempts to teach good learning habits. But it’s from a less quantifiable perspective, Hadzi-Antich suggests, that one really sees the impact. “We’ve seen that our students are learning more about themselves in relation to texts, developing a different relationship with texts, and seeing reading and discussion in the context of higher education not as a chore they need to accomplish, but as something enriching, exciting, and meaningful,” he says. “That’s something unique that Great Questions seems to encourage.”
In the fall semester, the program will serve 13 sections, giving nearly 400 students a liberal arts foundation they can use to pursue the rest of their studies, both in community college and after transferring to a four-year school. For Hadzi-Antich, that’s easily the most important part of the entire endeavor. “We’ve opened the door to liberal education for so many students that would never have gone through it—never have even known that it was there for them,” he says.
That’s one reason he’s particularly excited about the recently forged partnership between St. John’s College and Anne Arundel Community College, designed to encourage the exchange of pedagogy, students, and curriculum between the two schools. Like in Austin, the BLAST partnership will bring the St. John’s seminar method to AACC classes. More than that, though, Hadzi-Antich believes it’s an opportunity for students at St. John’s. “I think that this sort of partnership can help Johnnies realize that the conversation they’re a part of at St. John’s is one which is important to continue outside of the campus community—and to which others have a great deal to contribute,” he notes.
Hadzi-Antich recently delivered a virtual summer lecture to the St. John’s community titled “Teaching Poetry, Revelation, Mathematics, and Respect for Truth;” he also participated in a panel event on teaching the liberal arts in community college. Plus, as part of his liberal arts outreach and expansion efforts, he cofounded a nonprofit called the Great Questions Foundation earlier this year—an organization devoted to expanding the number of faculty members and community colleges teaching a liberal arts pedagogy (St. John’s College’s own Emily Langston is on the board). It’s all part of an ongoing mission to promote the type of thoughtfulness ideally found in a liberal arts education.
“We are supposedly a pluralistic, representative democracy, where people from a variety of backgrounds and with different points of view need to live, work, and collaborate on our continuing political development. We must be able to have meaningful conversations where we don’t demonize and dismiss those with views we find disagreeable, but come to understand opposing arguments and perspectives as opportunities for us to get closer to the truth,” Hadzi-Antich declares. “These are the skills that you practice in a liberal arts seminar.”