Education - Seminars

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Below are outlines for both a high school and a university seminar. 


A)  Introduction

In secondary schools today, mandatory testing, college prep and strict educational standards can take up so much time that there is little left for serious debate of topics outside of core subjects. But it is this deliberation that allows students to develop ability for critical thought, perhaps the most important skill they will gain while in school.

In view of this, THI has designed a plan for conducting a seminar in secondary schools, instead of in college, where it is usually introduced. Our vision is for a class  –  meeting once a week outside of normal school hours  –  that allows students to engage topics not usually found in the classroom.

Spanning the academic year, this seminar is divided into two parts. The first half is devoted to debate around positive change, drawing on weekly readings, and is designed to build student commitment to independent thought. The second half uses this experience as a launching point for the class to work on self-designed projects in their community. Through this combined structure, we hope that we can help students realize the link between understanding a problem and using that knowledge to fix it.

B)  Logistics

Such a seminar cannot be realized, of course, without providing a firm foundation. In view of this, here is a step-by-step guide to illustrate our vision of the creation process.

Step One:  People

Seeking out people interested in building this structure is perhaps the most important step, requiring the recruitment of committed students and teachers. Teachers play a crucial role, as they either create an engaging classroom experience or allow discussions to stagnate and disappear. And students must be willing to ask the difficult questions and put in the work that will help expand how they see our world. The right people can make all the difference.

Step Two:  Place

This is almost as important as gathering a good group of people. One should secure a consistent meeting spot that provides two things.  First, it must facilitate discussion by having tables or desks arranged in a circle, so that everyone can feel that they are a part of the conversation.  Second, it should provide A/V equipment, a blackboard, or other tools for sharing content, the use of which can help spur debate. 

Step Three:  Size

We recommend at most 12 to 15 people for a seminar.

Step Four:  Time

The best solution is to recruit participants first, and then work with them in arranging a meeting time. 

Step Five:  Course Outline and Materials

The course outline is below. The materials assigned as weekly readings for this course have been selected not only for their effectiveness in illustrating the topics of each class meeting but also for their availability. All of our materials but two are freely obtainable from various sources on the Internet, and the two that are not cost around $20. Our objective was to create a seminar where the cost to students is a close to zero as possible.

Step Six:  Begin!

With people, place, awareness and reading materials in place, you can begin!

Step Seven:  Volunteer Project

While this is the second half of the project, its unorthodox nature requires that a significant amount of time be devoted to its planning. The most important thing to iron out in the early stages is how exactly the volunteer projects will be organized and how students will coordinate their efforts among themselves.

Step Eight:  Continuity

Even as the school year ends, the people involved in this seminar have a responsibility to ensure that it remains in place and open to students in the future.  The most effective way to do so is to identify one person willing to coordinate the early stages of the seminar for the next year.


C)  Positive Change Syllabus

This syllabus is perhaps the most important document here. In it are the guidelines for dozens of hours of debate and discussion, the heart of this seminar. It has been designed to first broach the subject of positive change in a broad way and then delve into the specifics of how change can be created by drawing on a wide range of materials.

We should note that while we see this as a firm guideline for subject mater, the questions we have included are only starting points.  Every group that will take up the subjects here will have their discussions progress in unique directions and we encourage this, by doing so they can create new ideas that have never crossed our minds. Our focus is on helping students learn, not on imposing our ideas of teaching on them.

            Week 1:  How can you change the world?

There are innumerable problems facing humanity and the Earth. Can one individual have a positive impact?  If so, is there a certain way in which they should act?

- Immanuel Kant “What is Enlightenment?”

~According to Kant, what are one’s intellectual responsibilities?

~How is this a starting point for positive change?

- Barack Obama “Make Us Believe Again”

~Why is this an important message?


Week 2:  What are our responsibilities in trying to make a positive difference and how do we fulfill them?


Do we have a responsibility to our local community, to the world as a whole?  What constitutes a valid commitment to human society? Does donating money count?  Should this be a priority in our lives, or can we take action when it is convenient?

- Peter Singer “Famine, Affluence & Morality”

~Do you agree with Singer’s assessment of our responsibility to give?

~Is such drastic change truly required?


Week 3:  How do we assess our actions?

How are positive and negative effects weighed? Is an effort made in good faith, but which ultimately fails, still praiseworthy? Must we consider the opinions of others?

- Thought Project:  Image you are the head of a humanitarian aid organization.  A nation, governed by a military dictator, is experiencing a famine and your group has the ability to help. The only problem is that the dictator is demanding he be paid before you are allowed in his country. If you pay him you will be strengthening his government, but if you refuse you are allowing innocent people to starve. What do you do?  Write a short justification and come to class prepared to defend your stance.  (Note:  This is known as “negotiated access,” and you may wish to encourage students to research real world instances where this has occurred. Examples include Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Somalia)


Week 4:  Does work for positive change entail personal sacrifice?

What about giving up your life?  If you changed the world would it be worth it?

- No reading:  Students are encouraged to seriously consider the question before coming to class


Week 5:  Is war ever a good thing?

Has war ever resulted in positive change?  Even if it has, can positive results justify the use of violence?

- Joe Haldeman “The Forever War”

~What are the parallels between Haldeman’s war and our present conflicts?

~Do you agree with his assessment of armed conflict?


Week 6:  What role do distinctions of gender, race and religion play?

What impact do they have on our lives?  Does the identification of these differences lead to positive or negative consequences?

- James Baldwin, “If Black English isn’t a language…”

~Are distinctions like those described by Baldwin as pervasive today as when he was writing in 1971?

~How do we face these divisions and recognize them?  Do you judge people by the way they speak?


Week 7:  Can we expect governments to work for change?

What are the goals of government? Do they seek power for themselves or protection for their citizens? Does democracy necessarily lead towards improvement?

- Teddy Roosevelt “The Man with the Muck Rake, April 15, 1906”

~Why is the man in government best situated to play the role of Roosevelt’s ideal reformer?


Week 8:  Does science recognize positive change?

Science fundamentally alters our society as it advances, but does it always do so in a positive way?  Do scientists have a responsibility to consider the consequences of what they create?

- Kurt Vonnegut “Player Piano”(Chap. 1-3)

~What are some of the drawbacks of this hypothetical America?

~Is the way our society works any better?

- Albert Einstein “Letter to Roosevelt, Aug. 2, 1939”

~Einstein questioned his decision to send this letter late in his life. Was it the right thing to do?

~Do you think he was motivated by the need to develop uranium for energy, or

  as a counter to the Germans?


Week 9:  What impact can artists have?

Can their work directly, or indirectly, create change?  What role do they play in helping societies examine themselves?

- Banksy “”

~Does the frequently illegal nature of his work add to or subtract from his message?

- Francisco Goya “The Disasters of War”

~How do Goya’s short captions add to the impact of these images?


Note:  For the next two classes students will be expected to do some research on at least one of the subjects to be discussed and arrive prepared to debate the contribution of the subjects they researched.


Week 10:  Case studies in change (some suggestions)

-King Juan Carlos -Ansel Adams

-Gandhi -Jacques Cousteau

-Henry Dunant -Ambiguous Case:  Werner Von Braun


Week 11:  Organizational case studies

-League of Nations/United Nations (Compare & Contrast)


-Tesla Corporation

-Medicines Sans Frontiers


Week 12:  Beginning of the class project

Students should be tasked with exploring options for the positive change project they will be working on during the next semester. An effective means of communication should be agreed upon so that ideas can be exchanged outside of the classroom.


Weeks 13 to the end

-After selecting its project, the class should use the weekly meeting time to coordinate their efforts and allow the teacher of the seminar to see how their work is progressing

-In addition to working on the project students should complete a writing assignment on how their experience has changed their view of the world.

-Some suggestions:

~Organize a rally/fundraiser for a cause or group

~Work towards a solution for a problem in the local area

~Raise awareness of an issue in their school

~Start a sustainability project




Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the

 difference between what things are and what they ought to be.”
William Hazlitt

  A)  Positive Change Syllabus  (developed by Tony Balis in 1985 for a course at Babson College)


Week 1:  Is it an inherent responsibility for each of us to try to make a positive difference in the world?
What do our own ethical and religious traditions tell us? Does participation depend on financial or social resources? To what degree should we commit? Does it matter if we do nothing? Are we aware of possible negative influences on the world? What are the things to change, anyway?

- Mahatma Gandhi, “The Story of My Experiments With Truth” (Excerpts)

- MoMA, “The Family of Man”


Week 2:  Self-assessment: a necessary measure of commitment.
Are we born to be idealists or activists? To what degree? How do we withstand ridicule, censure, isolation, poverty, or imprisonment?

- Oriana Fallaci, “A Man”


Week 3:  “If I were king…”
Do our leaders, elected and appointed, seek positive change or power? Does war ever lead to positive change?

- Vaclav Havel “Speech at Harvard University, 1995”

- Theodore Roosevelt, “Letters to My Children”


Week 4:  What is the range of possibilities?
Historical models, large organizations, governments, individuals, and small-scale changes.

- James McGregor Burns, “Transforming Leadership:  The Pursuit of Happiness” (Excerpts)

- Le Corbusier, “Towards a New Architecture” (Excerpts)


Week 5:  Gender, race and religious distinctions
Have they made a difference in history? Do they make a difference now?

- Nelson Mandela, “Long Walk to Freedom” (Excerpts)


Week 6:  Money
How is it used? What does giving money actually accomplish? How should we qualify potential recipients?

- Dava Sobel, “Longitude”


Week 7:  How do I become more of an activist?
Where do I begin? Whom do I trust? What are my goals?

- James Brabazon, “Albert Schweitzer” (Excerpts)

- Sebastiao Salgado, “An Uncertain Grace”


Week 8:  What is my return on investment?
Spiritual, financial, social, personal…

- E. O. Wilson, “On Human Nature”

- Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”


Week 9:  Heroes of positive change, nine case histories
The independent activist, within the system:  Bill Drayton of Ashoka
The independent activist, outside the system:  Albert Schweitzer
Architect: Le Corbusier
Sculptor: Michelangelo
Adventurer: Jacques Cousteau
Politician: Teddy Roosevelt
Photographer: Sebastiao Salgado
Writer: Rachel Carson
Filmmaker: Robert Redford


Week 10:  The special role of the artist: Leonardo da Vinci
From the caves of Lascaux to digital art of the modern day, what roles do artists play in positive change?

- Kenneth Clark, “Leonardo da Vinci” (Excerpts)


Week 11:  The special role of the inventor: Thomas Edison
Was the wheel invented with good intent? What about gunpowder? Or printing? Or computers?

- Paul Israel, “Edison:  A Life of Invention” (Excerpts)


Week 12:  Would you give up your life?
Karen Silkwood, Gandhi, soldiers

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