Every year, University of Guelph-Humber students gather as part of the Agora Fellowship, a program where ideas and themes from the greatest books ever written are discussed as part of a regular forum. The students gather eight times during the fall semester for discussions about society, politics, economics, psychology and culture, and before the end of the year they take an all-expenses-paid trip that ties into the theme of their discussions.
Interested in learning more about the Agora Fellows? Listen to Assistant Vice-Provost and Business Program Head Dr. George Bragues explain why the program has been such a success in the UofGH podcast.
We’re here to talk about the Agora Fellowship and the Agora Fellows, and I imagine there are some listeners out there who must be wondering what the Agora Fellowship is?
Dr. Bragues: We’re now going into our third year. We did it for the first time in 2015 where we read (part of) Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. The topic was freedom. We had eight students in that first iteration and it was a success story. They loved it. We ended up going to Washington, D.C. We did it again this past year with the theme of happiness, and we also read Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. It’s basically a reading group but it’s a reading group tied to an opportunity for students to distinguish themselves on their resumes, and they also get to go on a trip that is related to the readings. We get together about eight times in the fall semester, two hours a session, and each week we discuss the readings. I try as much as possible, and it usually works out, to have the students talk amongst themselves.
Next year’s topic is God and Politics. How did you arrive at that?
Dr. Bragues: I’m part of a reading group myself. It’s a group of professors from the GTA. We’ve been getting together for a number of years on the topic of religion and politics. The discussions have been very animated to say the least. So I thought why not give the students the chance to get the same experience? God and Politics has been a topic that has been part of our zeitgeist for well over a decade now. So I thought, I’m sure students have something to say about it. I’m sure the books that I’ll be bringing to the table with the Agora Fellowship will illuminate and enrich their understanding of the topic. The main one’s going to be John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration. The other reading is Dante, a book of his called On Monarchy. And I’ll also be bringing in James Fitzjames Stephen, who is not very well known. I think he should be better known.
How do you approach that and make sure everyone participates?
Dr. Bragues: That’s probably the hardest thing. I’ve found that the approach of asking questions of the students is more likely to elicit a response than me making a statement. I try to be Socratic. I’ll come up with a list of questions, then look at those questions again and think is there anything in particular in the students’ lives, especially where they are right now as young people, that they can relate to? Their relationship with their professors, their relationship with their fellow students, their relationship with their parents? I find that by starting at that very concrete personally relevant level we can then ascend to a more theoretical understanding of the issues.
I’ve heard when they travel with you, they should wear comfortable shoes.
Dr. Bragues: Yes, yes, yes. Any time you travel with me, my wife can certainly tell you about this, she goes on and on about the foot sores and the blood and all that. When you go to a place like New York, which is where the Agora Fellows were most recently, or Washington, we have a short period of time. We don’t know when we’re going to be back again and so let’s use the time efficiently. That takes a lot of planning.