“Can you think of a time when you willfully turned away from the suffering of another human being?” The seminar room falls into silence. Eyes are cast downward as participants gather their thoughts. The reading is Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, the story of a utopian city whose prosperity depends on the perpetual misery of a single child. Someone clears their throat. Another pages through the seminar booklet. There are no easy questions in an Aspen seminar, but there is a place for discomfort. The moderator lets the quiet linger until a voice is heard.
For years, the Aspen Institute revolved around the Aspen Executive Seminar. The Institute’s founders—Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, Robert Hutchins, and Mortimer Adler—wanted leaders from different sectors and backgrounds to engage in the fundamental question of what it means to live a moral life. Walter Paepcke believed seminars would lead participants to become more helpful citizens to their society. In his words, seminars were designed “to make broader human beings out of the leaders of American life.”
The founders recognized that moral reasoning was best learned through observation and discussion. The moderation style known as the Aspen Method of text-based dialogue was derived from the pedagogy developed in the 1920s at Columbia College. Mortimer Adler later brought this to the University of Chicago for his Great Books program. The Aspen Method is a variation on a Socratic style of learning that keeps the close reading of texts and reflective dialogue but leaves out the need for disciplinary specialization. Traditional university and business-school seminars aim for answers. The Aspen seminar inspires enlightened leadership with participants examining the moral significance of the texts on a journey of both individual and shared discovery. Texts form the foundation of the seminar. Selected works include Plato’s The Republic, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.”
When you’re inside the seminar room, you want to first create a feeling of safety so people can raise any reasonable point without a fear of being categorized as inappropriate. With that sense of safety, you have to create an environment where people are willing to be challenged, so their ideas and thoughts are burnished by other peoples’ responses. Almost everything we read in the typical Aspen seminar is about the conflict of ideas. Most of the issues we deliberate have justifiable positions against each other. One hopes that as a result of these discussions peoples’ points of view get amended, enhanced, deepened. What you’re trying to do is have an open, caring, and rigorous review of issues, where people don’t necessarily feel threatened but there is the kind of liberating discussion we don’t find much in the public arena anymore.
I am always concerned that everyone feels heard, has a voice, and is represented around the table. I was once in a seminar room where one person did not feel heard or respected by the group. The challenge was to allow the participant to do what was needed to feel restored without derailing the process and over-amplifying that person’s experience at the risk of losing everyone else. You have an orchestra of trombones, flutes, tambourines, violins, and other instruments. The magic is in all of them coming together in a measured and equal way. It was a lesson in staying calm, acknowledging the upset for what it truly was, and bringing everyone into the experience again.
“The texts are read not as mere historical artifacts nor as conclusive blueprints to be followed but as living partners in a conversation about what it means to be human,” Todd Breyfogle, the Institute’s director of seminars, says.
Integral to this conversation is the moderator. Moderators help seminar participants grapple with unfamiliar ideas and exercise their moral and intellectual muscles. They are neither teachers nor experts, but rather act like orchestra conductors who help participants interpret the texts and gently coax responses.
Moderators start as students. They learn by being participants in a seminar and observing how the Aspen Method is practiced. Later they participate in one of a series of moderator workshops (generously supported by trustee Paul Anderson and his wife, Mary) in which the theory and practice of moderating are examined. Here prospective moderators have an opportunity to practice and be observed. Many moderators then undergo apprenticeships in which they co-moderate seminars offered by the Institute before being chosen to enter the corps.
Aspen seminars break most societal norms. Professional status and background are left behind. Religion, politics, and sex are on the table. Questions on these topics are asked not for the sake of being provocative but to allow for deeper exploration of our place in the world.
“It is the moderator’s responsibility to create a safe space where participants feel comfortable voicing not only their opinions, but more important their doubts and their uncertainties,” David Langstaff, a moderator and the interim executive vice president for leadership and seminars, says. This is what makes an Aspen seminar unlike other professional environments or situations. The seminar room sees joy, laughter, tears, regret. Participants share deeply personal experiences, including failures. They walk in as individuals and leave as a collective. Each cohort is endowed with a unique personality. Almost everyone says that the Aspen seminar experience is transformative. Many call it life-changing. Moderators facilitate that process.
Todd Breyfogle and Ayanna Thompson led our seminar group through a close reading of many key texts while prompting us, in Todd’s words, to try to have three conversations over the duration of the seminar—with the texts, with each other, and with ourselves. They facilitated our discussions in a spirit of friendship and collegial excellence, and drew each voice into the mix. I loved the way Todd and Ayanna encouraged conversation and contemplation through hikes and meals and our production of Antigone.
A moderator must work thoughtfully and carefully to empower each seminar participant to create meaning for herself or himself. I admired the seminar experience in the moment—and believe that some of the larger takeaways will be played out over time in the work I do and the choices I make. A great seminar, and great moderators, catalyze longer-term discernment and meaning-making. They have influence and impacts well beyond the six or seven days people are physically together. It’s inspiring to remember that this tradition of developing one’s gifts and talents goes back seven decades.
Today’s moderators come from all over the world. In addition to the original Aspen Executive Seminar, they preside over sessions for the Institute’s youth programs, international partners, and the Aspen Global Leadership Network. Together they are expanding the conversation on what it means to create a Good Society, not just in the United States but around the globe.
“To examine myself regularly in a seminar conversation has made my soul more expansive,” Breyfogle says. “And what could possibly be better than engaging in the world of ideas and moral reasoning with other good souls?”
The key is trust. Trust in people who you might not trust in the everyday world. A moderator has to get people to be accessible, take off the masks we all wear in the roles we play in the world, and be thoroughly accessible to everybody else in the room. It’s not a science; it’s magic. The magic really has to do with the unspoken actions between and among people. The role of the moderator is to be sensitive to each person in the room and establish a field of trust. That becomes a reciprocal process: as trust is offered, trust is given in return.
I started moderating as a challenge. I stayed with it, because as much as I was giving, I was getting 10 times back. I experienced all these texts, ideas, and thoughts at a different level of depth. The questions I was asking each person at the table, I was asking myself. I’ve noticed that at some of the most critical points in my life over the last decade, a seminar has been vital in guiding me to make choices.
Being a moderator means you must be willing to have your heart broken over and over again in sessions with people who share what is true for them, their life experiences, all of their heartbreaks, all of their joys. Your task is to be fully willing to come alongside them and listen with all of yourself.