Why Teaching at Graham Energizes Noah Chafets
An enterprising instructor embraces a commitment to questioning and the hunt for knowledge.
A core conviction fuels Noah Chafets’ work as an instructor in the Graham School’s Basic Program. It’s an earnest belief that humans are intellectually ambitious – even if they might not always know it or show it.
“We all want answers to the biggest questions, and we either pursue these answers or believe that we already have them,” Chafets says.
Since joining the Graham faculty in 2020, Chafets has carried this sentiment into every course he has led. Whether the class dives into a Shakespearean drama or The Origin of Species or a work of philosophy, Chafets knows the great books grapple with big questions and that Graham students, in particular, are among the most eager to wrestle with significant topics that can shape perspective and inform action.
“What’s distinctive about the books we read in the Basic Program is that they are all trying to address fundamental questions – about who we are, what the world is, how we relate to it, or how we engage with one another – and that they go a long way toward answering these questions,” Chafets says. “Reading them means thinking along with them and figuring out what you think about the questions they address.”
Combine that with Graham’s focus on the Socratic tradition – teachers and students being in dialogue with one another – and that power multiplies. In fact, that’s what Chafets finds most energizing about teaching at Graham.
“When you get a group of people together considering big questions and you allow for probing and interpretation and provide the structure to have unified, productive conversations, you enable people to work out their own ideas alongside one another,” Chafets says. “And, ultimately, that leads to ideas that none of us could have generated on our own.”
Last year, Chafets had an opportunity to take this effort a step further when he embarked on two travel-study experiences with Graham. In June, he helped facilitate the Graham School’s latest Fortnight in Oxford, a two-week experience at the University of Oxford. Chafets’ group explored the life and times of Winston Churchill through lectures, discussions, and site visits. Three months later, he served as the trip scholar for a group of Basic Program students in Athens, touring museums and historical destinations – the Acropolis and Socrates’s jail cell in the Agora among them – while simultaneously digging into Ancient Greek texts.
Chafets says pairing the rich study of influential texts and lively intellectual discussions – two hallmarks of the Graham experience – with tours of related sites invigorated and intensified his learning experience.
“You can go far with reading and other research, but there are details and connections to a place that are impossible to grasp without seeing them in person,” says Chafets, who visited Greece for the first time only after finishing a dissertation about Plato.
The immersive experiences abroad reminded Chafets of what makes Graham special – the commitment to questioning, the focus on thoughtful discourse, and the ongoing hunt for knowledge in a spirited group environment.
“Graham is a vibrant intellectual community,” Chafets says.
It’s also a community that values enterprising instruction.
To that point, Chafets’ position as a Basic Program instructor is supported by a 2021 gift from Hope and Jeffrey Sheffield. The Sheffields’ generous donation to the Basic Program endowment enables the Graham School to provide secure funding, including health benefits, to several teaching positions. While the Sheffields’ gift better positions Graham leadership to recruit and retain talented instructors, it also empowers scholars like Chafets to pursue their own intellectual ambitions with an important layer of support.
“Everything for me has become more manageable and less stressful as a result of this position,” Chafets says. “It means I’m better able to do the work I want to do and to contribute to the community at Graham.”