Great Books, Great Veterans

Sean Hutzell (AGI’17) surprised his fellow conversationalists when he revealed he was the only civilian in the group. As Project Coordinator for the NEH-Funded Touchstones® Discussion Project for Veterans, Sean witnessed firsthand how shared humanity can be accomplished through seminars over shared texts. “This program fosters understanding of the universal,” he says. “Cooperative discussions break down the otherness that can separate civilian from veteran, or even different branches of the military.”

Recently finishing its second incarnation, the Project is the latest in free community outreach programs developed by Touchstones®, an educational non-profit co-founded by current St. John’s Tutor Howard Zeiderman. This particular Project, specifically tailored for veterans, uses excerpts from Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, as well as from modern writers in the vein of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Anthony Zwofford’s Jarhead, to ground discussions which promote interpersonal and individual understanding and strengthen collaborative skills. Ninety minutes per discussion, nine discussions per session, two group leaders and around a dozen participants — all this makes for an engaging conversation.

Wait, is this basically a St. John’s seminar?
No: the Touchstones® “Ground Rules” as well as the assigned excerpt are read at the beginning; participants address each other by first name (no rank); specific goals are discussed before the discussion begins, these goals based on evaluation surveys filled out after the discussion ended the previous week. It’s less about what the author is saying and more about “parallels” between the text and the veteran’s experience. But just like St. John’s, irrelevant anecdotes are discouraged.

So it’s group therapy?
No: as Hutzell points out, any beneficial effect on participants’ mental health is a “happy byproduct.” None of the group leaders are trained psychotherapists; the goal isn’t to fix any trauma you may have but rather to teach you how to actively listen, critically think, and confidently converse. These skills can lead to a greater understanding of how to reintegrate into society and what it means to come home.

Nine sessions later, all participants receive a certificate and a customized challenge coin, but more than that, a sense of the power and kinship that can arise from focused discussion and careful listening to each other.

While the Project currently operates only out of their Stevensville, Maryland address, Hutzell is glad to report another round of sessions being run in Baltimore’s MCVET. There are also talks of bringing this Project to other states. All veterans, though, nationally and internationally would gain from this program, says Hutzell.

If you want more information on Touchstones® or on how to get involved in the Discussion Project for Veterans, call Howard Zeiderman (President) at (410)-604-3309 or email Mr. Hutzell himself at or click the logo below to go straight to the source:


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