Saturday, September 20, 2008

To Read and Study Great Books

We have spent a lot of class time in the first four weeks discussing how to read and study. I gave students handouts about the different kinds of reading we do for different subjects, as well as how to take notes, annotate a text, and prepare to write about complex ideas in a thoughtful and interesting essay. In all my classes, we are now deeply immersed in the books, beginning to put these study and reading skills into practice.

What my students do not know is that this renewed interest in how we read and study comes from an article I read way back last fall in The New York Times, entitled “Small Campus, Big Books,” by Dirk Johnson (November 4, 2007).

Johnson writes extensively about Great Books colleges like Shimer College in Illinois and St. Thomas Aquinas College in California. Great Books colleges are liberal arts colleges that utilize texts, not textbooks, to teach core subjects. “In a method known as shared inquiry,” Johnson writes, “[students] wade together through a core curriculum of masterpieces in literature, science, philosophy and mathematics, steeping themselves in the works of Homer, Darwin, Kant, Shakespeare, and Einstein, among many others.”

According to Johnson, the Great Books curriculum offers a broader, richer education than most other college curricula.

This sounds like a dream. In a classroom where we look for connections among books, ideas, subjects, current events, philosophies, religions, sciences, et cetera, a Great Books program seems like the perfect recipe for a well-rounded and knowledgeable student.

The Great Books movement began in the early 1900s at Columbia with a literature teacher named John Erskine. “He argued that ancient Greek and Latin ‘are not dead languages unless we assassinate them,’” writes Johnson.

Another educator who jumped on the bandwagon early on was Robert Maynard Hutchins. An educational philosopher and dean of Yale Law School, Hutchins worked with Mortimer Adler to develop a list of great books that could be used to teach a variety of subjects. As president of the University of Chicago, Hutchins tried to get the faculty to pass a resolution to adopt a Great Books curriculum only to be rejected three times. He persisted in his quest, believing that these texts were “teacher proof,” meaning that teachers just had to get out of the way and let the students loose in the books themselves. Great Books would put students in direct contact with the original thinkers, eliminating the middle man, the classroom teacher. The teacher would now be the “guide on the side,” instead of the “sage on the stage,” meaning the end of the lecturer and the coming-of-age of the facilitator in the classroom.

This lead to the development of a main tenet of Great Books: the concept of the Shared Inquiry.

“The goal of Great Books programs us to instill in adults and children the habits of mind that characterize a self-reliant thinker, reader, and learner,” according to the website With this curriculum, the focus is on the questions encountered in the reading. Students are directed toward formulating their own questions and then searching for the answers through discussion with peers as well as critical and analytical thinking on their own. In fact, the emphasis is shifted completely from the teacher to the text itself. “As a Shared Inquiry leader, [the teachers] do not impart information or present…opinions, but guide participants in reaching their own interpretations.” According to the website. Teachers pose thought-provoking questions and direct the conversation in response to student discussion. In doing this, teachers help students develop “the flexibility of mind to consider problems from many angles, and the discipline to analyze ideas critically.”

Students must also listen to each other. “In Shared Inquiry, participants learn to give full consideration to the ideas of others, to weigh the merits of opposing arguments, and to modify their initial opinions as evidence demands,” according to the website. “They gain experience in communicating complex ideas and in supporting, testing, and expanding their own thoughts.” This sounds like utopia, and might, in reality, be a bit idealized.

There are a number of liberal studies institutions that use a Great Books program. One such school is Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. According to their website (, “students analyze and discuss in tutorials, seminars, and laboratories these works of the greatest minds of our tradition. By daily practice in reading, translation, demonstration, and argument, students form habits of thought and discourse which will stay with them throughout their lives. And by means of these habits, they can better lay hold of the knowledge and wisdom recorded in the Great Books.”

The website goes on to list all the authors and works to be studied over the four years of undergraduate residency:

For example, in freshman year, students read Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Herodotus, Aristotle, Plutarch, Euripedes, Thucydides, Aristophanes in Greek and Roman mythology; Wheelock and Nesfield in Latin and English composition; Euclid in mathematics; Aristotle, DeKoninck, Fabre, Galen, Harvey, Linnaeus, Pascal, Archimedes and Mendel in laboratory sciences; and Plato, Porphyry, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Holy Bible for philosophy.

Sophomore, junior and senior years offer similarly challenging texts on the reading lists.

The counter-argument to this kind of curriculum might be that it consists of the classical “dead white males.” Indeed, I found the only women represented on the list were Willa Cather, Jane Austen, and Flannery O’Connor. And this being a Catholic institution, there are an overabundance of religious writers present on the list. St. Thomas Aquinas appears numerous times, although one could argue the value of his work in any study of philosophy.

The other problem with this particular college is the strictly enforced Catholic rules of conduct. “Mass is offered in Latin and visiting a dormitory of the opposite sex is grounds for expulsion,” according to Johnson. This is hardly a congruent social environment to a liberal arts college.

Finally, not every student is capable of understanding the source author’s prose and ideas. Arguably, textbooks perform a valuable service by clarifying the original author’s work. However, there is a fine line between “dummying down” and clarifying.

Still, the argument can be made that studying the dead white males on the reading list as a basis for all knowledge is a way of laying the fundamental groundwork for more enlightened study to come in graduate school. The foundations of western culture are definitely represented in a Great Books curriculum. Have we shied away from such reading because it is too difficult? Difficult things are often those most worth doing. Reading and understanding the roots of our cultural traditions can only give us a firm understanding when we compare and contrast our literature and history with that of other nations and people. Would a Great Books curriculum work in every school, public or private? Possibly, but training students and teachers to rethink how they conduct the business of learning will be a monumental task. Administrators would also have to commit to seminar-style, smaller class sizes of ten or so students. It would, however, be an experiment worth trying, especially for honors and Advanced Placement courses.

The bottom line is, history and science textbooks are rendered in such flat and uninspiring prose that it is no wonder that students see reading as a chore. With the Great Books program, we shift the focus to the reader and writer of the source text and the delicate thread that ties them together, and we eliminate the textbook author and publisher, the people who publish new editions every two years at exorbitant prices that bankrupt students and their parents. Many of the books in the Great Books curriculum come in cheaper paperback editions that do not change year to year. Many are available for free online.

Anyway, who would not want to study physics with Einstein, astronomy with Ptolemy, geometry with Descartes, philosophy with Aristotle, and the personal essay with Montaigne? It is the equivalent of the thinking person’s no-brainer. In our day of failing schools and a collapsing American educational system, a return to Great Books maybe just what we need.