Great Books Curriculum

I just found an old Chronicle of Higher Education article on the Great Books program.

This is where the students, in a specialized group, read the Great Books of Western Civilization without literary criticism to tell them what to think. I thought the political discussion was interesting.

The efforts focus on teaching the primary texts, based on the belief that students should rely on their own interpretations rather than on literary criticism that the professors find to be politically motivated or predictable.

That is exactly what makes some scholars skeptical of the new programs. A Great Books curriculum itself is hardly free of political motivations, these critics say….

Pious invocations of the Great Books are just as “brainless and uncritical” as some extreme forms of multiculturalism, says Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Chicago.

While many professors have been using issues of race and gender to help students understand classic works, Mr. Gans is not on that bandwagon.

“It really infuriates me. I’ll tell you Calderon is in — but he’s not in because he’s Hispanic. He’s in because he’s good. Ellison is in because he’s good.”

ritics of the minor in the “Great Works of Western Civilization” suspected it of being “a Trojan Horse for a right-wing takeover of the curriculum” two years ago, he says. “I think the way we got around that was not so much in convincing our opponents they were wrong than it was building a critical mass of support, so when it came around for the final approval, we had more votes than they did.”

I would love to teach in this course. It was originally created for a community college curriculum. That would be fun. I wonder if there is any way this could come to happen.

3 thoughts on “Great Books Curriculum”

  1. I realize this article is from 2005, but I came across it while trying to learn about the Great Books curriculum. I’m a homeschool teacher and I’m trying to figure out how to configure my son’s high school years. I’d be interested in knowing what you think about high schoolers’ ability to tackle a typical Great Books program as part of a history and literature curriculum. We aren’t religious home schoolers, and I’m trying to make my student’s education as liberal as possible. I’m sort of struggling with the tension between Great Books as presented by conservative religious groups and Great Books as an old but honerable approach to building a rounded education.

    Have you been able to teach an adult class since this article was written? I’d love to know your thoughts.
    Becky Powell

  2. First, let me tell you that I am also a homeschool mother. My sons are now in college. Since my eldest is an atheist, I did not do the conservative religious approach to the Great Books curriculum.

    As a classical education, I think the Great Books approach is a good one. It is being revitalized in colleges across the country. (One of the ones I teach for just instituted it as part of the honors curriculum.)

    Many of the books are difficult reads not because of the language or vocabulary, even though that is advanced, but because of the background needed to really understand the book. I think that even some books that people consider childish, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for instance, are difficult to understand without adequate preparation.

    First, yes, have your children read the Great Books. They are, in fact, great books. They may not be the best or the only great ones, but they are great.

    However, I would not just let them loose to read them on their own.

    You need to read them with them (or before them) and together yall can work out things to look up, things to study. If you’re reading Sophocles, do some reading in Greek plays first or along with the work. Watch the plays on video after you’ve read them. Look at how different productions of the plays stage the dramas.

    Oedipus Rex is the play from which the definition of tragedy for drama was developed. Find a good description of tragedy and see if your student can demonstrate where the attributes are in the play.

    Talk to them about the issues of pride, infanticide, incest, suicide… All those things come up in the play. What is your take on them? How did you decide that? Use them to help your children think through their own moral decisions.

    That’s just one idea and I know that as a homeschooling mother you probably have lots of ideas. But even if you don’t, you can find lots of good information on the works online.

    Don’t necessarily read them in order. Maybe read them backward. Your children will have an easier time understanding cultural issues in your parents’ time than in ancient Greece. A good thing to do would be to put up a timeline and chart where they are in literature and history. (Yes, I know most people don’t go backwards through history class. So what? We’re homeschoolers. If it works, we can do it.)

    In answer to your last question, I have not taught a Great Books course yet, though I would love to, but I have started integrating some of the readings into my literature courses. I teach mostly freshman classes.

    I’d say go for it. If it doesn’t work for you, then you will have at least introduced the idea for later. There certainly are great books that aren’t in the lists. My son’s favorite literature book of all time was Animal Farm, which is really a political/philosophical treatise. Of course, that is what he loved about it.

  3. I am an alum of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, graduate school. I read the linked article and wondered that anyone would think Great Books would not be rigorous. We had to “do” many of the texts: Euclidian geometry, Baudelaire’s poetry in French, the gospels in Greek. We did not have a tertiary voice explaining the difference in the philosophies of Descartes and Aristotle; we did it ourselves. And science? Try comparing Lucretius to Ptolemy or Aristotle’s Physics. When I read the alumni magazine, I feel so unworthy compared to the others: the founder of Atlantic Records, ambassador to Russia, neurosurgeons making ground-breaking discoveries. On the other hand, I don’t know anything about homeschooling. But I have a friend whose mother gave him interesting advice. When he was struggling with the Pythagorean theorem, his mother told him to read a biography about the creator (in this case, Pythagorus). And I had a Hungarian professor (Holocaust survivor and intellectual giant)who said teaching poetry to children is more natural than fairytales.

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