Great Books: The “Comeback Kid” of Higher Education?

In the right settings, students embrace classic texts.

By Jane Shaw

April 11, 2008

In academia today, Shakespeare has given way to feminist theory, while Plato has been reduced to a paraphrase and the Aeneid to a footnote. But a few scholars and teachers still love Great Books.

About three hundred of these enthusiasts gathered at the annual meeting of the Association of Core Texts and Courses (ACTC) this month in Plymouth, Massachusett. They talked about such classics as Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s Symposium, and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy—and how to teach them to today’s students.

They ranged from graduate students and young assistant professors to famed experts such as keynote speaker Theodore de Bary, the Columbia University guru of Eastern classics who is now approaching age 90. They represented community colleges, honors colleges, residential communities, core curriculum programs (especially at Catholic colleges), and even master’s programs.

By teaching the works of “dead white males,” they are resisting the trends engulfing the humanities today—even though they incorporate modern works and non-Western classics as well.

What keeps them at the task, perhaps, is not just their love of literature but evidence that these old books can grab the attention of today’s students—those earbud-wearing, intellectually indifferent teenagers who are often academically unprepared for college. The following example from the meeting illustrates how.

Marcia Smith Marzec, an English professor at the University of St. Francis, a Catholic school in Joliet, Illinois, discussed changes in the “core curriculum” course she and her colleagues teach to sophomores.

Initially, this class introduced “classic western thought” through a series of excerpts from an anthology. Three weeks on Greek culture, for example, included selections from Homer, Aeschylus, Herodotus, and at least four others.

But students hated the course. Evaluations were “abysmal,” said Marzec; the class was “boring” “confusing,” “disconnected,” and “too hard.”

So they redesigned it. They stopped reading excerpts and chose ten complete texts, ranging in time from the Sumerian Myth of Gilgamesh to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.

They organized these works around the theme of the “good life.” Instead of beginning the course with a classic, however, they asked the students to write informal essays on how they define happiness (after reading a short modern essay on the topic). Class discussion then introduced the issues that would dominate the course—“happiness, joy, free will, evil, and suffering,” as Marzec summarized them.

The class, said Marzec, became a “phenomenal success.” Complaints dried up. The students read as much or more as in the past class, but it was no longer too much or too hard. Their discussions related one work to another. The most popular book was the relatively obscure Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, who wrote it in prison before his death. “I was on the wheel of fortune in my own life until we read Boethius and Chaucer,” wrote one student in an evaluation.

In other words, this redesigned course, relying on complete works, not snippets, and organized around a theme that connects with the interests of today’s teenagers, became a hit.

Other speakers at the ACTC meeting had uplifting stories, too. A professor from Norfolk State, a historically black college in Virginia, said that Francis Bacon’s “four idols” helped her students think about the idols misdirecting their lives. An honors program at Kentucky State, another historically black school, not only teaches liberal arts through Great Books but teaches mathematics and science using Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Principia.

Villanova’s honors program uses popular evening lecturers to inspire students to discuss the texts outside the classroom as well as within it. And this is just the beginning: at several schools, faculty members are in the process of starting or rejuvenating a Great Books program.

Keep in mind, however, that studying core texts (a label presumably chosen to avoid the “dead white male” stigma attached to Great Books) does not necessarily mean honoring the Western origins of individualism, limited government, and freedom of conscience. Some faculty members want to undermine the heritage of the West (via Marx and Rousseau) rather than confirm it (via Adam Smith and David Hume). The former are popular; the latter largely ignored.

Indeed, a session on “Peering through a Veil to See Women” had what I thought was a silly paper comparing Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy of the Boudoir (Austen was deemed to be more “revolutionary”). And I sat through a relentless, one-sided attack on John Milton for disparaging female-ness in Samson Agonistes.

But for the most part I was around people who love classics and who want their students to be in touch with them. As we at the Pope Center address the problem of the disengaged student, the insights of these very engaged faculty and their core text sources may offer more guidance than we initially expected.

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