In Defense of Great Books

Recently Yale University students asked their professors to stop assigning readings from English poets, as there is a preponderance of White male poets, and the White voice has been dominant for too long.

I teach at a college where the White voice is not dominant, indeed where there is incredible diversity in a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Yet I still have assigned the Great Books, and in one class in particular, an Honors First Year Seminar class, I required students to select a Great Book of their own choosing, write a paper, and give a talk.

This assignment was color and gender blind. Students could pick any Great Book, by a woman or man, by a Black, Indian, White, Asian, Jew. My only requirement was that the book be considered by the intellectual community at large, by librarians and scholars and teachers, as a profound work of literature. Why assign such a book?

Reading a Great Book can engender in students the ability to examine a text, ask questions, seek answers, come up with a creative interpretation of what they have read, and write intelligent, critical essays, and make intelligent, critical comments, based on their reading and thinking.

Bacone College over the course of its 137 years has often sought to create the conditions under which students can achieve an excellent liberal arts education stimulating questioning, seeking, discovery, analysis, and rhetoric, which have always been the core of the Liberal Arts, which focuses on human expression and human experience over time in history, philosophy, religion, science, society, culture, government, and institutions.

The Great Books stimulates the traditional philosophy of the Liberal Arts, which was based in the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). These seven objects of inquiry and their modern equivalent form an important foundation for an educated person who pursues lifelong learning, provides an important basis for personal philosophy, and provides tools for success in a variety of careers. Liberal Arts involves the study of those subjects that open the mind and help bring about a free people. The seven objects of inquiry—grammar (English, literature, languages), logic (philosophy, deductive and inductive thinking, theology), rhetoric (history, humanities), arithmetic (numerical reasoning and inductive thinking), geometry (spatial reasoning and deductive thinking), music (arts, studies in culture and human expression), and astronomy (the hard sciences)—form the essence of the liberal arts: to question, to seek, to learn, to know, to accept others and oneself. The medicine wheel, which is the essence of Bacone’s seal, is the orientation of the campus, and has provided a philosophical basis for the college, is reflected in the Trivium and Quadrivium: spiritual seeking, emotional and natural thinking, focus on the intellect and past tradition, finding solutions to the manifold problems of life: in short, self-discovery. Students with such an education are prepared to engage in graduate level work in the humanities, social sciences, arts, and sciences; ready for careers in the public and private sectors; and educated for careers that require thoughtful, analytical, and articulate people.

The Liberal Arts is particularly focused upon a multi-cultural approach, examining cultural expressions, history, religion, society, thought, economics, and politics of Americans and other peoples of the world. Bacone College has a mission to serve American Indians and other historically under-served students in a Christian environment. As a Bacone professor, I reach out to students who are American Indians from dozens of tribes, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Caucasians, and students from around the world, eliciting from them a questioning attitude about their own heritage and those of their classmates, seeking answers amid the cultural variety that helps bring humans together.

The Great Books, an essential component of the Liberal Arts curriculum, helps students to learn to acquire knowledge about the nature of humanity, helping a person to become more reflective about the self, which helps in developing sophisticated forms of thought, such as conceptualizing human experience based on analysis rather than guesswork. Knowing more about humanity over time, students break from human credulity to have a more critical assessment of life’s experiences. Increasingly in the 21st century, human organizations and institutions—corporate, educational, governmental—seek thoughtful, reflective employees who can conceptualize phenomena, understand patterns, analyze problems, form hypotheses, and suggest and implement solutions. These employees, educated people who are engaged in lifelong learning, are literate and articulate communicators.

I cut my teeth as a High School Senior and College Freshman and Sophomore on the Great Books, especially the ancient Greek, Roman, Hebrew, and Christian classics from the first millennium BC and first millennium AD. I seek to inspire students likewise to begin their pursuit of knowledge by means of a thoughtful examination of the great words of a great mind between the covers of a great book.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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