Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A guest posting ...

Going Back to the Basics:
Three Universities and the Great Books Curriculum

At the center of recent nationwide student protests decrying state university budget cuts, is the question of what, exactly, should be cut from higher education curricula when faced with financial constraints. The trend among many institutions is to do away with humanities courses; these institutions have justified their cuts by explaining that humanities are simply no longer as relevant in a world that demands technological and scientific prowess. In fact, Michael Parker, the strategic planner of CSU Fullerton, where students “occupied” a humanities building in protest, called humanities and arts studies “socially irrelevant,” “non-essential,” and—get this—“esoteric.” That these words are coming from a university administration—the supposed guardians of learning—is absolutely baffling.

The biggest problem with Parker’s argument is that it completely dismisses the purpose of an education in the first place. Of course, nowadays it seems that the only reason one should receive an education is to acquire “relevant” job skills. What happened to the idea that learning promotes personal development that a comprehensive education asks bigger, more critically abiding questions than simply what we’ll be doing at the office during our first jobs?
Thankfully, this version of higher education hasn’t been completely eradicated. The following is a short list of universities that place a particular emphasis on timeless texts—in what the modern discourse of classical education calls the “Great Books” curriculum—which trace the intellectual development of our species.

1. St. John’s College. This four-year liberal arts college epitomizes learning for its own sake. Its curriculum is based wholly on classic books—no textbooks at this school—starting from Plato, Thomas Aquinas, and the Bible and progressing over four years to more contemporary works like Virginia Woolf’s To the Light House. The university’s “Who We Are” webpage posits, “Through sustained engagement with the works of great thinkers and through genuine discussion with peers, students at St. John’s College cultivate habits of mind that will last a lifetime: a deepened capacity for reflective thought, an appreciation of the persisting questions of human existence, an abiding love of serious conversation, and a lasting love of inquiry.”

2. Shimer College. Similar to St. John’s College, Shimer College, an institution once affiliated with the University of Chicago, focuses on the Great Books. Classes are capped at twelve students and are largely discussion-based. In recent years, Shimer has updated its curriculum to include more women and minority writers and thinkers.

3. Thomas Aquinas College . Following in the rich intellectual tradition of Catholicism, Thomas Aquinas College also bases its study on the “Great Books” but places a greater emphasis on theological works. Like students attending St. John’s and Shimer, Thomas Aquinas undergraduates don’t just read philosophy and literature. Instead of studying largely watered down textbooks on mathematics and science, students read the originals—Euclid’s Elements, Archimedes’ Quadrature of the Parabola, and Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory, among others.

In its defense of the Great Books curriculum, Thomas Aquinas’ website states, “Another reason why the Great Books are preferred to textbooks is that the latter, almost without exception, are "secondary sources"-that is, they are two steps removed from reality. They are, as it were, thoughts about thoughts. The Great Books, by contrast, are much closer to common experience in its fullness; they raise questions and pursue inquiries which arise directly from a wonder about things themselves. On this account, they are of the greatest importance to beginners, for they begin where thought itself must begin if it is to bear any fruit.”

Although these schools may not appeal to everyone, their dedication to exploring the roots of intellectual inquiry provides curious students with a rigorous curriculum. What’s more, graduates of Great Books schools don’t go on to become unemployed philosophers. An astounding percentage of Great Books students attend law schools and medical schools, become professors, and pursue other challenging, “relevant” careers.

For a comprehensive list of universities offering some form of the Great Books curriculum, see the Association of Core Texts and Courses’ College Program list.

For more information about the Great Books list and its development, read Interleaves’ Great Books list FAQ.


  1. Liked your post. Someday I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. You soon may have to edit your list...Shimer College is going through major power struggle with a donor that has stacked the board, hired a president, and wants to gut the college. Shimer's always tenuous hold on life is fading fast.

  4. Anonymous5:30 PM

  5. Tess Young5:09 AM

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