The Great Books Alternative

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Contemplating all the different undergraduate degree programs on offer in U.S. colleges and universities today is enough to make anyone's head spin. Therefore, you may not be exactly thrilled to hear us say that there is one more kind of degree program that you really ought to take into consideration. But bear with us, because the kind of program we have in mind is something completely different---namely, Great Books.

Great Books programs---sometimes also referred to as Core Text programs, Liberal Studies programs, and the like---do not get a lot of publicity, and it wouldn't be surprising if you never heard of them before. However, we feel they have a great deal to offer to some students, and ought to be much better known than they are.

Many questions probably come to your mind. We will try to answer some of the most obvious ones below, under three headings.

What is a Great Books program?

In the case of most of the degree programs you may be considering, most likely you already have a pretty good idea of what it will involve. If you are thinking of majoring in math or history or English. or in pre-business or pre-law or pre-med, the chances are you know what to expect, either on the basis of the educational experiences you have already had in high school, or from what you have heard from career counselors, read in college brochures and on web sites, and so forth.

On the other hand, you probably have little or no first-hand experience with a Great Books curriculum, and may not have been otherwise exposed to the concept. So, what is it?

In a nutshell, a Great Books program is a curriculum that is composed, in whole or in substantial part, of the classic texts of the Western tradition. Thus, for example, instead of reading Paul Samuelson's textbook on economics, you would read the classic texts of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx.

Instead of a contemporary biology textbook, you would read the Hippocratic writings and works of Galen, Vesalius, William Harvey, and Charles Darwin.

Instead of textbooks on modern American or European history, you would read Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, and Gibbon.

Instead of Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, and other contemporary authors, you would read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, and Shakespeare.

You get the idea.

Which colleges offer Great Books programs?

Only a few colleges in the U.S. offer Great Books programs in a pure, unadulterated form---meaning that very few or no secondary sources* are utilized.

Among the most pure in this sense, as well as the oldest and most prestigious Great Books program in the country, is the one maintained by St. John's College. St. John's has two campuses, in Annapolis, MD, and in Santa Fe, NM (see here).

Another pure Great Books program of long standing is the one at Shimer College in Chicago, IL (see here).

Finally, there is another excellent program of this type at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA (see here).

Few Great Books programs are as rigorous as these three, but there are many colleges and universities that offer Great Books--style curricula, supplemented by more traditional coursework, especially in math and science. For a comprehensive list of the Great Books programs, go here.

What kinds of students should think about enrolling in a Great Books program?

It goes without saying that Great Books programs are not for everyone. Who are they for, then?

If you are thinking in terms of a "liberal arts" degree, but are not especially interested in any one subject---or, even better, if you are interested in so many different subjects you just can't make up your mind---then a Great Books program is proably something you should seriously consider.

More broadly speaking, Great Books programs are for any student who is drawn more to profundity than to superficiality, more to what is challenging and elevating than to what is comfortable and reassuring, more to what has been proven worthwhile and lasting than to the fashion of the moment.

Great Books programs are for anyone who wishes to be truly educated in the original sense of the term---led out of darkness into light.

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* A "primary source" is a text that is a focus of study---in this case, a classic text; a "secondary source" is a text commenting on the primary source for explanatory purposes.

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