Is a Great Books Program Right for You?

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Contemplating all the different undergraduate degree programs available in U.S. colleges and universities today is enough to make anyone’s head spin. So you may not be exactly thrilled to hear us say that there is one more kind of degree program that can be worth checking out: the Great Books program.

Great Books programs — sometimes also referred to as Core Text programs, Great Text programs, or Liberal Studies programs — do not get a lot of publicity, and it wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve never heard of them before. Great Books programs provide a thorough study of the classics within the literary canon of Western civilization, which for some students sounds like the perfect college experience, and for others sounds about as exciting as watching mold grow on a loaf of bread … in real-time.

What Is a Great Books Program?

It’s easy to guess that Great Books programs focus on reading great books, but where did this idea start, which books are “great,” and who gets to decide? Essentially, the great books in question comprise the Western literary canon: books of fiction, poetry, history, cultural criticism, science, and philosophy that have been deemed essential to the foundation of Western culture.

As you might imagine, for a book to be considered foundational, it needs to have been around for a while, so nothing in the canon is particularly contemporary. At the same time, the books included in this list are considered to have contemporary significance, lasting relevance, and inexhaustible lessons to offer. Such is to say that these books are generally considered worthy of reading again and again. This means you have probably heard of at least a few of the books or authors on the list, including Shakespeare, Plato, and Darwin. (To get an idea of the books in question, check out this Great Books college syllabus.)

The Western canon, and Great Books lists, are not new concepts; for years academics and notable figures in history have studied, discussed, and added to the canon. For centuries prior to our own, universities built their curricula around what they called the quadrivium and the trivium, and which we would now recognize as a liberal arts program. The quadrivium consisted of four subjects (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), and the trivium consisted of three (grammar, logic, and rhetoric). Utilizing the canon (with particular attention paid to the works of the ancient Greeks), this model was deemed to be the height of education, a prerequisite for sophisticated intellectuals.

The modern concept of forming a curriculum around the canon builds on these traditions, taking what can be called a neoclassical approach. This can be traced directly to a 1920 course offered by Professor John Erksine at Columbia University in New York City, the General Honors Course. Soon after its creation, the basic model of the course was expanded to become the core curriculum of Columbia University, with the goal of ensuring that all students at Columbia would be well-versed in the canon. Not long after that, the idea was adopted by numerous other colleges and became the foundation for liberal arts programs.

The goal of Great Books programs: provide a “well-rounded” education to students through a curriculum that relies entirely on primary sources, instead of secondary sources. What this means is that, rather than read numerous modern criticisms of Dante’s Divine Comedy alongside the original text, for example, students would look solely at the original text and draw their own conclusions from this material alone. While very popular for a brief period, this “pure” great books approach quickly fell out of favor, with most colleges deciding that it should, at most, comprise just a portion of the core curriculum. Contemporary secondary sources should supplement this part so as to ensure students understand classic works in a contemporary context. This is what most colleges and liberal arts programs do today, examining classic texts alongside contemporary texts and contemporary criticisms.

Critics abound. Many academics argue that the Western literary canon needs to be overhauled, if not thrown out, because it overwhelmingly privileges the works of white men. To continue to use the canon as a basis for education, they claim, is to continue to marginalize, devalue, and ignore the voices of oppressed and underrepresented groups, including women, people of color, non-Western cultures, and LGBTQ populations. As an extension of this, many argue that Great Books programs provide an incomplete education and only serve to maintain the marginalizing, exclusionary systems that privilege white, male, Western authors.

Much of modern academic criticism (such as feminism, post-colonialism, and gender theory) attempts to account for the lack of the aforementioned voices in this work. By ignoring secondary sources, Great Books programs continue to ignore the history, struggles, and contributions of these groups.

In a more general sense, other detractors of Great Books programs argue, simply, that such an approach ignores significant, modern developments in major fields, such as the contemporary American novel, post-structuralist thought, and metaphysical philosophy after quantum mechanics. While Great Books programs can provide a strong foundation of education, the limited scope of this approach does generate controversy.

Which Colleges Offer Great Books Programs?

Very few colleges today offer “true” Great Books programs that focus almost entirely on the study of primary sources while resulting in a generalized liberal arts degree. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M., is perhaps the best known of the remaining Great Books colleges, with a singular undergraduate program that incorporates the classical trivium and quadrivium model of education, and two graduate programs. Similarly, Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., provides a home for students interested in pursuing the Great Books path.

More commonly, liberal arts colleges have opted to incorporate a Great Books approach into their core curriculum, while still allowing for degree specialization, the use of secondary sources, and more modern, diversified approaches to both classic and contemporary texts. Columbia University, the originator of the Great Books approach, can be counted into this category, maintaining a core curriculum that requires students to read and study classic texts of Western civilization while incorporating and allowing for modern approaches. Others include the University of Chicago and Boston University, as well as a number of smaller, private liberal arts colleges around the country. More and more, however, the Great Books approach is being discarded or modified to account for contemporary concerns regarding cultural diversity. Most modifications concern the inclusion of voices that have traditionally not seen enough representation in the Western canon.

Is a Great Books Program Right for Me?

Whether or not a Great Books program is right for you comes down to a combination of personal preferences and personal goals. In general, it is a good idea for everyone to read and study at least a few texts on the Great Books list, but that is not the same as a full-blown curriculum of primary texts.

Great Books programs definitely aren’t for everyone. If you are interested in studying marginalized cultures and underrepresented communities, then a Great Books program probably has little to offer you. Similarly, if you want to enter a field that typically overlaps with the Great Books approach, such as philosophy or literary criticism, but want to focus on contemporary works in the field instead of rereading the classics, you will want to look somewhere else. Also, if you are career-focused, and that career doesn’t involve classical academia (such as a professorial position in Shakespearian studies), a Great Books program probably won’t do much for you.

On the other hand, if you are devoted to studying the Western canon, digging deep into primary texts from as far back as antiquity for their own sake, and enhancing your understanding of culture, history, and the human condition through the lens of the most consequential non-contemporary works ever produced, completing a Great Books program may be rewarding.

Whether you are perusing our list of The 50 Best Online Bachelor’s In Liberal Arts Programs or The 100 Best Colleges and Universities by State 2018–2019, take some time to ponder your goals and needs. Whether you want to study the Great Books, or just want to read a few great books, there is something here for everyone.

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