Reading and Teaching the Great Books: Opportunities and Challenges

Having taught the classic texts of Western civilization at the college level for a number of years now, I can testify that the psychological obstacles between most college students and this material are formidable. Now that most K-12 systems self-consciously reject the teaching of cultural literacy and have done so for the last 30-40 years, the college instructor may be almost starting from scratch, building upon whatever bastardized forms of the Western tradition students have encountered in popular culture, e.g. Clash of the Titans (which I cannot type without shuddering). Students quickly get a glimpse of just how ignorant they are in this area, and many of them shy away from the prospect of becoming literate; it’s a lot of work, and they don’t see how it will help them make more money after they graduate. (If you want to learn more about the historical trends in education away from cultural literacy, see the work of E.D. Hirsch.)

The good news is that the barriers between students and the Great Books are not insurmountable. I frequently have to take classes by the hand and walk them through a text, explaining unfamiliar phrases and terms, to get them to understand what is going on in a narrative or discourse, but when that is done they often engage the material enthusiastically. The key (at this early stage, at least) is to tap into universals to which the students can relate: friendship, love, justice, hope, etc.

Over at the website of ISI’s Lehrman American Studies Institute, Glenn Moots (Northwood University) has made a couple of posts (Part One, Part Two) on the opportunities and challenges involved in teaching the Great Books (or “core texts”). These observations grew out of a summer workshop he attended, and they track pretty well with my own experiences. If you teach the Great Books or are considering trying to incorporate them into your curriculum somehow, I’d recommend taking a look. If you are a student, the posts may give you some clarity in understanding your own reaction to the Great Books, whether positive or negative.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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