Ready to Start Reading the Great Books?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read the following selections from the Gateway to the Great Books series (and the internet) this week:

  1. The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent” by John Erskine (Vol. 10, pp. 5-13)
  2. How Should One Read a Book?” by Virginia Woolf (Vol. 5, pp. 5-14)
  3. Of the Study of History” by David Hume (Vol. 7, pp. 89-92)
  4. The Two Drovers” by Sir Walter Scott (Vol. 2, pp. 182-205)
  5. The Three Hermits” by Leo Tolstoy (Vol. 3, pp. 700-706)
  6. Mathematics, the Mirror of Civilization” by Lancelot Hogben (Vol. 9, pp. 3-23; originally Chapter 1 of Mathematics for the Million)

I will post roughly 100 pages of reading each week. Counting this week, we have fifty-one weeks remaining in 2011, and a bit under 5,000 pages to read, so that pace will get us through the entire series by the end of the year. If we’re lucky, I’ll keep finding the selections online for you as I have this week. According to the series editors, this week’s selections are all suitable for seventh- and eighth-grade students, so I hope no one will find them too taxing.

Last week, as promised, I read Volume I of the Gateway series. More than two thirds of the book is reference material, so I only had a bit over 100 pages of introductory essays to read. Much of this material overlaps with The Great Conversation (which I reviewed last week) and How to Read a Book (summarized on this site here, here, here, and here) so instead of a full summary, which would be repetitious, I’ll just point out a couple of highlights.

As in the Great Books of the Western World series, the Gateway editors have divided their selections into four categories: Imaginative Literature (including critical essays); Man and Society (history and the social sciences); Natural Science and Mathematics; and Philosophy and Theology. The editors devote a section of the introduction to each of these categories, explaining why they believe all are necessary to a liberal education.

I’ll note specifically the defense of the natural sciences, which are often slighted by “men of letters.” (Natural science rated a full chapter in The Great Conversation, but I did not comment on it last week.) The editors condemn both scientism (the belief that the scientific method is the only path to true knowledge) and the dismissing of the history of science (a mistake even scientists make). By reading and understanding the great works of the history of science, which are usually written in ordinary language, we gain an understanding of how scientific advances take place. We also learn what the limits of true science are. In an age where scientists are often viewed as priestly figures who deliver authoritative pronouncements from on high, this knowledge is extremely useful for ordinary citizens.

One other point that bears mentioning (also made in The Great Conversation) is that the Great Books include numerous perspectives and points of view. I can already tell that there will be many authors in these series with whom I will disagree. However, part of being an educated person is learning how to wrestle with the arguments you believe to be wrong.

As we go through the set, I will attempt to select readings from multiple genres each week. If you don’t have time to read all the selections, pick the one or two that most interest you and that you have not read before.

One more housekeeping item: I have created a “child blog” to the Western Tradition dedicated purely to this project of reading through the Gateway to the Great Books and the Great Books of the Western World. All project-related posts here will be copied there within a day. If you are only on this site for Great Books conversation and have no interest in my other ramblings, please visit Through the Great Books and sign up for updates or subscribe to the RSS feed.

And if you can’t contain yourself until next Monday, by all means post your comments on this week’s readings below. Now go forth and enlighten yourself!

[This post is part of my seven-year plan to read through the Gateway to the Great Books and Great Books of the Western World sets. The original post describing the plan is here.]

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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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9 Responses to Ready to Start Reading the Great Books?

  1. Sara says:

    Thank you for posting the links to the readings; I am reading them on my phone while I nurse the baby — probably not the readership the authors envisioned, eh? Enjoying The Moral Obligation, despite his attention to Scott over Austen. Section V is lovely.

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  6. Eric says:

    After browsing this site for weeks, I finally got my hands on the “Gateway to the Great Books” and dove in! Thank you Jason for this resource and for leading by example.

    After completely a reading of “The Great Conversation”, “How to Read A Book” and “Gateway to the Great Books, Vol. 1”. I feel more prepared than ever to embark on this journey of lifelong liberal education.

    Aspects of the reading which struck me were Hutchins’s denouncement of “scientism” and his thorough explanation of theological and philosophical inquiry. I feel the history and specifics of these methods of inquiry (experimental science, philosophical, theological) were handled quite well and provided me with an understanding of a method’s wheel house and limitations.

    His work on the nature of historical study, while helpful within itself, lead to odd points about world government, which seemed misplaced; yet it proved helpful in modeling the type of reading and engagement discussed in Adler’s “How to Read A Book” and “Hutchins’s introduction.

    Thanks again for this resource. I hope this forum is still active and that I might be able to interact with others along the way.

  7. Glen Sprigg says:

    Well, I did Week 1 in 2 days, and Week 2 in the same time. One of the things that struck me about this week’s readings is the comparison of Erskine’s complaint about the English mind being anti-intelligence and all about ‘code of honor’ and such…and the last piece I read, the Two Drovers, which brings that exact point to light most clearly. Robin lets his passions overrule intelligence, as does Harry before him, and the sad and predictable result is that both men are dead, whereas with the use of some modicum of intelligence, both men would have remained friends and gone on to long lives.

    As for the other readings, as a practicing Catholic I especially liked the Tolstoy tale; it says a lot in a few pages. I wasn’t as impressed with Hogben’s dismissals of faith and religion as being unaccessible to the masses. Those who take the time to learn about their faith will see the beauty and logic inherent in Catholicism. But that is an argument for another day.

    On to week 3! I’m looking forward to continuing this journey.

  8. Vic says:

    Talk about arriving late for the party — here I am at the beginning, nearly six years after you started this project. I bought a set of the Great Books and Gateway to the Great Books on eBay a year or so back, and have been casting about for a good way to get into them. Trying to start at the beginning of each set and plowing through is … well … daunting. I happened across this blog and the Great Books Project a few weeks ago, and loved the idea of mixing up the reading: a poem here, some history there, a bit of math, a bit of philosophy, etc. It definitely holds my interest, and I’ve been progressing at a fair pace. I’m not sure if anyone looks back this far for comments any longer, but I thought I would post a few here and there.

    I was especially struck by the Erskine essay in light of the current political climate in the USA, which (to me, at least) has taken a striking anti-intellectual turn. So, it was oddly reassuring to read Erskine’s essay and find that this strain of thought is nothing new in American life, and that we have inherited it from our English forebears.

    Finding these links to the present day seem to be fairly common, in fact. Bacon’s essay on truth (in the next set of readings) certainly resonates, as does Jean de Crevecoeur’s chapters describing the American melting pot in colonial times.

    Given that these are some of our greatest minds writing about the greatest of universal ideas and topics, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised — but I have been, and pleasantly so. In some ways, I’m finding this project a refuge from a time of uncertainty and worry. But in others, I’m finding that it offers new insights and renewed focus.

    Thank you, Dr. J., for taking on this project and offering an enlightening path through these books. Sorry to be late to the party, but I’m glad to be here.

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