The Forum | General Education

Intern Blog: The Timeless Value of the Great Books

August 8, 2017

Plato, Aristotle, Tocqueville, Milton, Hobbes, and Dante. Are these texts—today considered the Great Books of Western Civilization—still relevant for 21st Century needs? For students who discover they will be studying classic literature and Western Civilization as part of their core requirements, this is a frequent conundrum.

While most were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago, the Great Books encompass a broad range of enduring philosophical questions that have occupied the minds of thinkers for centuries. Analyzing and understanding the complex themes and concepts contained in the Great Books is a daunting task, but through this intellectual challenge, students gain valuable insights into social, political and ethical issues that will inform their personal and intellectual development.

Where can students look receive this type of core curriculum? The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s What Will They Learn? report sheds light on this. The 2016–17 edition examines over 1,100 four-year universities core curricula requirements. Schools receive a letter grade based on how many of the following liberal arts subjects they require their students to take: Composition, Literature, (intermediate-level) Foreign Language, U.S. History or Government, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science. For a school to receive an “A,” they must require their students to take at least six of the required subjects. Schools that offer Great Books programs have earned “A’s” in this report.

Two such schools are St. John’s College and Thomas Aquinas College, both outstanding examples of Great Books programs that emphasize fascinating primary sources above dull textbooks. Students read the most prominent works of Western Civilization, ranging from philosophy, mathematics, and science to poetry and literature. There are no majors or departments and all students graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Faculty members are referred to as “tutors” because Thomas Aquinas and St. John’s consider the texts to be the real teachers. Tutors function as moderators or Socratic guides while the students pursue the classroom discussions, analyzing the same questions that the great thinkers of the past posed.

While this may seem unusual to some students, alumni of these two universities report that studying the Great Books is the best method for fostering independent thinking. Justin Cetas, an alumnus of St. John’s College–Santa Fe, says, “I think a broad, rigorous education is the key to success. It has come in handy my whole career.” Justin later attended medical school and is now a prominent neurosurgeon in the Pacific Northwest. A recent news article in the online magazine Quartz also described St. John’s as “The most forward-thinking, future-proof college in America” precisely because all students receive this strong foundation of knowledge.

While every core curriculum does not need to be a Great Books program, it certainly benefits universities to incorporate the Great Books into their required courses.

Great Books programs cultivate independent thinking, a skill which paves the way for strong careers. These themes and ideas remain relevant to modern societal issues. The St. John’s and Thomas Aquinas educational model encourages students to construct positions centered on logic, to grapple with and debate timeless philosophical and ethical questions, and to find value in unfamiliar and challenging arguments with which they may ultimately disagree.

So to answer the big question concerning the relevancy of the Great Books, ACTA’s 2003 report, Becoming an Educated Person: Toward a Core Curriculum for College Students, says it best: “Great books are great precisely because they transcend the accidents of race, ethnicity, or gender, and speak to timeless questions about the human condition.” 

Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns conduct research for the What Will They Learn?™ project. This is the fourth in a series of guest blogs written by our interns, who chose topics relevant to higher education. Nathaniel is a rising senior at Ashland University and an Ashbrook Scholar. He is a double major in health and risk communication, public relations and strategic communications. He minors in history, political science, and religion. He also serves on the executive board of Ashland University’s chapter of Phi Kappa Psi.


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