The Great Books, as elucidated in “What Makes a Book a Great Book”( have many practical applications and tangible benefits: enhancing critical thinking; teaching Western cultural heritage (history of thought and deeds); exposing students to elevated and graceful language; and teaching students crucial Western Values. Beyond these “measurables”, however, there are yet more benefits which the theory behind great books supplies.

The first, and likely the most important intangible benefit of a Great Books curriculum is that it works to cultivate one’s spirit or character. What this means is that beyond improving one’s critical thinking capacity, one’s ability to read with understanding, and increase one’s knowledge of Western cultural heritage that something of the values, actions, deeds, and language of a Great Book is transmitted into a student-learner. That is to say, something of one’s character is affected and molded by the Great Books. A Great Books curriculum, therefore, is not satisfied to say that a student has simply learned the summary and facts of its books, but that a student receives a lasting impression in the wax of his or her being. Whether this take the form of one person being impressed by the excellence of Achilleus, or the piety of Aeneas, or the cunning of Odysseus, or the high-spiritedness of Oedipus is less important than that such definite characteristics be imprinted and pursued by future people. A Great Books curriculum, thus, accepts the idea that society is the sum of its characters, and its characters are those people who represent and pursue definite attributes and qualities.

Building on the fact that a Great Books curriculum desires to “build character”, it also wishes to impress a desire to pursue virtue or excellence in its students. This subject alone will admit of its own chapter, but as Socrates suggests to Meno near the end of the dialog of the same title, we will work with a “working definition” or “hypothesis” as the geometers do. Essentially, excellence or virtue will considered the act or quality of performing an action in a capable and masterful way. And such an activity will be reserved for those activities deemed valuable and not deemed vices–also another chapter waiting to be written. Therefore, a desire to pursue virtue in student will look like a student who pursues temperance, prudence, courage, justice, and piety, much as Plato suggested two millenia beforehand. And one will understand each virtue, in order to be a virtue, to be pursued in the correct manner, not admitting of excess or deficiency, such vices being per defitionem beyond the scope of virtue. All that technical language aside, a Great Books curriculum desires to impress on the character of a student the desire to pursue acts of courage or valor, increased knowledge and wisdom, greater balance in any pursuit and restraint in terms of acting on one’s emotions, and a desire for fairness and faithfulness to one’s cause(s). In so developing a desire for such qualities, a student will become what the paragraph above defines as a “definite character”, and will add positively to the sum which creates both culture and society.

A common criticism of a Great Books curriculum is that it has too authoritative unto an authoritarian spirit must now be addressed. Such certainly would be the case–that a Great Books curriculum were naturally authoritarian–if a curriculum simply wished to impress a certain set of beliefs and values in its students without also providing that student with a spirit of inquiry to balance one’s fiery pursuits. A spirit of inquiry, differing from defiant questioning of all things, is the capacity in a student to receive data and to attempt to reason through it until he or she finds its first principles. This means that a student of a Great Books curriculum will strive for understanding in all facets of his or her curriculum, and in fact, in order to show mastery, he or she will be required to demonstrate this perspicacity. The underlying or over-arching hypothesis here is that such virtues as courage, temperance, prudence, justice, and fidelity stand up to scrutiny, and generally, they have over the past three millienia. It is, however, the prerogative of the student of Great Books to learn these lessons himself or herself, as he or she will be charged with living in accordance with these values and transmitting them, likely by their character in actions, in the ages to come. So, the spirit of inquiry serves not only as a vehicle for questioning particular manifestations of virtues or principles, but as a mode of rationally understanding them so that one might transmit or teach them one’s self in the future. The true teacher makes teachers of us all.

Lastly, a Great Books curriculum wishes to focus on making fuller or more complete humans and citizens. This means that a Great Books curriculum, though it will certainly develop one’s writing skills, reading skills, analytical thinking and synthetic thinking skills, will develop a student into a rich, lively, and actively engaged individual. In having impressed onto one’s self a definable character comprising a desire to be excellent and to bring forth excellence while tempering one’s self with a spirit of inquiry and self-reflectedness, the ideal is that such a person will be what is called more complete. And in being more complete, one is more self-sufficient, and in being so, one offers one’s self not simply to one’s society as a servant, but as a model. And in having more such model citizens, if one were to think in a mundanely mathematical way, one’s society–our society–would be bound to improve in that its young citizens would epitomize and be capable of transmitting the values and virtues on which it has been founded for thousands of years. Naturally, one’s “society” and even “Western Society” is hopelessly vague and general, but as we are conducting ourselves in the manner of an ideal hypothetical, such a general concept will be understood as broad by nature, and broadly applicable, rather than scurrilously and vulgarly bloated.

It is possible that there are draw-backs to such a curriculum, and that in some way it is misguided, but it seems, at least to me, that in cultivating a spirit of inquiry into one’s self, that even if one should pursue virtue in some wrong-minded way (though that of course would be a contradictio in adiecto) that there are natural checks on going too far afield. I suppose, however, the future will serve as the measure of the wisdom of the past, and it remains for educators to continue to test these methods to determine their true and practical value.


2 thoughts on “What is the “Theory” Behind Teaching Great Books?

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