Great Books in the News

Ashley Thorne

What do The History of the Peloponnesian War, Othello, Beyond Good and Evil, Emma, and The Waste Land all have in common?  

They are all “great books” of enduring importance; yet they have been dismissed by academia as irrelevant in a time when literature’s worth is measured by the authors’ identity group membership. As Professor Bruce Gans puts it, “Education schools and the professoriate do not teach these works and tell their students that these masterpieces are obsolete or defective because of the gender or race or sexual orientation or age of the author.”

Bruce Gans is the leading figure in the effort to establish curricula based on Great Books in community colleges. Gans first founded a Great Books Curriculum at Wilbur Wright College on Chicago’s Northwest Side, where most of the 30,000 students are minorities. Until he proposed his certificate program, the curriculum was essentially vocational with the usual veneer of courses in English and trendy topics that pretty much guaranteed that students would never encounter anything more serious than a Toni Morrison novel. Gans set out to show that if these students were offered a substantive alternative based on the Encyclopedia Britannica’s list of great books, many would rise to the occasion. Many did. By 1999, he had 800 students enrolled in the program. He attracted major grants from the United States Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Through these grants, four additional Great Books programs were established at Santa Barbara Community College, Washington College, Oakton College, and Arapahoe College.

Professor Gans was recently interviewed by Michael Shaughnessy at EdNews.org. In the interview, Gans set out his argument for the Great Books curriculum: “A liberal education,” he said, “has an obligation to expose students to the best that has been thought and said and to work hard to enable them to understand the texts and the questions about their own lives and the world around them that they raise.” Among these questions are ones such as, “How should I live? […] What does it mean to love another person? What are the dangers governments throughout history have posed to mankind? What is justice? What are my obligations and personal responsibilities as a human being?”

In the end, Gans is hopeful for the future of Great Books reading; he dreams of seeing this generation “collectively revolt against the sorts of dead end, third rate, irrelevant pursuits that have long been regnant and restore the enduring and essential to reading lists.”

We too would be thrilled to witness such a revolution. But until then, we encourage the slow and steady establishment of Great Books curricula one college campus at a time. If you or someone you know is interested in working to create a Great Books program at a community college, please visit nationalgreatbooks.com. This website is a free, useful resource, complete with course descriptions, instructional supplements, and tools for inaugurating and sustaining a Great Books curriculum. To read Professor Gans’ interview in full, click here.

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