by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Shannon Watkins of the Martin Center highlights the importance of Great Books in a college curriculum.
The Great Books—the primary texts that include the greatest writings of Western Civilization—once formed the basis of all higher education. The highest levels of society were often closed to those who could not discuss the important works of the Classical period, Christianity, or the Enlightenment.
Starting in the 19th century, their primacy diminished as the empirical sciences (and in the early 20th century, the social sciences) gained importance. And, in the aftermath of the intellectual upheaval of the 1960s, the Great Books became derided as the works of “dead white males,” and they were often swept into remote corners of a curriculum. Today, many, if not most, college graduates have only brief acquaintance with these works; social success in educated circles relies much more on practical matters such as knowledge of Federal Reserve rates or the latest shifts in technology. Today’s students usually choose to avoid the intensive study these books require, preferring to either focus on their vocational or scientific majors or to sample courses that are of superficial interest.
Even a tiny but prestigious college totally focused on the Great Books, St. John’s College, has struggled to maintain its enrollment—with the ensuing financial troubles leading to drastic faculty cuts.
Yet, study of the Great Books has not disappeared entirely. Both Columbia University and the University of Dallas, for example, incorporate the Great Books into their core curriculum. And the University of Notre Dame offers a Great Books major called the Program of Liberal Studies.
Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina is the most recent college to launch a Great Books program—and they have done so in distinctive ways.