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15 Colleges Successfully Keeping the Great Books Alive

Posted on Sunday October 21, 2012 by Staff Writers

Familiarity with a canon of essential literary works has historically formed the backbone of what “education” meant. These were the classics, in both senses of the word: until one or two centuries ago, they would all have been in Greek or Latin. Since then, our conception of what rightfully belongs on this lofty list has been stretched: to vernacular languages like English; to prose and not just verse; to American literature and not just British; to neglected groups of people beyond “dead white men”; and even to “low” pop culture artifacts like film and comics. Meanwhile, collegiate study has become ever more specialized and technical, and the very idea of canonicity has received a philosophical dinging from postmodernism, even as its expansion accelerates.

A Renaissance scholar could claim to have read most of what was considered worth reading in the then-small world. But the printing press, and later the Internet, exploded the scope of human communications beyond what any person could hope to absorb even a decent fraction of in a single lifetime. Does that not make it all the more vital, in this techno-tower of Babel, that we nurture a common vocabulary of the most crucial ideas and works that make up our intellectual heritage? Many institutions of higher learning believe so, and have developed “great books” curricula that prioritize a solid grounding in the crown jewels of global human expression. Here are 15 of those colleges standing up for the canon:

  1. Shimer College

    In its very logo, Shimer bills itself as “The Great Books College of Chicago.” In the first year at this four-year liberal arts haven, students will digest Plato, Balzac, Kafka, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Homer, Beckett and many more, plus a panoply of great visual artists and musicians to boot.

  2. Gutenberg College

    The fittingly named Gutenberg College in Eugene, Ore., is another school that builds its entire four-year program around the Great Books, beginning with the Good Book. Gutenberg describes itself as “Christian. Not Dogmatic, Not Squishy.” It has a theological and epistemological manifesto called the Biblical Foundation Statement that faculty sign; students do not, and are encouraged to “Learn How (Not What) to Think.”

  3. Hillsdale College

    Founded in 1844 by Freewill Baptists in Spring Arbor, Mich., under the name of Michigan Central College, this liberal arts school then moved to the town of Hillsdale and took its name. It was barely behind Oberlin in the first wave of U.S. colleges admitting black students and women. Today Hillsdale is non-denominational in terms of religion, but fiercely politically conservative, offering classes like “Constitution 201: The Progressive Rejection of the Founding and the Rise of Bureaucratic Despotism” and taking no federal money for any of its programs. Its core curriculum focuses on “modern man’s intellectual and spiritual inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture.”

  4. Columbia University

    The Core Curriculum for Columbia undergraduates was instituted in 1919, and remains a model for other programs that aim to set the groundwork for a basic liberal foundation of study, “considered the necessary general education for students, irrespective of their choice in major.” It began with the Contemporary Civilization course, “intended to prepare students to become active and informed citizens.” Since then, five other classes have been added: Literature Humanities, University Writing, Art Humanities, Music Humanities, and Frontiers of Science.

  5. St. John’s College

    St. John’s College, with two campuses, one in Santa Fe and the other in Annapolis, has followed a true Great Books program since 1937. Despite its name, and unlike many of the strict adherents to the Great Books method, St. John’s has no religious affiliation. The reading list for each year is truly mind-boggling … no wonder that in 2011, Newsweek named the Santa Fe campus the No. 1 Most Rigorous college in the country, and the Annapolis campus No. 8!

  6. The College of Saint Mary Magdalen

    Founded in 1973 in response to Vatican II, this Catholic school moved to its permanent campus in Warner, N.H., in 1991. From the beginning, academics were organized around a Great Books Program. The website lays out the pedagogical design using a neat metaphor, based in a development in ecclesiastical music that was once considered radical, even heretical: each course “may be best understood as a polyphonic composition within which the lines of Philosophy, Literature, History, Music, and Political Philosophy conjoin to form a single Seminar.”

  7. Thomas Aquinas College

    Located in Santa Paula, Calif., Thomas Aquinas is another Catholic liberal arts college, offering only one degree program, a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts. As a result, every student is exposed to the Great Books, with no textbooks, only the original works of history’s great thinkers, including a heavy emphasis on the school’s 13th-century namesake.

  8. Harrison Middleton University

    A recent addition to the annals of Great Books institutions studying the ancient verities, Harrison Middleton University is an online university, founded in 1998 and based in Tempe, Ariz. It is named after two individuals: Arthur Middleton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Willis Speight Harrison, a 20th century war hero and journalist. HMU is associated with The Great Books Foundation, an education nonprofit that packages the Great Books to help schools at all levels design core curricula.

  9. Wyoming Catholic College

    An even younger educational institution, WCC admitted its first class in 2007 and is on its way to accreditation as the only private four-year college in Wyoming. All graduates receive a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts and immerse themselves in a Catholic-inflected Great Books list from the Bible on down to Flannery O’Connor.

  10. University of Chicago

    In place since the 1930s, Chicago’s Common Core arose from the Great Books movement, although controversially, it has been watered down in recent years … to a mere 15 classes! It takes up about a third of each student’s academic time at the university, in order to “provide the background for any major” and give “every student a common vocabulary of ideas and skills.”

  11. University of Dallas

    Actually located just west of Dallas in Irving, this Catholic university assumed its current form in 1956. In their own words, “The foundation of the undergraduate curriculum is a set of about twenty core courses that are designed to expose all students to the great deeds, ideas, and works of Western Civilization in the belief that these are the surest guides in the search for truth and virtue.”

  12. Mercer University

    Founded by Baptists in 1833, this Georgia university has a Great Books Program with eight required courses, small seminars in which students read everything from Homer to Pascal to Dostoevsky. An annual essay competition is also sponsored by the department.

  13. Yale University

    Yale’s approach to the Great Books is a little different: rather than instituting a requirement, they chose to harness the spirit of competition by establishing a selective Directed Studies program that admits 125 of the school’s freshmen each year. The fall semester takes students from antiquity through the Middle Ages while the spring covers from the Renaissance up to today.

  14. University of Notre Dame

    The home of the Fighting Irish has a Program of Liberal Studies, whose website points out that “the word ‘seminar’ means seedbed; in the seminar the seeds of future reading and reflection are sown.” These Great Books Seminars are organized in a six-course sequence in the sophomore to senior years: the first semester is devoted to ancient Greece; the second, a transition from the classics to the early Christian era; the third, the Middle Ages; the fourth, the High Renaissance to the Enlightenment; the fifth, the nineteenth century (including Eastern texts “discovered” then); and the sixth, the modern era.

  15. Lawrence University

    One of America’s first co-ed universities upon its 1847 founding, this school in Appleton, Wis., has required all first-year students to take its Freshman Studies program since introducing it in 1945. From the very beginning, Freshman Studies was rooted in both Great Books traditionalism and a desire to stretch its limits; the first syllabus included a film, the classic anti-lynching Western The Ox-Bow Incident, and the latest reading list includes Richard Feynman, a graphic novel, music by Stravinsky, and the anti-imperialist arthouse movie The Battle of Algiers, proving the flexibility and lasting relevance of the Great Books approach.