Why the Great Books aren’t so great

Note:  This article was originally published in the March issue of the CLAA newsletter, the Examiner.

by William C. Michael

The talk about classical education usually centers on the “great books”.  Study programs audaciously proclaim their disdain for textbooks and their reading of the “original sources”.  It is assumed that education in the “good ol’ days” consisted of reading and small group discussions, where teenagers put the ideas of the classical masters to the test.  With minds crammed with the knowledge of mythology, history, geography and literature, they read the classics and could give a detailed description of every soldier Aeneas faced, every port Odysseus entered and every sinner Dante met in hell.

Unfortunately, this is all wrong. What destroyed classical education was the preference for information rather than skills.  When we read Francis Bacon declaring in the 1620s that “Knowledge is Power!” we find the motto not of classical learning, but of its abandonment.  It was the desire for “encyclopedic” knowledge that characterized modern learning–as far back as the 1600s, when Reason was rejected as the means to truth and the Senses (and scientific instruments) set in its place.

We must begin by understanding that the classical authors were masters of the liberal arts themselves.  Depending on when the authors wrote, the liberal arts may have been more or less clearly defined than at other times, but whether we read Moses or Dante, we read men who are writing within a certain framework of knowledge and skill.  This framework becomes the key by which we may rightly understand and appreciate their meaning and merits.

St. Paul provides us with guidance here, when he asks, “For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him?”   It is impossible for us to understand a man’s meaning unless we share in his spirit.  By our own study and mastery of the classical liberal arts, we “put on” the spirit of the masters who have gone before us.  We then read their works with a secret discernment of their goals, methods and resources.  Without this spirit, the masters’ writings are sealed books to us, whose meaning, as St. Paul warns, we cannot expect to understand.

Therefore, the notion that “Socratic discussion” (which is really not Socratic at all) is the means by which classical literature is to studied is incorrect.  Students and teachers who are ignorant of the classical liberal arts are unprepared to enter into the interpretation and enjoyment of the classical masters in the same way that people who deny the Christian faith are unsuited to interpret Scripture.  Sure, they may find lessons and enjoyment in them, but it these are unlikely to be the lessons and enjoyment that the authors intended.

For example, Homer was recognized as the prince of poets throughout history.  What virtues gained him such fame?  The Roman orator Quintillian tells us in the tenth book of hisInstitutio Oratoria.  Homer was to be read for his demonstration of all of the virtues offered by the art of rhetoric.  This included his meter, his language, his arrangement, his use of rhetorical figures, and so on.  Homer was studied for his ability to train orators.  Nevertheless, students in “great books” courses with no knowledge of the elements of Rhetoric or the sound of heroic verse, sit with their English translations of Homer, imagining themselves to be reaping the benefits of their “classical” education.

Second, when classical schools spoke of Humanities courses, especially in the Christian tradition, they were not occupied with reading lists but a small number of choice writers:  Cicero, Caesar, Livy, Virgil and Horace. Humanities was not a literature survey course and anthologies were not welcome.  Consider, again, the words of Quintilian and consider whether the great books courses that surround us would have gained his approval:

“We should read none save the best authors and our reading must be almost as thorough as if we were actually transcribing what we read.  Nor must we study it merely in parts, but must read through the whole work from cover to cover and then read it afresh.”

It requires no proof that the popular “great books” courses are not doing this as they drag students across hundreds of pages of reading–all in English translation.  The vision that guides these “great books” programs is not informed by masters of the classical liberal arts, but principles of modern education with its hunger for trivia.  In the end, students will be “smart”, but not skilled.

Humanities Lesson - Example

To attack the faults of others without providing a remedy of my own would be unfair and I will not leave readers without an answer.  The Classical Liberal Arts Academy has developed a Humanities and Literature program that not only claim to be classical, but actually areclassical in both philosophy and pedagogy.  First, by re-establishing the foundation of classical language mastery, focusing on the three traditional divisions of composition (Oratory, Poetry, History) and teaching the principles of Rhetoric we restore the spirit of the craft.  You can see a sample lesson from the Humanities course by clicking on the image above.  Second, by removing Literature from the core curriculum and restoring it to its proper place as an independent and life-long enrichment program, we take the pressure off students and allow them to absorb the original readings.

CLAA Classical Humanities Program (See sample reading guide on the top)
CLAA Literature Program

Reflection:  Would anyone (especially Catholics!) suggest that the best way to understand Sacred Scripture is through discussion?  Why then do many recommend this approach to the “Great Books”?

William Michael is the founder of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy.


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