Are Great Books Really That Great?

Now the paralysis sets in.  I feel like we’re getting nothing done at school.  My son is tired all the time, and so am I.  We’re both anticipating that big jump from middle school to high school.  I try to remember, without much luck, what I felt like at fourteen.  I seem to recall feeling like I knew pretty much everything there was to know and my parents were totally stupid. 

Anyway, I’m trying to figure out what to teach next year.  The idea of a “great books” curriculum has always interested me, especially since I’ve been semi-following a Classical education program.  But, in reading about great books programs, I’ve learned that there is a big controversy over the whole philosophy of a core of western literature.  The liberal left – of whom I am one-feels the “great books” idea is a movement based on a religious agenda.  The whole western Christianity is better than anything else sort of stuff.  Well, I hadn’t planned on using just western lit in my great books program anyway.  But still, it niggles me.

I am halfway through David Denby’s Great Books.  He went through the core curriculum at Columbia University because he wanted to find out what all the fuss was about between liberals and great-bookers.  It’s thoroughly interesting and there doesn’t seem to be anything ominous about reading that particular list of books.  He makes the point that, while ancient Greek and Roman literature is patriarchal, for example, that doesn’t mean it should be avoided by we liberated women of today.   Reading Aristotle doesn’t demean me as a female.

Then, today, Mortimer Adler’s How to Think About The Great Ideas  arrived from Amazon.  I flipped through it, too tired to even begin a chapter.  I came across a section entitled, “Darwinism is Incompatible with Human Dignity.”  As a secular homeschooler, one of the biggest challenges is finding science programs that aren’t Christian-based–that exclude evolution.  It rankles me every year when I try to put together a science curriculum.  Now, here was this guy I’d been drawing on for ideas about rigorous and logical thinking, and he’s apparently challenging Darwinism. 

The best I can tell from a superficial reading is that one of the central ideas to Western thinking is the distinction between a person and a thing. Implicit in our cultural ideas is the idea that people are superior to animals.   If we believe that man is different from things or from animals–if he is unique rather than just another form of thing–Darwinism is inconsistent.  If we all descended from animals, then we are not unique or superior to animals but, rather, are only different in degree from animals.

I’m troubled by what I’m reading, but not sure why.  Underneath it all is the thought that I’m spending way too much time developing stuff for school.  I should be working on my book.  I’ve got another one percolating in my brain, and I have forbidden myself from doing anything more than scribble out stray thoughts.  Dude–it’s high school.  Am I up for this?



Filed under A Teacher's Journal

2 responses to “Are Great Books Really That Great?

  1. jadedbookman

    I am partial to the Great Books program, though I think most in the catalog are above level for your average high schooler. The program is key for a proper understanding of history.

    It is exclusive to western thought, which is the root basis of our culture, even though that culture is evolving. It is very easy to augment that with good selections from asia and arabian authors.

    I wouldn’t worry about Adler’s evolution bent, but rather look at his approach to genres in his books. He was also a creature of his times:)

  2. beckyblackpowell

    Good points, Nathan. Great Books is typically a college level course. But there are a good many programs designed for high schoolers and younger. Whether kids that age can appreciate what they learn in a Great Books class, I don’t know. Denby’s book is interesting in this respect, because he compares what he gleans from Great Books in middle age to what he found as a college freshman. I think for younger students the main goal is to teach the practice of breaking information down, process it, and create original thought based on the information.

    Thanks for your comments.

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