Sometimes words or phrases are repeated so often that they lose their meaning. In other cases, we may falsely assume we know what is meant by a given expression because we’ve heard it so often, yet never actually understood it. Perhaps, one of these descriptions is true of you when you hear the words “Great Books Education”. Precisely, what does that mean? A great books educations is one in which the student is steeped in the ideas and ideals that have shaped Western Civilization.
By the time most students reach 9th grade, when the Great Books begin being read, they are well into the Logic stage of learning and headed toward the Rhetoric stage. They have learned, or are in process of learning, how to properly argue and are ready for the material which of perennial importance. Those materials are made up of the best and most important pieces of literature written during the last 2, 800 years. In these works, the student is exposed to virtue, piety, faith, democracy, tyranny, freedom, war and peace, truth, love, happiness, desire, and a host of other topics of ongoing significance. The Great Books education seeks to teach the student what was thought at various times and diverse places about any of these important ideas.
But more than just reading and listening, the Great Books education gives the student the opportunity to formally engage the writings of each author. After effort is made by the students and tutor to determine what a writer has to say, the Great Books class has the task and privilege of discerning the importance of that author’s contribution to our present time. Not whether or not there are worthwhile thoughts present (that is almost always the case!). Instead, the focus is on seeing how things we take for granted came into existence. For instance, the Republic of Plato has an extended section on the importance of arithmetic. Many students have asked over the years, “when will I ever use Algebra”? The savvy parent or tutor will have some ready examples of when it’s practiced and may well be able to build a justification for the central role of math in most curricula. But in all actuality, math gained its place not by usefulness (though it certainly is), but because of its effect on the mind and soul. As we learn and contemplate the fixed, eternal laws of math, our souls and minds are drawn upward toward those lofty heights where He Who Is, reigns. While many modern schools teach math for its usefulness they have forgotten why it is such an honored field: it actually draws us closer to God. Plato recognized that 2,400 years ago. Our students are given the chance in great books to read, discuss, and then write about this great idea and see the origins of math’s centrality.
Flowing from this idea, a Great Books education acts as a protection against modern dogma. That is not to insinuate that there aren’t good modern ideas. It is, however, to point out that we tend to be creatures of our time. We are prone to seeing this or that idea a certain way and no other option is admissible. In the example above, math has come to take on a utilitarian function. Reading the Great Books reminds us that there is more than one way to view the study of arithmetic. Further, they remind us that our own narrow view, in one time and in one place, may, and often does, exclude a fuller and more beautiful view of the whole. Another example worthy of consideration is the unquestioned place we moderns give to technological development. Practices along the lines of cloning, embryonic stem cell research, or abortion are generally accepted in our culture. The very fact that we can do something means we should do something. A great book education gives the student pause to inquire about this idea’s appropriateness. Page after page reflects the lofty, God-given status of humanity. It would be difficult to imagine a graduate with a Great Books education supporting anything that trivializes the origins and beauty of human life. The Great Books student is equipped with the tools to counter can with should.
Lastly, the True, Good, and Beautiful are revealed to the reader of Great Books. We seek to have our entire being made alive and set free by truth. Our longing is that all idol forms and error will perish, that they will flee from the Truth’s glorious light. Pilate famously asked “quid est veritas?” “What is Truth”? The answer to this question is “the result of our mind being in accord with reality”. Simply, by reading the Great Books we allow the greatest minds in history to teach us how things are. Goodness is seen in each thing maximizing its God-given potential. Everything has an end or a purpose. The acorn develops into the mighty oak; the human becomes one who glorifies God and enjoys him and all his benefits. The Great Books are filled with characters, arguments, and stories which teach men their purpose. Despite Odysseus’ self-inflicted problems, he and Penelope stand, not only to couples but to all, as models of fidelity. Faithfulness is a key component to the good life-the life God intends for us. Finally, Beauty inspires wonder. Therefore, it is the prerequisite for much, if not all, of learning. Examining, for instance, the poetry of the Great Books curriculum, beauty emerges from the harmony and proportion it exhibits. These attributes of beauty draw us further in to the message being communicated by luminaries like Homer, Virgil, and Dante.
There is yet much more to say about the Great Books education. For now, suffice it to say that this curriculum allows students to listen in on, and then participate in the Great Conversation. The wisdom of the ages then informs the mind which is at risk of falling prey to the errors of a given generation. Ultimately, this education leads to Christ-the source of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
--Bill Jenkins, Headmaster