Monday, April 30, 2007

How NOT to Run a "Great Books" Program of Study

As a relative newbie to HS, I find myself often feeling intimidated by the ambitiousness of certain programs (yes, I'm talking about you Susan Wise Bauer, Laura Berquist, and Mortimer J. Adler!) Don't get me wrong, I think there are lots of very good ideas contained in The Well-Trained Mind, Designing Your Own Catholic Classical Curriculum, and The Paideia Program. Absolutely the great works of literature, art, and music of Western Civilization ought to play a central role in the curriculum. Certainly there are merits to studying history in chronological order, Latin, Logic, grammar & spelling rules, math facts, and so on.

It's not the premise of a neo-Classical education that I question but rather the implementation. Are we sacrificing quality for quantity? Depth for breadth?

The college I attended required a yearlong study of "Great Works" as a freshman. While a handful of these "Great Works" seemed to be included for mere political correctness' sake, most actually were classics. We read the Bible, Homer, Aristotle, Sophocles, Plato, St. Augustine, Beowulf, St. Thomas Aquinas, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Descartes, Machiavelli, Milton, Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, among others. The problem was not what we read (generally worthy texts) but how we read and discussed them. Each week, there were two assigned texts covered in two 50 minute lectures and a single 90 minute small-group discussion section. This was only enough time to scratch the surface of these complex literary works and provided what I call the "cocktail party guide to the classics". Basically enough information about the text so that one could sound reasonably literate at a cocktail party if someone made a reference to it.

I actually read all the assigned texts with the exception of Beowulf (I really tried, but that literally put me to sleep!) Many of my classmates, however, relied on Cliff Notes since the class did not require any in-depth study of or thinking about the books and they had plenty of work to do for their other classes. Grading did not follow any objective learning criteria but simply how well the student knew how to B.S. whatever the discussion leader's personal agenda was. I got B+ the first 2 trimesters because I refused to play this game and got comments such as "very well-written, excellent use of sources, but your thesis is weak". The last trimester I gave in and started pulling stuff right out of my you-know-where. All of a sudden, I started getting A's even though the papers were nowhere near the quality of the ones I had written earlier in the year.

This is what I learned for my then $25,000 a year tuition: why spend the time reading a complex piece of literature and writing a thoughtful paper about it for a B+ when you can buy the Cliff Notes and write total B.S. for an A?

The real shame is that this experience turned me off of humanities completely for the rest of my college career in favor of science courses, which I found to be much more objective. I certainly learned a lot in those classes but what might have I gained from a more well-rounded course of study? 25 years from now, much of the science I studied will likely be outdated but the great literary classics will endure.

When I look at the 12 page list of literary classics for study in grades 10-12 in the Appendix of the Paideia Program, I am reminded of my college "Great Works" experience. Rather than blasting through a long list of Great Books in a very superficial manner, would it not be better to take an in-depth critical examination of a much smaller list of texts? As Andrew Campbell of the Latin-Centered Curriculum would say, "multum non multa"?

1 comment:

Nick Senger said...

I'm not sure the Paideia reading list is meant to be read in its entirety. After all, it was Adler himself who once said, "It's not how many books you get through, it's how many books get through you."

You might be interested in a special blog post I'll be making tomorrow. I can't say more right now without ruining the surprise, but it concerns the word ROMAN.