Great Books and their diversity

Mark Bauerlein writes on visiting the Jefferson Scholars Program at the University of Texas at Austin:

I just got back from a day of sitting in on program classes, conversing with staff and the advisory board, and chatting with students over cookies and tea. The program admits some 125 students each year as formal members of the program (non-participants may enroll in courses the program runs). Those students earn a certificate in the program by taking six courses listed under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas. 

The first semester of the program goes by the name of “Jerusalem and Athens.” The second course students take is called “The Challenge of the Greeks,” and it presents “the golden age of Greek democracy and Socrates’ insistent questioning.” The first course is on another subject: “The Bible and Its Interpreters,” which highlights “the reverent faith of Abraham and the tradition of the Hebrew prophets.” No cynicism in the presentation, no Voltaire or Nietzsche to tear down the faith, no postmodern irony about Daniel and Ezekiel. Teachers simply impart the content of the Bible and track its major commentators (Augustine, et al.).

To appreciate the value of this program, you have to consider what has happened to general requirements in higher education since the 1960s. Before that time, schools asked freshmen and sophomores to take a dose of Western Civilization before they settled into a major. Stanford, for instance, had a full year of Western Civ and a full year of English composition and literature. The emphasis fell on Great Books and masterpieces, big ideas and pivotal events. The Stanford catalog described those materials in triumphal words, affirming that an educated person must be acquainted with the core heritage of, precisely, Athens and Jerusalem.

The trend since then has been a decentering of the tradition and its replacement with empty categories. Western Civ has given way to a “diversity” requirement that can be fulfilled with dozens of courses scattered across a half-dozen disciplines. Or it has given way to a set of “thinking skills” requirements that break down into categories—“quantitative,” “historical,” etc.—and can likewise be fulfilled by heterogeneous class offerings each semester. No central lineage, no core texts…

There is breathtaking diversity within Western Civilization. Too often Western Civilization or the Great Books are treated as if they were the study of simply the Anglo-Saxons or a singular and monolithic mode of thought, rather than the study of human persons and communities across millennia, across geographies, and across cultures.