It is not unethical or prejudiced, at least in this society, to make choices consistent with one’s principles and values. Therefore, a Great Books curriculum, which is created by choices carefully made to ensure the integrity and continuity of a system, is not the result of prejudice, but of liquid and well-reasoned decision making. And it is always open to further inquiry and thought, as the spirit of inquiry is one of the marquis values of a Great Books curriculum: .

In fact, to call a Great Books curriculum prejudiced, would mean that such a curriculum was created with a “preconceived or unfavorable opinion” about that which was not included in a Great Books curriculum. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because one Olympian receives a gold medal and another the silver does not, for example, does not indicate a prejudice in favor of the winner–it simply means that the winner best performed in accordance with the rules and conventions of his sport. Likewise, the Great Books curriculum in no way disparages other curricula, more specific intellectual traditions, or courses of study, but rather, it favors a definite but general curricula which focuses on the development of particular skills and values, as any course of study must. And though including all works of literature with merit would be ideal, it would also be impossible on a practical level, and attempting to do so would dilute the “Great Books” concept on a theoretical level. Thus, difficult and discerning choices must be made.

Why is it, therefore, ethical to teach a curriculum with the title “Great Books” and thus to exclude certain books from its curriculum? It is true that “Great Books” are considered to be value-based texts, written with deep human understanding, and with the intent of developing or expressing the exceptional thinking capacity of man. It is just as clear that there are many books which emphasize and illustrate similar qualities and do not make their way into “Great Books” curricula. Why not? The first reason: ignorance. Sometimes books from differing traditions are not yet well-known to developers, and that is where a certain measure of fluidity is required for developers. A Great Book will stand out and need not have come from a certain place or certain time. As Great Books curricula are still largely experimental–that means they are being tested in accordance with hypotheses–they are not yet perfect and, like empirically tested hypotheses, they must be open to change. That said, a Great Books must fall within a certain intellectual tradition.

What intellectual tradition must a “Great Book” fall within in order to make it into the “Canon”? This is both an easy and difficult question to answer.  Of course, ideally, a Great Books curriculum would in theory cater to all books which make the impact written illustrated here: However, as said above, choices must be made to ensure that the curriculum: (1) is actually teachable and taught, and (2) that it stems from, at least in this case, the Western Intellectual Tradition. Naturally, the West owes many of the foundations of its philosophical and epic thinking from Near Eastern sources. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest literature known to man. Herodotus and supposedly even Plato traveled to and learned from the Persians, Egyptians, and possibly even to India (in the case of Plato). The Eastern influence and impact on Western thinking is enormous and will only continue to grow. That said, these Great Books curricula focus on the Great Books of the Western Tradition precisely because its students and teachers live within the context of the Western Tradition, and even within one fairly unified (though, this is highly debatable) tradition one finds an exceptional diversity of thought politically, economically, ethically, logically, and theologically. There is almost infinite breadth to cover even within a finite tradition.

The next major claim to “prejudice” is generally levied with what at first seems strong ground. Why does a Great Books curriculum generally exclude works favored by gender study theorists, post-colonial writers, and various other intellectual and cultural traditions? By nature, none of these traditions need be excluded so long as they adhere to the definition above. But if we take a few authors from America’s own Harlem Renaissance as an example: Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, and Ralph Waldo Ellison, and look at a generalized curriculum, let us see where they would fall. In a four year high school which focuses on a chronological model which sweeps from “the beginning” of Western Intellectual History, and attempts to make it to the present, let us observe how soon such fine and great thinkers enter into the equation. The Freshman year, in this model, focuses on Archaic and Ancient Greek and Roman epic, plays, and philosophy ending with the Roman writer Virgil. The sophomore year sweeps through around sixteen-hundred years of history and cultural from Christian roots through Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. The third year focuses on the Enlightenment, German systems thinkers, American Founders and goes just past the French Revolution. Only in the fourth year is American thought, in any contemporary way, considered. Therefore, while those deep and gifted thinkers above certainly belong in such a curriculum, the depth and degree to which they deserve to be studied must be reserved for more specialized courses. This claim could honestly be made about every thinker included in a Great Books curriculum, which is, by its nature, more like a survey series of courses for generalists than the specialized courses necessary to become an expert on any one of the authors included in it. All that said, a Great Books curriculum must be open to change–what it values highest is its ability to transmit values and skills, and if a work of literature does that in a superior way, it must be considered for entrance into what is at its heart a practical, not simply theoretical, body of works.

The theory, then, which a Great Books curriculum must assume governs its students is not that these students will live in a vacuum and only read and consider “Great Books” within their narrow and unquestioning circles. No, the idea is that the students, with some appreciation for the depth, breadth, and brilliance of Western Thought, will have some idea how thoroughly, scrupulously, and seamlessly the authors before them worked; and that this will present them with some basis for the judgment of all thought that they counter and lead to them reading and consciously choosing to engage with their forefathers’ tradition. They will weave their own lives and works into this tradition by engaging with similar perennial questions and brilliant as those before them did in their own unique ways. The present therefore is inextricably interwoven with the past, and may eternally be connected by those who make such connections in the future.

The second important piece of fall-out is that the Great Books are simply a basis for intellectual thinking and learning. At no point should the successful student consider his or her education done, and at no point ought such a student feel privileged to exclude good or great literature from his or her reading list because his or her teacher did not read or teach it. The truly free thinker, which is a major goal of a Great Books curriculum, will not rigidly adhere to all that has come before, but be eager to see the world, today, as it is, and to add his or her own unique mark to it. The Great Books are a stage, and those who read them are the actors. The script remains to be written.


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