Twitter: @GreatBooksDude


Books: The Bubble BoysThe Decline of the Epic?Rules for WritingThe Role of the Gods in The IliadFolksiness in History and Baseball!; Logic Requires Asking QuestionsAeneas as Six Sigma Leader

One of my students just moved into Pepperdine this week, where he’ll be a freshman this year.  Pepperdine is one of the four decent Los Angeles universities–the others being USC, UCLA, and Loyola Marymount–and is the one that I would say is most imbued with a sense of tradition and a link to the past.  The kid is a midget (a paltry 6’8″, and I’ve told him he’s too short to his face), and he plays tennis, so their renowned tennis program made it a natural fit.  He wants to study business, because, as is typical of youth these days, he thinks there are “careers” in it, whereas he believes that there aren’t in other fields.

To my surprise they (the academic advisor to the athletes) enrolled him in a Great Books Collegium, under the tutelage of Michael Gose.  Naturally I’ve been on his case about enrolling in my own Great Books program, to no avail.  But he seems to be genuinely interested in the material.  I’m not entirely sure why he won’t join, though that’s between him and himself, I suppose.  But he’s in this thing, and, to my surprise, the parent texted me yesterday asking my thoughts on the curriculum.  (And please note, if you are looking only for a credential, that a parent asked a 25 year old with no credential to examine the list of books assigned by a Ph.D.  Age and credentials fly out the window once you have encountered me, for very obvious reasons.)

So I got to looking at it.  You yourself should take a look: (keep this open in a separate tab as you read the rest of this)

My first reaction was that it is fantastic.  At the very least this man is trying to teach the Great Books, in an age where they’ve been mostly thrown out of college curriculums, replaced by “real-world experience” courses, or placed on a par with work of dubious literary and intellectual merit.  Many if not most of the major obvious classics are present.  There is a misattribution–the play Medea is by Euripides, and he attributes it to Sophocles–but it appears to be an honest error by someone who was moving too fast and didn’t proofread.  Most of these books are ones I have already published essays on, so my student and his classmates can and ought to use the resources I’ve provided for them, which may well guarantee them an A in the class.  On the ones that I haven’t published essays, if they want them, I’ll write and publish them–I have lots to say about Creon, the villain in Antigone (one of Sophocles’ Theban plays), and whether he is a tyrant or a protector of the public safety (or, more realistically, one who claims to be one so as to be the other).  Some of them I already have written and only need to publish–the one on Augustine and Aquinas (which includes Dante and Chaucer and the Bible as well, and whose implications can be extended to Luther and Calvin et al).

But then I started to think a little deeper.

Look closer at the list: there are no classic histories.  None.  One can say to themselves that the histories are long–that there is only so much time in a semester (or a full college year), and that to ask students to read 500 pages of Herodotus and 450 of Thucydides and even only the first 500 of Livy would make them miss out on the other stuff.  That’s fine.  But this is not true of all classic histories, and the works of Xenophon (The Persian Expedition is around 250 pages), Sallust (Catiline’s War, for instance, is 45 pages or so; The Jugurthine War is some 130 pages), and Julius Caesar (The Gallic War is about 220 pages, and The Civil War maybe 240) are no longer than many of the other selections.  They are certainly shorter than City of God.  What’s particularly objectionable about this omission is that the great fictional works are all commentaries on real human behavior in the societies in which the authors lived and worked.  To really understand them, then, on a deep level is to understand the historical events that shaped their worlds.  The students aren’t getting that.

The objection to Herodotus and Thucydides–that they are too long, and there is only so much time in a college semester or year to study what needs to be learned–can also be looked at as a limitation on the efficacy of any college or university.  In terms of learning what you need to know, especially by gaining the experience provided in writing by others, four years is not enough for most people.  Certainly when you mix in all the other garbage they try to teach and present as important, it makes the limitation insurmountable.  But of course this is not a reason to place more emphasis on university education, and demand more years of such learning.  In fact, the clearest and sharpest way to circumvent this is to recognize the limitation, and work hard outside of what they ask to make up for it.  The duty is on you as the student and you as the parent to fill in the gaps that are left.  I learned more from Edward Gibbon and from Winston Churchill than I did from an entire semester of lectures from any college professor I had; but they were much too long to teach, or so they claimed, (certainly Gibbon is), and I had to read them on my own.

And look again at this list.  There is no economics.  Yet in terms of relevance the classical economics texts are the most obvious bunch with what appears to be the most value.  (What appears to be the most value.  Note my use of language.)  While some of them are dull, and two are too lengthy to teach–Adam Smith and Karl Marx–most of them are short, and it is imperative that students be exposed to the ideas of Ricardo, Malthus, Veblen, and Mackay, at the very least, if not Hayek and other 20th Century thinkers.  How is one really to understand economic policy when they come to the polling place if they have not absorbed these ideas?  If they do not understand this, are they really to vote in their own interests?  What are people to know about incentives and constraints without these things?  If my student really wants to go into business–if that’s what so many students want, nowadays–isn’t this an essential element of their education??

And look yet again at the list: no political theory.  Sure, he’s got Plato’s Republic and Machiavelli’s The Prince.  This is a start.  But those are almost completely irrelevant to the system in which we live.  That system was founded on the ideas of Machiavelli, but in Discourses on Livy, his great treatise on republics, and not The Prince; and on those of Locke in his Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government (a short 56 pages in the GBWW edition) and A Letter Concerning Toleration (some 22 pages in the same), Hobbes in Leviathan (250-odd pages in the same), Milton in Areopagitica (33 pages in the same), Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France (250 or so pages, not in the GBWW), The Federalist Papers (400-some odd pages, but in 5-page essays, of which one could choose selections), Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government (80 pages), and Lenin’s The State and Revolution (120-odd pages).

I would argue that many of these works are far more relevant to students in the 21st Century than are the works of Euripides or of Luther and Aquinas.  It is not that Luther and Aquinas aren’t relevant, but that you have to work much harder to find their relevance, and the chances of the professor adequately showing this are slim.  But more than their relevance, I question whether students don’t spend much more time reading the works assigned to them under this program because they are much harder to understand.  Locke is EASY; so is Burke, and so is Calhoun.  So is Malthus.  On the other hand, Dante, Shakespeare, and Augustine are very difficult reads.  One of Augustine’s sentences in Confessions runs 205 words in my translation; Washington’s entire Second Inaugural Address ran 135.

I think this particular program, as I told the parent and the student, is too heavily inclined towards fiction and religion.  It does not appear as though the works that were left off were penalized for having been on the Pope’s Prohibited Index (, but there is something weird about the volume of religious texts and the lack of political theory, economics, and history, especially at a Jesuit institution which makes no bones about bringing it into the classroom.  I wonder how they’ll teach Luther, that’s for sure.

The teacher’s credentials are in English, Education, and Religion, which explains part of it.  This is not a new program, however, and I wonder to what extent they have been willing to modify it over time.  You are all well aware that I love epic poetry, and there are several on the list.  But I love it in the context of history and political theory and economics, not in isolation, separate but equal, so to speak.  Plessy v. Ferguson is as outdated, in my eyes, as is Aquinas (who may be one of the only thinkers I say is completely out of date, not in theoretical construct–as his work remains the orthodoxy of the RCC–but in presentation).

There is yet one other reason why I feel the list of any curriculum presented by any college must inevitably be deficient: many of the most powerful works I’ve read are considered “secondary classics”.  Again the time issue arises: students only have so much time, so, it is said, they should focus on primary classics.  But in my experience books like The Song of Roland, Sir Gawain and the Green KnightDiscourses on LivyA Disquisition on GovernmentThe Theory of the Leisure Class, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and The Law of Civilization and Decay have had an equal if not superior impact to the likes of Virgil and Goethe.  These works provide a much greater context wherewith to understand many of the classics.  They are themselves works of the highest merit, and they deserve, nay, they demand to be read.

Look again at the list.  See if you do not see what i see.  And then call me.  (310) 592-5681.


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