Concerning “Great Books”

Shimer College: the worst school in America?

Subhead: This tiny, eccentric institution in Chicago was just voted the worst place to study in America. But does Shimer, which shuns lectures and has no societies or clubs, deserve such an accolade? Jon Ronson went there to investigate.

In the body, we have a bit more detail:

This is a ‘great books’ college. The great books of the western tradition, not the professors, are the teachers: Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Aristotle’s Poetics and Homer’s Odyssey and de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity and Kafka and Derrida and Nietzsche and Freud and Marx and Machiavelli and Shakespeare and the Bible.


Textbooks about the great books are forbidden. That would be too easy. It is primary sources only here. Students can concentrate on humanities, or natural sciences, they can take electives in feminist theories, or Auden, or Zen masters, but it’s all great books and nothing else. There are no lectures. Each class takes the form of Socratic dialogue between the students, guided by a professor if necessary.

The article touches a bit on how this can be problematic from a race standpoint, which is an important problem to consider. But I can think of a couple other issues, too. I mistrust the “primary sources only” idea. Even sticking within the Westerniest of Western Canons, can we not read Coleridge or Shaw or Nabokov on Shakespeare? We can read the Aeneid and the Inferno, which in their ways are both commentaries on the Odyssey; should we not be able to read Borges’ thoughts on Dante? Cutting oneself off from centuries of critical commentary intensifies the Dead White Malestrom, which was bad enough to begin with. It can also deprive students of experience with how scholarly criticism works, with the way academic discourse functions in practice. “Primary sources only” may not be strictly enforced, but I question whether it is even an ideal worth striving for.

Also close to my heart, and closer to my professional concerns, is that the “great books” method seems a rather poor way to teach science. Look at Shiner’s “Evolution, Genetics & Animal Behavior Course“: its reading list has nothing newer than Jane Goodall’s The Chimpanzees of Gombe (1986). Things have happened in evolution and genetics since “Rock Me Amadeus” climbed the charts! “The Nature of Light” goes only up to Einstein, while “Laws & Models of Chemistry” stops with Mendeleev. If your readings remain several decades removed from the present, or if more recent work is only sprinkled on top, then your sense of what the unsolved problems are will be shaped by what was unsolved, generations ago. This isn’t good for training a working scientist, but it’s not good for educating a historian, philosopher or scientifically literate citizen, either.

And the wrongness of this for teaching mathematics approaches dangerous levels of I-can’t-even.

As it happens, I think we in the sciences often teach the history of our subjects rather badly, typically by passing along a caricature of our history rather than anything viable. We don’t teach scientific writing very well, either, and given how much of our job is the production of the written word, that’s pretty amazingly bad. But canonization and bibliolatry don’t sit well with me, either.

P.S. One of the past topics for an “Area Comp” exam (a weeklong written and verbal test taken after completing four courses) is “Intelligent Design.” Not knowing anything beyond the topic name, I hesitate to say more.