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Teaching Great Books: The Triage Approach
Teaching Great Books: The Triage Approach
Bruce Gans
Wilbur Wright College

Before discussing how to best teach the Great Books, two working principles must be presented.

One is that what really matters the most is not how to teach the Great Books but that they be taught in the first place. These are the texts that have proven over time to have had the greatest positive impact on civilization, on our understanding of human nature and the meaning of life. Better to do a mediocre job of presenting the best that has been thought and said than to do an outstanding job on the ephemeral and the superficial. The Great Books have a long tradition of being routinely and successfully taught because they have long been considered absolutely central. And the vital, central value of the Great Books means that the necessity of exposing students to these texts is more important than teaching the texts well, just as proverbial wisdom asserts that it is vital to have the experience of loving as a part of one’s life, even if the experience is a highly mixed one, than to have led one’s entire life with no experience of it whatsoever.

The second central fact is that from time out of mind the Great Books books were a liberal college education. The truth is that up until the past few decades, the concept of the Great Books had no widespread utility because these were the texts taught day in and day out at colleges and universities across the country. Because no one doubted that these books should be taught - indeed must be taught - and could be offered effectively, there was no distinction between these books and the typical college curriculum reading lists. This state of affairs existed because - as will be discussed later - content matters. These books themselves matter.

The problem of how to best teach the Great Books, however, has arisen only over a recent past which has seen their systematic abandonment by college faculty and their consequent disappearance from college reading lists across the United States. For centuries, in other words, the Great Books were taught everywhere and in every possible way, just like all texts are taught today. They were taught well and poorly in lectures and seminars and everything in between. They were taught by the gifted and the ungifted. Students studied them in depth in huge lecture halls with several hundred students whose teacher never learned their names, and they struggled with them in conferences during office hours by a professor who was concerned about the possibility of a student failing the class.

Advocates of the shared inquiry method insist that the method itself is what matters, and not the Great Books themselves. Their position is that if the text inspires what can be loosely defined as deep discussion about timeless issues, then whether one is discussing a Great Book or not is irrelevant.

This essay, as is already clear, and as will be argued in greater detail further on, argues that shared inquiry advocates have it exactly backward, that especially for culturally deprived minority and non-traditional community college students taking core undergraduate courses, reading the Great Books is a pedagogical matter of life and death.

Further, this author would argue that in fact there is no one way or best way to communicate the Great Books to students, nor have these texts in the past ever come with the pedagogical equivalent of strict and complex operating instructions.

Indeed, if you are Professor Bart Ehrman, your recorded lectures on the New Testament are more fascinating and enlightening and electrifying than any seminar discussion can hope to be. If you are Professor Mortimer Adler, your shared inquiry group discussions on the Great Books texts are more fascinating and enlightening and electrifying than any straight lecture can possibly be. Who you are and what you are best at is therefore a central guidepost for the approach one adopts.

For our purposes, therefore, the question of how to teach the Great Books on a National Great Books Curriculum Academic Community web site arises on the basis of two issues.

The first is a factor that often prevents community college faculty from offering Great Books texts: namely, that these works often contain a wide and unfamiliar vocabulary, and ideas that are comparatively complex and which require greater concentration and assistance to grasp. They often also contain cultural and historical references with which students will be unfamiliar. Students for these reasons may come to class complaining that they "did not get" the reading, that it was "too hard," that their incomprehension (they will not make this connection naturally) made them feel the reading selection was "boring" and "badly written." Some students may even give up and not complete the assignment.

The practical answers to getting students to simply do the homework are more numerous than any one professor has decided upon. In fact, practically every one of the roughly thirty curricular modules offered elsewhere on the web site contains its own set of strategies, and it would be redundant to discuss them in detail here.

But the honest truth is that in order to look out for students’ best interests and to provide faculty themselves with a curriculum that will nurture their own growth, one has a moral obligation to present the most profound and universal materials and to do the hard work with students that will produce the most highly educated, enlightened, enriched people.

One does not, after all, take the path of least resistance and make no effort to teach one’s own children right from wrong by refusing unreasonable wishes and demands and outbursts on their part - because they will be turned off by such behavior and will unpleasantly express their frustrations and dissatisfaction with you. The profundity of the enterprise makes a conscientious parent gladly take on the burden of a moral obligation to raise a child who can tolerate the inevitable frustrations of being a human being among others in society, while living a life of integrity.

And is it not deeply gratifying to know that one is doing the "heavy lifting," as one former colleague put it, of enabling students who need lots and lots of patient help to master, even partially, not merely meaningful skills but highly meaningful knowledge - especially if students are unable to do it effectively without your hard work added to their own? Arguably, the teaching of such materials is the one special thing a student comes to college to get from you, for you have very little to teach him or her about popular culture.

And lastly, what is so terrible about requiring hard work? Since when is working hard something that is only to be expected outside the classroom where a student is presumably engaged in something that really matters, like earning a living or going to the gym to slim down?

This does not mean that there are not some Great Books whose complexity - or obscurity of language, or density of historical allusion, or heavy reliance on technical terms - outweighs the benefits a community college student can extract from examining the text’s ideas and themes. Assigning excerpts of Edmund Burke’s magnificent "Letter to a Noble Lord" was one example of this. This text was assigned to expose students in a standard composition class to Burke’s magnificent use of irony, pathos, ethical appeals, and comparison and contrast as rhetorical techniques, but one instead found oneself spending far too much class time helping students understand the text by explaining the Reformation and the relations of King Henry VIII to the Catholic Church, not to mention the extensive paraphrasing of Burke’s wonderful Augustan prose. Though appropriate for a literature class, this text was too much for a composition class. For the same reason, one would not, for example, assign Hegel in a composition class.

On the other hand, how to best teach the Great Books in a community college is directly connected to how many different forms of central usefulness a Great Books text can have for minority and non-traditional students.

Let us look at two extremes for the answers which this practitioner would offer. One extreme would be the straight lecture - a faculty member reading prepared notes at a podium uninterruptedly for an entire class period over a sixteen-week semester. No discussion, only monologue. In practice this method is not much used in community colleges because, among other reasons, even the largest classes comprise no more than three to four dozen students, so that some form of discussion is always feasible, unlike a lecture hall that contains a couple hundred students. Also, the straight lecture method is actively discouraged by departments and deans at community colleges, where it is assumed to be retrograde and ineffective.

That aside, the problem with presenting the Great Books through a lecture is that minority and non-traditional community college students are thereby given access to only one narrow dimension of a Great Books text. That is, the book is presented as a sequence of facts - the place it occupies in intellectual and social history; the biography of the work’s author; the connection between the author’s psychological conflicts and life experiences and the ideas the book contains; the historical milieu in which the book appeared; the immediate problems it identified or the solutions it stimulated; the various interpretations by critics of its central ideas; and so on.

Interesting as these can be and beautiful as the mosaic of civilization evolving over time comes to seem through years of study, these are secondary to the ideas, the insights, and often the very prose of a Great Books author, all of which contribute to the central reason for reading the book in college. For it is primarily through directly attempting to work up an understanding of the book’s insights and deduce the consequences of its precepts for one’s own life and understanding of human nature and society; and through seeing both the strengths and shortcomings in the work’s logic and views, that a student is truly enlightened and enriched, broadened and deepened. The student is prodded into becoming a more proficient and motivated thinker, is changed by the new conclusions he or she comes to, and is initiated into a greater examination of his or her life, and hence into making it richer and more worth living. And this work is most effectively done through the direct and active involvement of the student, which of necessity takes place through classroom discussions.

It would be a critical error, however, to assume from the above that there is no room for any lecturing at all or the presentation of the knowledge, the cultural literacy, that lectures focus on.

This can best be seen by analyzing the strict rules and philosophy of the shared inquiry method. For the shared inquiry method stipulates that only the ideas in a text are important, and that the discussion of background information about the civilization that produced the work or the author who composed it, or the social or philosophical conflicts of its era, or the major events and movements surrounding the text at its first appearance, are all to be strictly avoided in any classroom discussion concerning it.

Shared inquiry also takes the position that a professor is not to be considered an expert in the books being discussed, but only one participant among equals.

The problems with this second stricture are readily apparent. Look back on your own education to the two best classes you ever took. Who comes instantly to mind? The teacher who conducted it, or your fellow student discussants? Look back on your entire education. Who had the most to teach you? Your teachers or your schoolmates? When you had to choose a college, what was the more important consideration - the faculty or the students? When you get right down to it, in fact, why would anyone go to college if they could get just as much and more from organizing a discussion group with fellow post-adolescents who all agree to follow the rules of among themselves of the shared inquiry method? Surely this is a pertinent question. Why, for that matter, should a faculty member master a discipline like literature or the history of philosophy or psychology if one is never supposed to share this erudition and the facts of the field during discussions with students in the classroom?

To be fair, the reason for this rule of shared inquiry is to promote open-minded discussion and independent inner dialogue, which it is felt would be stifled were students passively waiting for the anointed, degreed, tenured authority to speak ex cathedra on all textual matters. Indeed, the goals of shared inquiry are central to training students in reading accurately and carefully, in thinking with greater analytical skill, and in applying the text’s ideas in concrete and personal ways. This is done by using a discussion method that examines a text in a cooperative group effort to ascertain what the text actually says, to accurately interpret its ideas and evaluate their soundness.

According to irrefutable amounts of student verbal and written testimony, being listened to, being responded to, actively agreeing or disagreeing with other students, and being enlightened by others’ insights produces a deeply satisfying and enriching engagement with texts and their ideas.

That said, however, students today, just as when we were students, find it enlightening and exciting to learn about the history surrounding the ideas and authors they are studying. They find it helpful to have explained to them the allusions made to people and events in the text, and are aided by a teacher who is able to offer an informed interpretation of the text while, needless to say, making it clear that differing interpretations by students are valid and welcome.

For texts, after all, are primarily the ideas they contain, but they are not only that, any more than a person is only his manner of interacting with others.

Let’s take Oedipus Rex as an example. One of the main themes - or ideas, if you will - of this play is the dichotomy between visible and concealed truth, between common sense and mysterious deeper realities, symbolized by visual sight as opposed to insight, the will of man and the will of the gods.

However, there are other facets associated with this play that students ought to be educated about because it increases their cultural literacy, and reveals important truths about human nature; it prepares students for studies in other branches of a liberal education like psychology, anthropology, and history, and it contributes a tiny piece to a mosaic of understanding of the human enterprise over millennia - an enterprise that years of reading can reveal to be a mountain range of human achievements, a panorama of mankind that is awe-inspiring and sublime. And in addition to all this, there are many aspects associated with this play that are just plain fascinating, and which students are not going to have an opportunity to learn without a knowledgeable teacher enthusiastically telling them about it.

For example, students ought to be told about how the Greeks evolved drama out of what were originally religious services, and about drama’s profound roots in the metaphysical and existential needs of mankind. They need to be told how unique and important was the discovery the Greeks made of exploring their religious myths as stories about the human condition, with its central emphasis on psychology, on social commentary, on the allegorical treatment of political criticism. Students need to be informed that Oedipus has been interpreted by some as Sophocles’ warning to his Athenian audience about the new secular learning, with its belief in the unlimited powers of the human intellect, and about the consequences of severing earlier adherence to religious strictures. Students need to be told that Freud used the myth of Oedipus to describe an important stage in early childhood development.

Given this, why would a teacher presenting the Great Books want to adhere to a shared inquiry injunction that none of this information - which is of secondary importance to the task at hand but is nevertheless of the first importance - be permitted into the discussion? This author, for example, has over the years found this information increasingly beautiful, and interesting, and worth sharing with students. Of course, one hastens to place this in perspective. The information is supplementary and normally is presented verbally. It is not the focus of the classwork, nor is it provided in the form of a lengthy list of assigned supplementary readings.

But it is presented because - and this cannot be too greatly emphasized - content matters. These texts are not valuable primarily - as shared inquiry would argue - because of their usefulness in inspiring discussion. One can inspire discussion by passing around pictures of a grisly murder taken at a crime scene.

These texts have inestimable value as monuments and as monumental achievements in human civilization. The Bible contains poetry of overwhelming power and beauty and raises important questions about the meaning of life and the question of suffering in such books as Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Job, and Lamentations. Quite apart from whether one accepts a single syllable of its theology, the Bible is also a central and fascinating work to study in college because of its key contribution to Western civilization, and because of riveting historical inquiries and discoveries that have been made about its sources and authors over the past 150 fifty years. It is a book, selections of which a liberally educated person out to have read.

A knowledge of Greek mythology and of the major figures and events in the Bible make it immensely easier to read Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, and many other central thinkers. This does not mean that the Great Books are the only books worthy of study in college. But it does mean that these texts have an indispensable role to play at the core of college courses in the humanities.

To be fair, shared inquiry advocates argue that there must always be a first reading of a great text, and during a first reading of Plato’s Apology a student will have all he can do to get the accusations and refutations straight, without keeping in mind the political and social background that erupted in the unjust charges that led to Socrates’ martyrdom. On the other hand, students’ best interests are served by making them aware, if only dimly, that these factors existed, that the Athenians, like people today, expressed their anger at someone like Socrates, whom they saw as the ally of an oppressive and anti-democratic aristocratic ruling class, and as an exemplar of someone who subverted the allegiance of the youth to the absolutism of parental authority and the old religious beliefs and customs. (For it is not pleasant even today to send one’s children off to college and have them return home to mock the religious beliefs and values in which they were raised, and in which their own parents find sustenance and adherence.) And the Athenians killed the man who so angered them over his role in this.

But there is another reason why a faculty member needs to take a more active part in class discussions. All students come to college in various conditions of cultural illiteracy and with untrained intellects, which is fine, since remedying these deficits and inculcating these skills is a prime job of the college faculty, and a prime reason that students pay a king’s ransom to get a college education.

In practice, what class discussion means is that students come to class with some frequency, and that they begin discussing a text in universal agreement without realizing that their analysis is fantastically incorrect. For example, this universally occurs (in this author’s two decades of classroom experience) when one assigns Swift’s "Modest Proposal" as take-home reading. Students return to class nauseated that their professor would assign an essay advocating cannibalism. Some students report that their parents are also up in arms after they were told what their children have them read. They are joined by others who feel that the assignment to read "A Modest Proposal" has opened their eyes to what a sociopath, a psychotic, a wacko has been conducting their instruction all this time.

The only way to skip these reactions is to explain to students before they read the text that Swift is being ironic - a step that is the exact opposite of everything the shared inquiry approach insists upon. Such a suggestion makes the students’ initial reading profitable instead of counterproductive.

To conclude, then, teaching the Great Books in a community college setting is done by this author by encouraging discussion through close reading of a text, and pointing out grossly inaccurate interpretations, while being careful never to insist that one’s own interpretation is a divine truth. Further involvement takes the from of actively paraphrasing difficult passages and doing emergency surgery on students’ cultural illiteracy by offering concise explanation of historical allusions and conditions surrounding the text and its author. This will hopefully plant a seed that will make the next mention of that era or author a bit more familiar when the students are required to study them in a subsequent class, or when they bump into them in a bookstore, or a television program, or an ad for a play opening in town.

For it is useful to have students discuss whether Machiavelli is right or wrong as he argues in The Prince that it is better to be feared than loved, but it is also useful to let students know that Machiavelli himself, the original author of realpolitik, was himself imprisoned and tortured and never gained any significant or lasting political power himself - this too is an interesting basis for contemplating such questions as the role of fate, character, and insight in the outcome of political fortune and how one’s own life often turns out.

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