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Great Books And The ALSC: The Historian’s Perspective

October 24, 2007

Some time ago Bruce Gans, English professor at Wright College in Chicago, invited me to contribute to a panel discussion on teaching the great books. The setting would be the annual meeting of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. Since the meeting location was Chicago, at the Hotel Allegro, my acceptance was basically a foregone conclusion. Who can turn down a conference panel invitation on one’s dissertation topic—and essentially in one’s backyard? My pre-circulated ALSC paper touched on the question of text or context in great books settings.

Of course October 13 has passed. I can say minimally, in retrospect, that the panel was a clear success in terms of attendance and breadth of topics covered. About 15 people contributed papers for the session. Another 30-40 audience members filled the room. Contributors came from across the nation: California, Connecticut, Texas, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and of course Illinois. And while the panel was initiated by a white, middle-aged male (my apologies, Bruce!), participants and the audience included a few students, considerably more men than women, and—must I say it?—some people of color. The ALSC did not require that we declare our politics on badges, but the sense in the room was that liberal, moderate, and conservative perspectives were present. Diversity was not really a problem.

We discussed umbrella issues and case studies related to the teaching of particular great books. Larger themes explored, in addition to mine, included administrative support for programs, reader response, religion, student populations (urban v. rural), great books in community college versus four-year settings, and relating great books to first-year student seminars. Case studies included authors and books such as Augustine’s Confessions, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Emily Dickinson, Herodotus, Proust, Joyce, Melville’s Moby Dick, and, for mine, Chicago-area authors and works.

But my key criterion for calling the panel a success was participant energy. The hard questions raised and complex answers offered, from both the panelists and the audience, generated a lot of attention from the room. Cliches and ideological responses were no part of the climate. A tough topic for the panel was reconciling multicultural expectations with traditional ideas about the great books. But no one dismissed this reconciliation as impossible, or as an unworthy goal. To be sure, there were different emphases in the papers and in questions from respondents, but everyone seemed intent on preserving the good inherent in the great books idea—and what that might mean for higher education. If this panel is even partially indicative of sentiment across the nation, then the great books are clearly not a dead topic in academia.

Returning to Bruce Gans, I first came to know him through my dissertation research on the great books idea. I noticed his name in Chicago Tribune and New York Times articles, around 1999-2000, on using the great books at Wright College (a campus in the City Colleges of Chicago system). From there we began an on-again, off-again e-mail conversation about his interest in, and use of, the great books.

After years of conversation Bruce’s confidence in me resulted in my contributing materials for his NEH and Department of Education-funded website, National Great Books Curriculum: Academic Community. For the site I wrote a background essay titled “A Brief History of the Great Books Idea,” and contributed a teaching module (a .pdf) on working the great books into post-Civil War U.S. survey courses. Neither of my efforts are spotless. My thoughts were still growing on the history of the great book idea, and some editing corrections were inadvertently not incorporated. But apart from my contributions, the site on the whole represents a step forward in making the great books usable to today’s educators.

As far as I know, there are no plans to bring together the panel’s papers into a single publication. I could see such a document, in conjunction with Gans’s National Great Books Curriculum site, as being a useful introduction for educators interested in starting, or maintaining, great books programs.

In the end I was pleased to be a part of the ALSC’s event. It was nice to see a subject I had labored on, in relative obscurity, as a very alive entity in the world of education. The great books idea clearly still matters to a diverse group of dedicated educators. – TL

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