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A Great Books Quiz—And Further Reflections On The Great Books Idea

March 4, 2008

Thomas Mulligan, a professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, created a great books quiz. As all educators know, quizzes are as much tools of learning as of assessment. Taking the quiz, therefore, may excite in you—as it did me—an interest in reading some great books or authors mentioned therein. Question ten reminded me of how ignorant I am of Shakespeare’s works.

Professor Mulligan, a member of Brock’s Business School faculty, exemplifies an historical aspect of great books programs in that when he’s teaching in Brock’s great books curriculum, he’s scaling the walls of specialization to help build a common intellectual culture. I admire faculty like him who are willing to take risks. I feel, however, that this risk is minimal so long as one remains humble and sticks to what he/she knows.

What do I mean? You don’t become a faculty member without becoming a very good, if not excellent, reader. And historically, great books programs are about reading challenging books with the tools available to you. Even though Professor Mulligan is not an expert in classical civilizations or Early Modern England, he can nonetheless introduce undergraduates to reading great books with both joy and humility. He can lead them in appreciating what’s obviously artistic or linked to transcendent ideas without—and this is key—pretending to know it all.

I believe that many faculty object to teaching in great books program out of real humility. This is both understandable and admirable. But one can be confident without being pretentious. The goal of these programs is not to inculcate undergraduates with special historical or expert knowledge about great books. The goal to challenge them, to take them to the next level in their reading skills and understanding of the liberal arts. If one keeps the goals simple, I believe that great books programs can work anywhere.

My confidence in this aspect of great books programs is what sustains me amid debates about what constitutes a great book. Consequently, my view on criteria for determining a “great book” is pretty liberal:

– Does the book challenge you and others?
– Does it link with some larger ideas in the humanities—meaning does it have some intellectual gravitas?
– Is it artistic or aesthetically pleasing?

If a book meets these criteria, it’s probably a “great book.” I’m happy, therefore, to consider works as great that are outside the traditional definitions of the canon. – TL

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