Emphasizing Ancient, Christian, and Modern Authors
The above areas of inquiry and study are no doubt inexhaustible and in their fullness beyond the ken of all human beings at all times. Nonetheless, the greatest minds have probed with extraordinary intensity, concentration, and depth such questions and issues. In having done so, they have often come to radically opposed views and conveyed these views in writings that benefit and challenge their readers. It is possible, of course, that their disagreements or quarrels will be sources of disquietude for some. Happily, however, we can also look upon their differences as a fortunate invitation to examine the views of those who have claimed advanced wisdom and through such examinations to learn from and be inspired by them, arrive at qualified responses to them, and in some instances, reject them outright. Education then at a high level – the highest level – would surely include careful consideration of those views that are said or claim to be wisest. Doing all of this is undoubtedly the unfinishable work of a lifetime and can in fact only be done in ways and degrees allowed by circumstance, individual propensities, and personal abilities. So understood, an education in the great books at the college level comprising as careful an examination of claims or instantiations of wisdom emanating from history’s greatest minds as the college years allow would be a rare blessing. — Such an education would be an importantly, though not an exclusively, dialectical one: dialectical in the sense spoken of in Plato’s Republic. That is, an education largely focused upon giving and receiving accounts in friendly fashion. Great authors (theologians, philosophers, scientists, poets, historians, statesmen) in their individual ways give accounts of things. Classroom teachers, students, readers receive accounts of things. One could say that great authors are masters in the giving of accounts and that classroom teachers, good students, good readers strive (in accordance with ability and seriousness) to become adept at receiving accounts. — Receiving an account does not imply blind acceptance of or submission to an author’s vision of things. It rather entails very careful consideration of, sifting through, pondering, and re-pondering what an author says.
Additionally, receiving an account on the part of a student can often and should as much as possible involve or lead to a student’s own account of what an author says and of the issues themselves. The most important elements of such an education would then entail the following: turning one’s attention to the essential matters presented (explicitly or implicitly) by great authors; hearing and discussing what a classroom teacher and fellow students say about an author’s work and teaching, and formulating (however tentatively or provisionally) one’s own thoughts on the matter(s) thereby addressed.
Persuaded as we are of the crucial historical and contemporary importance of the classical, Christian, and modern perspectives referred to above and of the need for a dialectical cast to education at its highest level, we judge that a significant portion of a great books curriculum should feature authors and texts which are among the most important and impactful of each of the perspectives. Moreover, it appears to us pedagogically advisable to allot two semesters of study and discussion to each perspective. Such an arrangement of courses would then feature in both semesters of the freshman year texts representative of classical thought. Such texts would include classical historians, poets, and philosophers. Subsequently, in the fall semester of the sophomore year, texts studied would be ones representative of Christian thought. More specifically, biblical texts and selected texts from the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In the spring semester of the sophomore year and in the fall semester of the junior year, those texts which feature different stages of modern thought are to be studied. And in keeping with our determination to devote two semester to each perspective, the spring semester of the junior year would comprise additional texts in Christian thought.
With students in this kind of educational experience having studied classical, Christian, and modern thought over a three-year period, it would be fitting as a kind of culminating experience in the senior year to select texts from one or more perspectives that bring to the forefront of students’ awareness issues and questions of critical importance in modern times and ones of immediate importance to students about to venture forth into today’s world. Among matters of major, if not urgent, importance in the preceding regards would be the following: 1) the meaning and importance of history and the idea of progress; 2) the nature, importance, and implications of modern science and technology; 3) virtue ethics and the discourse of rights; 4) the drama of atheistic humanism 5) love and marriage; 6) modernity in the vision of poets; 7) globalism, nationalism, and the limits of commerce. Texts selected for the senior year would be ones which articulate the views of great theologians, philosophers, poets, scientists, and historians as well as those of renowned contemporary scholars who have themselves been the beneficiaries of careful readings of great texts.
Among the important outcomes of the first three years of this program will be an enhanced student awareness of the wide range of matters addressed in the three main perspectives studied as well as the array of agreements and disagreements among them. Through such an experience students can rise to a comprehensive sense of the broad ranges of thought in Western civilization and thereby be exposed to the diverse articulations of the most important questions facing human beings of today, yesteryear, and future times. Such a host of considerations cannot but broaden and deepen participating students, lead them to greater thoughtfulness, a sense of goals high and low in human life, and a sober realism in the face of contemporary challenges. In important and timely ways, the educational experience described above will be especially helpful to students of faith and to those persons in their lives who do not share their faith. For, not only will Christian students draw from the deep well of Christian wisdom; they will also have encountered authorial views which have contributed to the emergence of a world variously predicated on the efforts of reason unassisted by Revelation and grace. Anyone who is part of this increasingly secular world would benefit from conversations with and examples from Christians who have a more than passing knowledge of the essence of matters Christian and who can convey when necessary or appropriate the simple and subtle truths of their religion. — In a related vein, it cannot but be profoundly helpful for non-believers to experience Christians who speak the language of reason and have developed an ability to join or dispute with them on matters that can be considered on exclusively rational grounds. For, while the assistance of grace and Revelation cannot be over-estimated, it would be an unfortunate under-estimation of the power and “grandeur of reason” (Benedict XVI, Regensburg Address) not to exercise it on matters of importance that Revelation does not explicitly or implicitly address. — In the final analysis, dialogue with the modern world and with modern human beings can only be enhanced by an articulate awareness of the character of modernity, its strengths and weaknesses, and a sober assessment of what some have called the “discontents” of modernity. Lastly, it almost goes without saying that the content and direction of an education conducive to these results differs considerably from and far surpasses a nostalgic yearning for the past or an inducement to seek refuge in the ideological enclaves of the day.