Tuesday, May 06, 2008

You Can't Keep Great Books Down

Jane Shaw reports on the conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses, which promotes the teaching of the classics of Western literature and thought. A story by Professor Marcia Marzac from the University of St. Francis illustrates the power of teaching these challenging works at length:
Initially, this class introduced “classic Western thought” through a series of excerpts from an anthology. Three weeks on Greek culture, for example, included selections from Homer, Aeschylus, Herodotus, and at least four others.

But students hated the course. Evaluations were “abysmal,” said Marzec; the class was “boring,” “confusing,” “disconnected,” and “too hard.”

So they redesigned it. They stopped reading excerpts and chose 10 complete texts, ranging in time from the Sumerian Myth of
Gilgamesh to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.

They organized the works around the theme of the “good life.” Instead of beginning the course with a classic, however, they asked the students to write informal essays on how they define happiness, after reading a short modern essay on the topic. Class discussion introduced the issues that would dominate the course — “happiness, joy, free will, evil, and suffering,” as Marzec summarized them.

The class, said Marzec, became a “phenomenal success.” Complaints dried up. The students read as much or more as previously, but it was no longer too much or too hard. Their discussions related one work to another. The most popular book was the relatively obscure
Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. “I was on the wheel of fortune in my own life until we read Boethius and Chaucer,” wrote one student in an evaluation.

In other words, this redesigned course, relying on complete works, not snippets, and organized around a theme that connects with the interests of today’s teen-agers, became a hit.

This demonstrates that "difficult" books by the proverbial "dead white males" can be made relevant to modern students without dissolving into trendy nonsense and anachronistic reinterpretation. That's one of the things that makes them classic -- they grapple with the universal experience of the souls of men, and they speak to us because circumstances change but humanity doesn't.

By the way, the great books program at Southeastern College at Wake Forest is a local example of this sort of thing.

No comments: