Great Books and Classical Education

Today, a new semester begins at Smith Prep. Coinciding as it does with the start of a new year, the beginning of our second semester is a fine time to reevaluate our work and reexamine our purpose. Our hope for faculty and students alike, refreshed by our time away, is that we resume our places in the classroom with a renewed desire and commitment to cultivate the life of the mind and to seek the face of God.

Among the most important means at our disposal for the cultivation of the life of the mind is the reading of Great Books. This semester, for example, our students will encounter the works of Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Dante and Dickens. We turn to these Great Books not because they are infallible or sacred; they are not. Indeed, at Smith Prep we prefer to speak of the “Great Conversation” rather than the “Great Books.” But these books, integral to the Great Conversation, are important to us because they have proven themselves to be indispensable to the life of mind and the heart. If we engage them with mind and heart, both will be enlarged and enriched. They are books whose depth and quality leave us better off for having wrestled with them.

In his recent discussion of the value of Great Books, “Winged Words: The Importance of Reading & Discussing Great Books,” Peter Kalkavage of St. John’s College had this to say:

Reading great books is vital for anyone who wishes to become a liberally educated human being. There is a great need these days—there has been for a long time now—for academic programs devoted to liberal education. Such programs are sprouting all over the nation, many of them at Christian colleges and universities. But an overwhelming trend toward the non-liberal persists. All too often we confuse education with professional training, genuine understanding with know-how, and learning with achievement on tests and with measurable results. The professions are, to be sure, necessary and noble—necessary because they minister to the demands, needs, and wellbeing of everyday life, noble because they inspire lives of achievement, service, and self-sacrifice. But human life is not co-extensive with professional life. There are also the lives we lead apart from our jobs and professions, the lives we lead in so far as we are human beings. It is this life, human life insofar as it is human, that liberal education seeks to cultivate and perfect.

Although it is not a college campus, Smith Prep is one of the “academic programs devoted to liberal education” that Kalkavage describes. Our view of classical education assumes the task of forming the whole person–not only the mind, but also the heart and the soul. It also assumes the importance of a community of learning. When we read together and discuss our reading in class, we become just such a community. And together, the books we read and our conversations about them, provide a context for the education of heart, mind, and soul.

As we begin the new year and the new semester, then, let us be encouraged in our reading, as students, teachers, and parents, by this reminder of the potential of a great book.

Great books do the following: they initiate us into the founding texts and ideas of our civilization; they aid our self-knowledge and help us to cultivate our freedom by making us critically aware of alternatives to our accustomed opinions and prejudices. Great books put our adult, professional lives in the context of human life as a whole and invite reflection on the limits of our professional knowledge. The winged words of great books fly into our souls and inspire imagination as well as critical thought regarding the deepest, most important questions of human life; they educate our feelings and desires and therefore have a powerful role to play in our moral education. In particular, they help to cultivate a taste and admiration for nobility—an intelligent appreciation of all things great, beautiful, rich in detail, and intelligently composed. Reading and discussing great books also prompts and refines our inner discourse, the conversation we have with ourselves. It thus shapes our character and our lives. And finally, some great books, the ones we most admire and love, are like ever-reliable friends who always have wise and wonderful things to say, and with whom we wrestle gladly and profitably. Thanks to these books especially, for several hours we feel no boredom, we forget every pain, and we fear neither poverty nor death.

We encourage you to read the rest of Kalkavage’s essay.

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