"Reading the great books takes a lot of effort. Studying masterpieces such as the Odyssey or the works of Shakespeare requires more concentration than picking up a Tom Clancy novel. But, the payoffs can be tremendous." This post from Self Made Scholar, a blog about self-education, gives 10 reasons reading the Great Books can improve your life.
Quotes on Great Books Programs
"And shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up?
Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorised ones only. Let them fashion the mind with such tales, even more fondly than they mould the body with their hands; but most of those which are now in use must be discarded."
"When, by these gentle ways he begins to be able to read, some easy pleasant book, suited to his capacity, should be put into his hands, wherein the entertainment, that he finds, might draw him on, and reward his pains in reading; and yet not such as should fill his head with perfectly useless trumpery, or lay the principles of vice and folly.
What other books there are in English of the kind of those above mentioned, fit to engage the liking of children, and tempt them to read, I do not know; but am apt to think, that children, being generally delivered over to the method of schools, where the fear of the rod is to inforce, and not any pleasure of the employment to invite, them to learn; this sort of useful books, amongst the number of silly ones that are of all sorts, have yet had the fate to be neglected; and nothing that I know has been considered of this kind out of the ordinary road of the horn-book, primer, psalter, Testament, and Bible."
“As to their STUDIES, it would be well if they could be taught every Thing that is useful, and every Thing that is ornamental: But Art is long, and their Time is short. It is therefore propos’d that they learn those Things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental. …
The English Language might be taught by Grammar; … in which some of our best Writers, as Tillotson, Addison, Pope, Algernoon Sidney, Cato’s Letters, &c. should be Classicks: The Styles principally to be cultivated, being the clear and the concise. Reading should also be taught, and pronouncing, properly, distinctly, emphatically; not with an even Tone, which under-does, nor a theatrical, which over-does Nature.”
"A little attention however to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. That they are pleasant when well written every person feels who reads. But wherein is its utility asks the reverend sage, big with the notion that nothing can be useful but the learned lumber of Greek and Roman reading with which his head is stored?
I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue."
“In this branch [moral philosophy], therefore, read good books, because they will encourage, as well as direct your feelings. The writings of Sterne, particularly, form the best course of morality that ever was written. Besides these, read the books mentioned in the enclosed paper….
Read the Bible, then as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor, in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature, does not weigh against them. But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates."
"A part of my occupation, and by no means the least pleasing, is the direction of the studies of such young men as ask it. They place themselves in the neighboring village and have the use of my library and counsel, and make a part of my society. In advising the course of their reading, I endeavor to keep their attention fixed on the main objects of all science, the freedom and happiness of man. So that coming to bear a share in the councils and government of their country, they will keep ever in view the sole objects of all legitimate government."
"A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life. This mass of trash, however, is not without some distinction; some few modelling their narratives, although fictitious, on the incidents of real life, have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of a sound morality. Such, I think, are Marmontel’s new moral tales, but not his old ones, which are really immoral. Such are the writings of Miss Edgeworth, and some of those of Madame Genlis. For a like reason, too, much poetry should not be indulged. Some is useful for forming style and taste. Pope, Dryden, Thompson, Shakspeare, and of the French, Molière, Racine, the Corneilles, may be read with pleasure and improvement."
"I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece & Rome have left us. Epictetus indeed has given us what was good of the Stoics; all beyond, of their [doctrines] dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. The merit of his philosophy is in the beauties of his style. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms, uncomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention. These they furthered blasphemously on him whom they claimed as their founder, but who would disarm them, with the indignation which their caricatures of his religion so justly excite."
“The constant appeal of President Hutchins to Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas urgently calls for a very different interpretation from that which is given it. Their work is significant precisely because it does not represent withdrawal from the science and social affairs of their own times. On the contrary, each of them represents a genuine and profound attempt to discover and present in organized form the meaning of the science and the institutions that existed in their historic periods. The real conclusion to be drawn is that the task of higher learning at present is to accomplish a similar work for the confused and disordered conditions of our own day. The sciences have changed enormously since these men performed their task, both in logical method and in results. We live in a different social medium. It is astounding that anyone should suppose that a return to the conceptions and methods of these writers would do for the present situation what they did for the Greek and Medieval eras. The cure for surrender of higher learning to immediate and transitory pressures is not monastic seclusion. Higher learning can become intellectually vital only by coming to that close grip with our contemporary science and contemporary social affairs which Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas exemplify in their respective ways."
"Why, indeed, should a liberal arts college prescribe an identical course of study for four years for everybody independently of prior preparation and varying capacities, interests and special needs as these are revealed in the processes of instruction? The argument most often advanced for it contains a palpable fallacy. Mark van Doren, whose book is primarily a defense of the St. John's program, writes: 'If liberal education is, it is the same for everybody; the training it requires, in addition to being formal, should be homogeneous through four years — if the best is known, there is no student whom it will not fit, and each should have all of it.' What this says is that if we know what the end of education should be, then the means in every case must be the same no matter how different the individuals whom we are to educate. This is like saying that, since the aim of medicine is to produce health for everybody, if the best diet is known there is no individual whom it will not fit, and each should have all of it. In medicine an argument of this kind is an unfailing mark of a quack. From the truth that medicine has common end for everybody it does not follow that there is a common means of achieving it independently of whether a person has diabetes or leukemia, is thin or fat."
"Why are all great books and the great ideas the indispensable substance of a lifetime of learning? The great books are great because they are inexhaustibly rereadable, as few books are. Not all of them fulfill this high expectation. But many of them do; as, for example, the fifteen authors one would take to a comfortable island if one could take only fifteen authors to read over and over again in fifteen years. But the others, less great than that, approximate this high ideal of inexhaustible rereadability, or of being studiable over and over again. The great ideas--the 102 that are treated in the Syntopicon--deal with all the basic issues and problems that human beings confront when they think about the world in which they live, themselves, and their society. They are the ideas that all of us have to think about and think with. Without any understanding of them, we have no purchase on the wisdom all of us should seek."
"Exclusive preference for either the past or the present is a foolish and wasteful form of snobbishness and provinciality. We must seek what is most worthy in the works of both the past and the present. When we do that, we find that ancient poets, prophets, and philosophers are as much our contemporaries in the world of the mind as the most discerning of present-day writers. In fact, many of the ancient writings speak more directly to our experience and condition than the latest best sellers."
"…the end of great books is ethical—to teach us what it means to be genuinely human.
Every major form of literary art has taken for its deeper themes the norms of human nature. What Eliot calls 'the permanent things'—the norms, the standards—have been the concern of the poet ever since the time of Job, or ever since Homer: 'the blind man who sees,' sang of the wars of the gods with men. Until very recent years, men took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness—that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their place in the scheme of things. Such was the endeavor of Sophocles and Aristophanes, of Thucydides and Tacitus, of Plato and Cicero, of Hesiod and Vergil, of Dante and Shakespeare, of Dryden and Pope."
"This normative purpose of letters is especially powerful in English literature, which never succumbed to the egoism that came to dominate French letters at the end of the eighteenth century. The names of Milton, Bunyan, and Johnson—or, in America, of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville—may be sufficient illustrations of the point. The great popular novelists of the nineteenth century—Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope—all assumed that the writer is under a moral obligation to normality—that is, explicitly or implicitly, to certain enduring standards of private and public conduct."
"So I think it is worthwhile to suggest the outlines of the literary discipline which induces some understanding of enduring values. For centuries, such a program of reading though never called a program—existed in Western nations. It powerfully influenced the minds and actions of the leaders of the infant American Republic, for instance. If one pokes into what books were read by the leaders of the Revolution, the framers of the Constitution and the principal men of America before 1800, one finds that nearly all of them were acquainted with a few important books: the King James version of the Bible, Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare, something of Cicero, something of Vergil. This was a body of literature highly normative. The founders of the Republic thought of their new commonwealth as a blending of the Roman Republic with prescriptive English institutions; and they took for their models in leadership the prophets and kings and apostles of the Bible, and the noble Greeks and Romans of Plutarch. Cato’s stubborn virtue, Demosthenes' eloquent vaticinations, Cleomenes' rash reforming impulse—these were in their minds’ eyes; and they tempered their conduct accordingly."
"I have begun to wonder whether the experience of the greatest texts from early childhood is not a prerequisite for a concern throughout life for them and for lesser but important literature. The soul’s longing, its intolerable irritation under the constraints of the conditional and limited, may very well require encouragement at the outset. At all events, whatever the cause, our students have lost the practice of and the taste for reading."
“…I will claim unequivocally that 'great books' are a nineteenth-century invention, a product of the Victorian cultural climate. The Victorian age was intellectually and spiritually intoxicated by the greatness of great books, comforted by what F. D. Maurice (in the title lecture of a volume published in 1856) called 'The Friendship of Books' and Alexander Ireland called the 'solace and companionship of books' (in the subtitle of his Book-Lover's Enchiridion ), obsessed with the dangerous proliferation of bad books, and awash in advice never to settle for or to indulge in the second-rate, much less to permit oneself to indulge in a surfeit of journalistic ephemera. Thoreau put it punningly, 'Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.'… From this fascination with the virtue and power of books can be separated out agendas that taken together underlie our century's lingering, still often enraptured belief in 'great' books, what they are and what they can do. These underlying agendas are: 1) the religious or spiritual; 2) the educational or utilitarian; and 3) the evaluative or judgmental. It is evident that there is a very high degree of mutuality between them. Yet they are not identical. As in our modes of liberal education generally, we like to hope we are getting everything of value all together. But in so doing, we risk ending up with nothing very precise at all."
"Why is it important to teach literary understanding? It is through reading, thinking, and discussing literature that students find alternative ways to gain knowledge and solve problems. Through sharing of understandings they learn not only important content, but also cognitive, critical, and social strategies needed for success in academic courses, work, and life. Living through a literary experience involves exploring meanings, interpretations and perspectives while maintaining an openness to future possibilities."
"Junior Great Book's long history of success, its flexibility to replace or supplement the traditional reading program, and its extensive replication makes Junior Great Books a program to consider when seeking to improve students' critical and interpretive thinking skills using a text-based approach. The program integrates reading and writing with the study of rich literature and contributes to improving students' reading comprehension vocabulary, writing, and critical thinking skills. Access to local trainers, use of engaging literature, flexibility of use, and its proven success contribute to the notoriety of this long-standing professional development program."
"The great books model is truly a liberal education. It is an interdisciplinary approach. Its proponents argue 'the segregation of knowledge into discrete disciplines introduces artificial divisions in the understanding of reality and the pursuit of knowledge'…. This model is based entirely upon a group of about 100 prescribed books, with no electives and no specialization. The aim is to raise 'questions central to human existence' and 'confront students with the fundamental questions of life, questions that have and will continue to preoccupy and perplex humanity at all times and in all places'…. Students learn through careful reading and rigorous discussion of the classic texts themselves 'rather than the study of textbooks that repackage the insights of the classical authors'…."
"What then do today’s learners gain by studying the Great Books, the great works of the West and the world in general? For starters, they encounter excellence and permanent, universal values. Even if the excellence of a particular work is not appreciated, readers sharpen their understanding of what they believe excellence to be. While objective criteria, or standards, do exist in art and literature, the Great Books can support a more subjective, diverse view of culture - so long as excellence is the aspiration. Permanent, universal values must be encountered in the context of the promotion of a common good, a common culture."
"The Great Books, of course, have been much derided and slandered in recent years. Significantly, there has yet to be any attack that I am aware of that is made on the only legitimate basis I see for an attack. Namely, that the Great Books—that Aristotle, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Joyce, and the others—are worthless, second-rate, or just dumb. It is a perennial matter of amazement to me that the attacks are on grounds so ludicrous that their advocates cannot see just how foolish and philistine they appear to be."
"An education in the Great Books is a potpourri of conflicting views, a set of strongly articulated arguments that continuously strive to refute other views that purportedly comprise a single 'tradition.' The 'Western tradition' is a ferocious and ongoing set of disagreements about the most basic human beliefs."
"The great books connect us with the past because they invite us to listen to and participate in the great conversations of the ages. 'Great books of every civilization,' says Thoreau, 'are the voices of human experience and as such worth reading and pondering.' They are a form of travel in time and space, allowing us to experience vicariously what others have thought, felt, and even seen. They enlarge our perspectives and strip us of our provincialism. They can free us from our self-imposed nonage and transform us, as Candide was transformed in Voltaire's story, a modern version of Plato's Allegory of the Cave."
"NAS identified five problems in U.S. society that are amplified when colleges limit students’ exposure to good books:
1. An inability to distinguish 'the truth' from 'my truth'
2. A tendency to ignore aspects of the world that fall outside the bounds of race, class, and gender
3. A shallow understanding of the human heart
4. A lack of humility and willingness to learn
5. A sense of resentment toward those who are prosperous"
"While the Marxists marched, another revolution was roiling campus in the 1930s: what the Maroon called 'the war between facts and ideas.' According to Ashley, President Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, professor of law, championed 'ideas': a classical education based on reading and discussing influential texts. Other faculty joined Anton Carlson, professor of physiology, in advocating the pragmatic, fact-based approach to learning of John Dewey.
To put their ideas into practice, Hutchins and Adler in 1931 set up the honors seminar that would become famous: The Great Books of the Western World. Ashley’s good grades earned him admission in the fall of his second year. At a clip of a book a week, students read St. Augustine, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Gustave Flaubert, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and more. Both Adler and Hutchins liked to ask hard questions, Ashley remembers. 'If you gave an answer, then they would ask another question, and another question, and another question, driving you up the wall. You had to fight back with your reasons, and if you saw you were wrong, you had to admit you were wrong and move on.' Adler’s classroom style was almost prosecutorial, and he grew heated as he grilled the students. Then Hutchins would step in, 'very handsome, cool, devastatingly witty,' and question in a more removed, ironic style."