As students challenge the status quo of academic requirements at the University, one LSA Honors Program requirement is hardly unchanged since the program’s founding in 1947.
Freshmen in the Honors Program were, up until Fall 2014, required to take Great Books. Although that requirement has since altered slightly, Great Books remains one of the few options, and, at about 200 students, it remains the most popular Honors course, according to History Prof. Sara Forsdyke, former director of the Interdepartmental Program in Greek and Roman History. The reading list for the class is composed of Greco-Roman literature and excerpts from the Bible.
One Honors newsletter from 2007, the 50th anniversary of the Honors Program, notes, “The founders of Honors wanted a course that would allow students to immerse themselves in the study of a significant culture, and classical Greece seemed the obvious choice.”
However, some scholars say this choice shouldn’t be so instinctive, especially as the University pledges to prepare its students for an increasingly global society.
Microcosm of an ongoing debate
Debates on increasing the diversity of university’s curricula grew in the early 1990s, when the term “dead white European male” was coined. Students and scholars alike began to question why their social science and humanities courses contained only the experiences of white men from bygone eras. These activists wanted to amplify the voices of women and those outside white European and American heritage.
Critics of that movement claimed that Greco-Roman literature retained its significance. They praised the Greeks’ innovations in areas such as politics, science and rhetoric, sometimes with a tinge of annoyance toward what they perceived to be political correctness.
Few elite schools today require Great Books courses, which were developed at Columbia University and the University of Chicago in the 1920s. At Chicago, Greek Thought and Literature remains one of the eight options for undergraduate students to fulfill the requisite humanities course sequence. But world literature and open-ended topics such as “Language and the Human” are also applicable.
The University of Notre Dame has a more traditional Great Books course for students in its Program of Liberal Studies. Save for readings from Confucius, Bhagavad Gita and Black American author Ralph Ellison, the sequence is dominated by European perspectives.
But Notre Dame’s Liberal Studies program professes a much different task than our diversity-focused University: it is “anchored in the Western and Catholic traditions,” according to their website. The LSA Honors Program, on the other hand, pictures itself a “vibrant community,” emphasizing inclusion: “There’s something for everyone and all are invited.”
Why are these books so great, anyway?
While Great Books courses occasionally include upper-level courses on contemporary European, Iberian or Japanese literature, the core Great Books 191 and 192 courses for freshmen require students to read and analyze Greek and Roman texts and the Bible, as well as 13th- and 14th-century Italian literature. Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Saint Augustine, Dante and others are among authors read in these courses.
Professors both within and outside the Classics Department acknowledged the need for students to receive a comprehensive background in literature from across the globe. But they disagree about how Great Books could or should achieve that.
While some scholars say works from China, Africa, India and elsewhere should be read alongside the Roman classics, Classical Studies Prof. Ruth Scodel, who teaches a Great Books course, felt it is unrealistic to expect one course to comprehensively explore multiple cultures and literatures.
“Everyone should read books from around the world,” Scodel said. “One thing I like about the books in this course is that they’re good training to read them.”
She added that the books in the Great Books course relate to each other in a way that readings from multiple cultures and time periods might not. The focus also allows first-year students with varying backgrounds in high school English courses to explore familiar yet challenging texts together.
“I really did enjoy it, it was new for me,” University alum Bryan Frederick said, who graduated earlier this month. “I had never read the Bible from academic perspective. I got a kick out of it; it was new, different and intriguing.”
Xiaobing Tang, Helmut F. Stern professor of modern Chinese studies and comparative literature, felt differently. His courses focus on an idea, rather than a time period or culture.
“I do not think a literature course should become a substitute for a history class, in which you learn … to regard a canonical text as representing an entire culture or tradition,” Tang said. “Rather, I think a literature course should be where we experience what literature is and what it can do.”
Tang teaches a course called Tales of Youth, with novels “from different traditions and historical moments, all (dealing) with the experience of being young and youthful.” The authors include Jane Austen, Alexander Pushkin, Natsume Soseki, Tayeb Salih and Sylvia Plath.
Scodel addresses the issues of a Eurocentric canon in her course. The first reading for Scodel’s Great Books course questions “what makes a great book great.”
“It did really assume that we know what the ‘great books’ are and that all we have to do is bring people in contact with these ‘great books’ and they will be enlightened,” Scodel said. “Canons are created under various political pressures, but on the other hand they do have some validity simply because they’ve been there for a while.”
Scodel said she asks international students what books they consider to be most important in their culture. In the United States, she noted, references to the Bible, the Iliad and Dante’s Inferno pepper modern novels and paintings in art museums.
Along with her concerns about keeping the course unified under one cultural background, Scodel said these books are important to read because they are the building blocks of Western civilization.
“If we stopped reading Homer, a chunk of our past would just be gone. An enormously valuable chunk,” Scodel said. “We don’t anymore think it’s better than anything else. You don’t have to think that your country is best country in the world to have relationship with your country that we don’t have with other countries. That’s sort of my attitude towards our literary history, it’s ours.”
Scodel emphasized that the Great Books reading list does not seek to imply that other cultures’ literature is poorer in quality than that of the Greco-Roman tradition. She said because the University is American and Western, students ought to read the building blocks of Western texts.
“I don’t see any problem with accepting that the lists of core things you want to read is different if you’re in the U.S. or Japan or Zimbabwe,” Scodel said. “That’s the sort of dominant culture.”
University students may, in fact, trace their heritage to Japan or Zimbabwe rather than Rome. But Forsdyke said even modern texts are engaged with the classics. A pilot course within the Classics Department in the Fall 2015 semester will explore connections between the classics and African-American literature.
“Sometimes the perspective on classics is that it’s backwards, old-fashioned and closed, that it puts these Greeks on a pedestal,” Forsdyke said. “But I think a fresh look at classics is that in my department is that many of us are engaged with modern literature.”
Xiomara Santamarina, who is an associate professor in the English, American Studies and Afroamerican and African Studies departments, studies African-American autobiographies and slave narratives. She affirmed that writers from different backgrounds read and are influenced by the dead white European men.
Nonetheless, she said she finds the Great Books reading list to be “something from the early 20th century.”
“In its concept, it (the course) is valuable, but it appears to me very limiting and especially in a globalizing world to know nothing about the Far East or other regions is pretty myopic,” Santamarina said.
Santamarina said she was surprised that the course did not include, for instance, the West African “Epic of Sundiata” or Chinese classics. She said the course appeared out of touch with the globalizing world.
“There is no question that the texts included in the Great Books curriculum are important cultural and historical texts, and students ought to be familiar with them,” Tang said. “At the same time, we also know there are many other classics from different traditions.”
Scodel’s course does invoke other cultures. For instance, before teaching the Greek epics, she shows a video concerning Egyptian epics and their background.
“Most people don’t know that there’s a great epic tradition in Kyrgyz, Egyptian, Turkish and African literature,” Scodel said. “But it’s very hard to go from the standard kind of reading in American high school and read these works.”
On the whole, Forsdyke, who is currently chair of the Department of Classical Studies, said the Classics Department is interested in bringing ancient texts and ideas into dialogue with modern ones, so as to not be hopelessly mired in older traditions, but engage in essential modern debates. She teaches courses that explore topics such as rape and racism; such themes were likely missing from the 1920s traditions.
Still, hundreds of freshmen Honors students get their first taste of college through seeing a prescribed list of European men called the authors of “great books.”
LSA junior Noah Betman said his discussion section at the end of the course hosted a “venting session” for students to discuss their class experience. Students questioned the lack of diversity.
“Having everyone take Great Books with the Greco-Roman background, I think it benefits some people, but the course itself was restricting in that way to call it ‘Great Books’ and only have Greco-Roman authors,” Betman said. “It’s pretty questionable just because it sort of shows how we hold certain cultures in esteem, but were not considering great pieces of African literature or American literature.”
Frederick said his experience in the Honors Program emphasized community, friendship and intellectual curiosity. He reported positive experiences with the second portion of the Honors literature requirement — a French literature course. But dead white European men reigned for those courses as well.
“They range from French and Spanish classes to Russian to English to history,” Frederick said. “Every semester, they offered different courses in different departments. Really, the variety is pretty fresh. It’s something new and something interesting. ”