The Great Books Curriculum
“A group of books that tradition, and various institutions and authorities, have regarded as constituting or best expressing the foundations of Western culture”(via wikipedia). I’m a big fan of the great books tradition and so is Charlie Munger (as well as other thinkers i.e. Nassim Taleb). So why am I a fan? Simple, because this curriculum is one of the best ways to build a latticework of mental models and become a renaissance thinker (which after all is the goal of this blog).
Goal: I will expand on this concept of the “Great Books Curriculum” and offer you a history of the great books, a list outlining the curriculum, as well as resources & colleges that teach according to the curriculum. Enjoy!
How Did SimoleonSense Learn About The Great Books?
I too was a promiscuous bibliophile unaware of the opportunity cost of lacking a proper (mental) foundation. Luckily, in 2000 I came across a book that nudged me towards the Great Books curriculum. The book was titled, Latticework, The New Investing by Robert Hagstrom. In Latticework, Hagstrom profiled Charlie Munger’s approach to investing and St. John’s College (one of the few colleges that teach according to the great books curriculum more on this later). The concept of Latticework thinking & the Great Books curriculum made sense to me and I committed to reading 1 Great Book every year for the rest of my life (It has changed my life).
I’d like to mention that along the journey I stumbled upon another book, written in the spirit of renaissance thinking and titled, Seeking Wisdom from Darwin to Munger, by Peter Bevelin (a “Great Book” of its own”).
What Is A Great Book?
According to Mortimier Adler (one of the founding fathers of the great books curriculum) a great book can be identified when:
1. The book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;
2. The book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit; “This is an exacting criterion, an ideal that is fully attained by only a small number of the 511 works that we selected. It is approximated in varying degrees by the rest.
3. The book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.
What Is The Great Book Curriculum?
“It came about as the result of a discussion among American academics and educators, starting in the 1920s and 1930s and begun by Prof. John Erskine of Columbia University,about how to improve the higher education system by returning it to the western liberal arts tradition of broad cross-disciplinary learning. These academics and educators included Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, and Alexander Meiklejohn. The view among them was that the emphasis on narrow specialization in American colleges had harmed the quality of higher education by failing to expose students to the important products of Western civilization and thought.”
How Should I start Reading The Great Books Curriculum?
I think the best way to start is by learning how to read a book. I know what you’re thinking, I know how to read a book, I learned when I was 5 years old. I’m here to tell you, that you probably don’t have a clue. There is much more to reading a book than opening the cover and running your eyes across the words. My advice is simple start with Mortimier Adler’s book, How to Read A Book, and then proceed to the Great Books Curriculum (starting from the beginning). And remember slow and steady wins the race (you don’t need to read 10 great books per year, just commit to reading them over your life).
Are There Other Resources To Learn A-La Great Books?
Yes there are…
First: There are schools that adhere to the Great Books Curriculum. Below is a brief list.
Second: Harvard has a list of Classics (that overlaps and in some areas competes with the “Great Books Curriculum”)
Third: OpenCulture has an extensive list of Free Audio downloads of the Great Books*So no excuses if you hate reading
Additional Suggestions & Cautions:
I’d like to close with 3 suggestions.
1. Just because a book is not on the Great Books Curriculum does not mean it isn’t a great book. If it satisfies the first 3 criteria (mentioned above) and your personal criteria add it to the list.
2. The Great Books Curriculum is heavily weighted towards Western thinking -it’s naive to assume that western thought is the pinnacle of human achievement. So find the Great Eastern Books and read them (asap).
3. If you seek to learn from the Great Books reading them is not enough you must live through them. The best way to learn about the Great Books is via active dialogue (this is what makes St.Johns College unique).