Art by Peau Porotesano
The Great Books program embodies the liberal arts education experience that Pepperdine affirms is central to its mission to strengthen the lives of students with “purpose, service and leadership.” As such, all students should be required to take at least one semester of the program as a General Education requirement, perhaps replacing one of the three Humanities courses students must complete. If the purpose of higher education is to broaden the students’ horizons through intellectual and spiritual stimulation, Great Books, I suggest, is the best method to achieving that.
In 1929, President of the University of Chicago Robert Maynard Hutchins asserted in a commencement address that “the purpose of education is to unsettle the minds of young men, to widen their horizons, to inflame their intellects … it is to teach them … to always think for themselves.”
Hutchins certainly lived up to his word. In 1947 he co-founded the Great Books Foundation, a non-profit education organization dedicated to encouraging Americans to participate in the process of “Shared Inquiry” through the reading of the great texts of the Western tradition. For him, the Great Conversation was a meaningful path to civic engagement and an independently thoughtful populace.
Unfortunately for Hutchins and the Great Books Foundation, however, the humanities are dying fast, according to Tamar Lewin’s New York Times article “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry” from Oct. 30, 2013. President Donald Trump has, in his first three months in office, proposed eliminating the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Subjects principally in scientific fields have been encouraged in the name of practicality and financial security. Great Books, however, throws a monkey wrench into this narrative.
On a practical level, Great Books is incredible preparation for almost every aspect of academic life at Pepperdine. Students learn how to read difficult texts closely (and quickly, given the amount of reading assigned), to articulate thoughtful responses when put on the spot in class, and to eloquently synthesize those ideas onto paper. Other than test-taking and memorization, one semester in a Great Books class provides students with all the tools they will need to succeed in the classroom and beyond.
Most importantly, however, the study of Great Books teaches students how to be human through the asking of great questions: What is the nature of life? What are we here for? Why does suffering exist? How do we alleviate suffering? Are we truly real? Are we truly free? These are questions, quite frankly, that are left inadequately answered by the “practical subjects.” As John McCumber, a professor of German at UCLA, wrote in his article for The Chronicle of Higher Education of Oct. 6, 2016, “Humanists thus build humanity, one piece of art at a time.”
One semester studying Aristotle, Dante, Voltaire, Milton, Dostoevsky and Confucius is enough to shake up a student’s worldview by asking them to consider possibilities that had not crossed their minds before.
Since Pepperdine is a liberal arts school, it has the opportunity to provide this disquieting but life-affirming program for its students. Pepperdine should extend this gift to all students that pass through its gates. It would teach them, in the words of Hutchins, to “think for themselves.” In the midst of “alternative facts” and a crisis in accountability, this is more important than ever.
Follow Abby Gibson on Twitter: @AbbymGibson95