Harvard prof Louis Menand tells tale of Great Books

March 9, 2012, 2:05 a.m.

Harvard English professor Louis Menand declared the era of Great Books curriculum “over” at a talk Thursday evening at the Stanford Humanities Center. He added, however, that vestiges of the curriculum still linger, and the effect it has had on the structure of American universities has been profound.


The Great Books are a collection of canonical Western texts, including authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Homer and Dante. Stanford’s Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) program is currently an effort to introduce freshmen to some of these works while the Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program makes them its focus.


According to Menand, a Pulitzer prize winner and contributing writer to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, the Great Books idea–the grouping of those books together and elevation of them over others–emerged in the late 19th century.


“They were intended for people who didn’t have the chance to go to college,” Menand said.


Since then, he said, “the market for Great Books has moved around, but there always seems to be a market someplace.”


For most of the 20th century, that market has been at least partly in universities. Menand focused on the histories of Columbia University and the University of Chicago, which both have Great Books “core” curricula, as well as Harvard, his own institution, which has a more flexible program.


Though Columbia was the first to institute a version of the Great Books curriculum, each university has been through multiple cycles and renamings since World War I.


“There has never been a golden age of Great Books curriculum,” Menand said.


Explaining how the idea of such a curriculum came about, he pointed to two factors in early and middle 20th-century America: increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity, as well as a trend of intellectual relativism in American thought.


For example, Menand said, John Erskine, an English professor at Columbia who founded the forerunner to the school’s current Literature Humanities program, noticed that Columbia students were increasingly first- or second-generation immigrants.


“He wanted to provide people of different background with a common culture,” Menand said.


At the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins–president of the university from 1929-1951–wanted to institute a four-year Great Books curriculum based on the ancient system of the trivium and quadrivium methods of the Renaissance.


But American academia turned away from that model.


When Harvard University set out to change its undergraduate curriculum in 2007, “one of the things we discussed was a Great Books program,” Menand said. “We decided it was a bad idea to require it of everybody,” he added.


In the end, Menand said, “The Great Books idea was a tolerated guest in the system of the modern research university.”


Instead of the general, humanist approach of the Great Books thinkers, based on the idea that the classics were accessible to everyone, U.S. universities committed to specialization.


“The humanities had to make their way in a world science had shaped,” Menand said.


Minku Kim, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture, said Menand’s lecture helped him think about how he would approach teaching his own students.


“It was a great opportunity to learn about the historical development [of the Great Books idea]…and how it connects to teaching and learning at Stanford,” he said.

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