Home >> Volume 1, Issue 02

Great Books and Undergraduate Education

Michael M. Jordan

Generally speaking, we can say there are two major philosophies of education: an older model which addresses moral and spiritual concerns of the mind and heart of man, and a newer one which trains us to manipulate and control the material word for the good of the body. The older model requires the acquisition of intellectual skills (critical reading, thinking, and writing skills) as a means to reach its moral and spiritual end. The modern model requires the same skills to improve man’s physical estate. It generally applies these skills in service to professional and vocational interests in business and industry, in science, technology, and medicine. Both models intend to improve man’s estate. Both are worthy and important. However, material well being is not the chief or highest end of man. Therefore, the older model, designed to make us better human beings, should not be abandoned or replaced by the newer one. Indeed, the first must be pursued to properly orient and order the second.

The Means and Ends of Education

In the opening of the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs, Solomon urges the young to acquire intellectual skills so that they can “understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.” With critical reading and thinking skills, they will be able to “know wisdom and instruction, understand words of insight, receive instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice and equity (Proverbs 1:2-6). It seems to me that Solomon correctly identifies the means and the aims of higher education: an intellectual means to an ethical end. By grappling with the grammar, logic, diction, and rhetoric of texts, students develop intellectual skills that enable them to reach the aims of higher learning: the acquisition of wisdom and virtue, and the capability to seriously pursue knowledge and truth. These foundational means (acquiring critical intellectual skills) and ends (discerning spiritual, ethical, and epistemological realities) are readily met in reading and studying Great Books.

By Great Books I mean those works of literature generally recognized as having formed the Western world’s understanding of man’s nature and destiny. They are found in a variety of genres (sermon, dialogue, drama, epic, lyric, autobiography, essay, short story and novel) and disciplines (biblical studies, theology, philosophy, ethics, history, and literature). Though I have mentioned specific academic disciplines, I should emphasize that Great Books are trans-disciplinary: they help us to see the relationships between the disciplines—they help us to reflect upon the whole. Additionally, they have a universality about them that makes them trans-cultural and trans-temporal: though they are Western texts written at specific moments in time, they are not “foreign” texts to readers from other cultures. The following list of books is illustrative, not prescriptive or exhaustive: from classical and Christian antiquity, the literature of the Bible, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Antigone, Plutarch’s Lives, Virgil’s Aeneid, Plato’s Apology and The Republic, Aristotle’s Nichomachaen Ethics, Augustine’s Confessions; from the Middle Ages, Beowulf, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the morality play Everyman; and from the Renaissance and beyond, works by Petrarch, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Machiavelli on down to Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and the recently deceased Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Religion, politics, morality, cultural identity—our experience of these things has been shaped by the Great Books.

In order to get at the meat of these books (the wisdom and truth they contain), one needs skills, the ability to read and write--to carefully understand and skillfully use words and sentences. Dorothy Sayers tells us that the medieval trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) supplied the medieval student with the tools of learning. However the student obtains these skills--in home school, in grammar, junior high, and high school, in college; in language and literature classes; in workouts with the dictionary, the syllogism, and a grammar book—he will need them to understand the Great Books and to give an intelligent account of what he has read. And we must emphasize that carefully studying the Great Books is the best way to exercise and develop intellectual skill. With any text one can attend to the nuances of words, the logic of sentences, the relation of the parts to the whole. One can analyze and synthesize the ideas in a newspaper article or editorial. But one finds greater sophistication and complexity, deeper mysteries and more refined beauties in the Great Books. Reading them, the student can more readily understand the literary conventions of metaphor, parable, allegory, and riddle (Solomon again). He can comprehend the prophetic utterances of God’s prophets (“I spoke to the prophets; it was I who multiplied visions, and through the prophets gave parables”—Hosea 10:1). He will have the ears to hear the parabolic teaching of Jesus, and the ability, as Paul urged Timothy, to “rightly [handle] the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15).

Whether one seeks the truth in sacred or secular writings, he must have literary training; he must have skill. Marion Montgomery puts it this way in Liberal Arts and Community: “The truth of things, which must be our concern always, is revealed through words rightly used and rightly taken. That revelation is the art of all liberal arts.” If one aspires to get at the truth of any academic discipline, he had better have critical reading and writing skills. I might add that the same is true of professional and technical disciplines: the student of law, medicine, divinity, computer science, business, or aeronautics will have to have some mastery of the use of language to succeed in his chosen field.

Classical and Christian Learning

Augustine can be our guide in this discussion of the means and ends of education. Let us look to his Confessions, one of the greatest of Great Books and the most famous autobiography of all time. In his boyhood Augustine was forced to study rhetoric so that he “might get on in the world and excel in the handling of words to gain honor among men and deceitful riches”—the unworthy utilitarian ends coveted by worldly men throughout the ages. Like many a schoolboy, he was reluctant to learn and occasionally inattentive in his studies. But as he advanced in his schooling, he grew to love reading, and he also began to excel in memorizing and declaiming passages from Virgil’s Aeneid and other classics. He tells us that the earlier study, acquiring skill with words, was better because more useful than the “empty studies” pertaining to the Trojan Horse, the wanderings of Aeneas, and Dido’s death. Later still, following the usual course of studies, he read Cicero’s Hortensius, “an exhortation to philosophy” and defense of intellectual cultivation that changed the course of his life.

This encounter with a Great Book gave Augustine a “new purpose and ambition.” As he confesses to God, “Suddenly all the vanity I had hoped in I saw as worthless, and with an incredible intensity of desire I longed after immortal wisdom. I had begun that journey upwards by which I was to return to You.” Another decisive turn in his life occurs when he takes up another Great Book, the Bible--in particular, he reads a specific verse from the book of Romans (Romans 13:13). Here he finds the Word of Life that enables him to turn from sin and convert to the Christian faith.

In the Confessions (completed around the year 400), we have Augustine’s early remarks about the means and ends of education. He defends the utility of acquiring skill with words, not because it brings honor and deceitful riches, but because it is a doorway to the truth of things. He scorns the “empty trifles” and errors of the poetic imagination, and he is moved, not by Cicero’s eloquence, but by his wisdom, for it opened the door to higher things. And it is his reading of scripture that brings him into the Christian fold.

But even in this early work, one clearly sees that Augustine has profited from his studies of Greek and Roman epics and Cicero’s eloquence. Immersed in the works of great writers and trained by imitating them, he memorably and masterfully used the scheme of antithesis, denouncing “the insatiable desire of man for wealth that is but penury and glory that is but shame,” and describing himself as “so small a boy and so great a sinner.” In describing his adolescent desires, he uses a cluster of cloudy, dark, hot, and restrictive images to paint a convincing picture of bewildering and enslaving lust. These images of lust are contrasted with the luminous and white light of love and friendship. Augustine presents a moving dramatic representation of the battle for his soul as he stands between his former mistresses and “the austere beauty of Continence.” Both the mistresses and Continence solicit him, but Continence does so honorably, and she is the fruitful mother of joys. On nearly every page of the Confessions, we see Augustine’s debt to his literary and rhetorical training. This training helped him to be eloquent and persuasive himself in his most famous work.

Later, in On Christian Doctrine (426-427), a more mature Augustine defends the study of rhetoric and the pagan classics. A chapter title tells why: “WHATEVER HAS BEEN RIGHTLY SAID BY THE HEATHERN, WE MUST APPROPRIATE TO OUR USES.” The study of rhetoric will enable the preacher to preach more effectually. Christians, Augustine says, should be like the Israelites in the Exodus, plundering the Egyptians, his term for accepting and using classical learning in a Christian curriculum. While he still decries the “false and superstitious fancies” of some pagan books, he emphasizes that “they also contain liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them.” Like Augustine, other Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil the Great, and Jerome made classical learning (Great Books in rhetoric, philosophy, epic, and drama) a staple of higher learning in Christendom. Later “Church Fathers,” theologians and men of letters such as Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, and Newman, did the same. (For an account of this Christian appropriate of pagan learning, see The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, edited by Richard M. Gamble).

G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis, among other Christians in our own time, have likewise “sanctified” pagan learning. They tell us that pagan myths, the fruit of the moral imagination, are not to be scorned, for these myths offer glimpses and shadows of universal and transcendent truths. The pagan poet no less than the Christian writer is made in the image of God: both use the God-given moral imagination to craft stories that reveal truths about man and God. C. S. Lewis offers this illustration: “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” In other words, the pagan myths point to the true “myth”: the Incarnation—“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (II Corinthians 5: 19).

Truth is truth, wherever it comes from: it may be glimpsed by the poet’s moral imagination, discerned by the philosopher’s reason and intuition, or revealed in scripture by God’s appointed prophets and evangelists. But to get at this truth, one must have intellectual skill. To effectively share this truth, as Augustine has done, one must have some mastery of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. And finally, the wisdom one gains in his encounter with the prophet, the poet, the dramatist, and the philosopher will instruct him in the proper use of his intellectual skills: not for the purpose of promoting vanity, pride, and avarice but to get at the truth of things.

The Place of the Bible in Education

The truth of things is most clearly revealed in the Bible, the greatest of Great Books. This book therefore deserves a central place in higher education, as it once did until education was secularized. From the Bible we learn the major outline of human history and destiny: Creation, Fall, man’s redemption through the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection of Christ, and the Judgment to come. Scripture clearly and unequivocally presents physical, moral, and spiritual truths about God, man, and the universe. God is Creator, Lawgiver, Judge, and Redeemer. Men are body and soul, “intellectual souls incarnate,” to use Marion Montgomery’s term (thus the dualism of Platonism and the naturalistic anthropology of modern times both miss the mark). All men are fundamentally equal in that they are made in God’s image, yet fallen, prone to a host of vices and sins. When God made the world, he pronounced it good and placed man in it to exercise stewardship and dominion over nature (stewardship and dominion should always be linked together). Men invariably trespass, fail to honor the God who made them, fail to love one another. This calamity leads us to the most important truth in all the world: the Gospel message. God was in Christ lovingly reconciling sinful humanity to himself. Christ is the wisdom, truth, power, love, and justice of God. He is the way to knowledge and wisdom, to door to righteousness and salvation. And he is most fully revealed in the Bible.

In the Middle Ages educators recognized the importance of the word and Word of God. This is reflected in their belief and claim that theology is the Queen of the Sciences. Theology, a biblically based discipline, puts all other studies into perspective. Scripture certainly puts much of the Western world’s literature and culture into perspective. Consider European, English, and American literature. Think of some of the classic or great authors: Augustine, the author of Beowulf, Chaucer, Dante, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton, Donne, Herbert, Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, O’Connor, and Robert Penn Warren (who once told aspiring writers, “All novelists, budding or otherwise, should read and mark their Shakespeare, also their Bible. These are the two greatest founts for writers”). These famous writers knew the Bible and filled their own writings with biblical quotations, allusions motifs, images, and symbols. We cannot understand these authors unless we have some understanding of what they assume and incorporate into their work. The Bible has influenced much more than Western literature: much of the art and music and many of the laws, principles, beliefs, customs, and institutions of people from the Middle East, Europe, England and America are derived from the Bible. Both our literary and our cultural heritage bear the Bible’s stamp. And it is a pedagogical crime, it is spiritual and cultural suicide to ignore the Bible in our studies.

Revolutionary Changes in the Focus and Philosophy of Education

For over two thousand years Great Books were the basis of education in the West. In antiquity Jewish youth studied Old Testament literature and commentaries on scripture; Greek students read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, while Roman scholars studied Virgil’s Aeneid. At the beginning of the Christian era, classical and Christian books together formed the basis of education in Christendom. Through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, up until around the beginning of the twentieth century, the staple of higher education was great literature or the classics. The grammar school lad, the young scholar, and the collegian spent much of their time reading Great Books, memorizing and declaiming selected passages, and imitating in their own compositions passages noted for eloquence in style or potency in theme. These books gave them a way to see beauty and goodness, to come to terms with such concepts as love and liberty, and to understand historical, economic, and political events. They gave the student an intelligible picture of the world.

But revolutionary changes in the focus and philosophy of education have altered the curriculum. The elective system has vastly increased the number of specialized, usually pragmatic, instrumental, and utilitarian courses in the curriculum. The old core of the liberal arts college (humane studies in theology, ethics, literature, philosophy, and the fine arts—largely the study of Great Books in these disciplines) shrank as students elected to take specialized courses in specific disciplines, usually those that have practical ramifications in terms of career and cash. With the elective system (or the cafeteria-style curriculum), the student is not exposed to the best that has been thought, said, and made (to adapt Matthew Arnold’s phrase) but elects to take what interests him from a host of marketable degrees.

T. S. Eliot, writing in the 1930s, tells us of the consequences of the elective system. When students no longer study the same subjects and read the same books, they have no sense of “continuity and coherence in literature and the arts,” they have no shared “body of knowledge.” Consequently, “the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation” (Christianity and Culture 32-33). William Butler Yeats describes a similar effect of the loss of cultural cohesion in “The Second Coming” (1919). As the old European order of Christendom disintegrates, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Eliot again, in lines from his Choruses for The Rock, describes the deracinated education and culture of modernity:

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

And our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to God.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

This declension from wisdom to knowledge to information results when we ignore a common heritage that addresses crucial moral and spiritual matters. Some sort of center is required for information to rise to knowledge, and for knowledge to rise to wisdom. Great Books, especially the Bible, used to supply this center, this orientation: a moral compass, a sense of the common good, an understanding of what it means to be human.

The proliferation of college courses and degrees and the accompanying emphasis on research and innovation, on technology and business, are not the only changes that have diminished or removed the study of Great Books from the college curriculum. Increasingly, contemporary literature replaces the classics in literature courses, presumably because the modern is more relevant than the old. Furthermore, most college campuses have joined the revolutionaries in chanting “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Culture has to go,” thus substituting multicultural and politically correct studies for what had been a focus on the Western tradition. The result of these shifts in the focus and curriculum of education is to make us what Allen Tate calls provincials in time. Cut off from our classical-Christian heritage, we lose our “origins in the past and its continuity into the present, and begin every day as if there had been no yesterday.” Cut off from the past, familiar only with the present, we see in “material welfare and social justice the whole solution to the human problem,” and forget the role that “honor, truth, imagination, human dignity, and limited acquisitiveness” should play in any social order (Allen Tate, “The New Provincialism”).

Thus the purpose of higher education has been thwarted. The new model of education focuses on specialization, vocational training, certification, professionalism. This is what one would expect of a secular, utilitarian, and pragmatic education. Now I have maintained that higher education may legitimately address itself to the comfort, security, sustenance, and healing of the body, the improvement of man’s physical welfare. We should use knowledge and skill to improve the human condition. We have a biblical mandate to be good stewards, properly dressing and keeping the garden, exercising dominion over nature for man’s common good. Jesus himself in his ministry to man improved man’s physical well being by healing the sick, feeding the hungry.

But to properly apply this knowledge and skill (in business, law, economics, politics, medicine and every other discipline and vocation) requires wisdom and virtue. Otherwise the businessman and economist won’t be humane, attentive to the common good; the lawyer won’t be ethical but sophistical; the politician will be a mere functionary, demagogue, or ideologue, not a statesman; and the physician will violate human rights and dignity. Let me give one case in point. Our brave new world of reproductive and genetic technologies needs the moral and spiritual compass provided by Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” The economic projector in Swift’s fable regards one-year old children as consumer products, no different than cattle. The scientist Aylmer in Hawthorne’s fable is not content with the good that he has but wants perfection. In his attempt to achieve perfection, he destroys his wife Georgiana and hence his own happiness. With the intellectual skills acquired in reading great literature and the ethical discernment obtained therefrom, one can recognize the deceitful manipulation of language in the feminists’ and abortionists’ credo: Every woman has a basic right to reproductive freedom—the astonishing euphemism for a mother’s “right” to kill her unborn child.


The end of higher education is the acquisition of wisdom and virtue and the serious pursuit of knowledge and truth—this is the older model of education. Reading the Great Books helps us to get to this end. It is a good means to a good end. Informed by the wisdom, the beauty, the goodness, and the truth we encounter in Great Books, we can responsibly and humanely practice our vocation in life. Exposure to great literature forms our heart, mind, and soul. It enriches the moral imagination; it plants judgment, right reason, wisdom, and humility in the mind; and it opens the heart and soul to higher things, “the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). The student needs insight, wisdom, and virtue to love and serve his fellow man. Let us not deny him the effectual means to this good end, an end that has bearing on his citizenship in both this world and the world to come.

A shorter version of thisessay originally appeared in Illumine, the national digest of the Bryan Institute for Critical Thought and Practice, Bryan College, www.bryan.edu/bryancenter.html.