Great Books Reading & Discussion
The authors of the Great Books contributed their thoughts to the “Great Conversation” through analyzing the thinking of their contemporaries and those that preceded them. Although the authors of the Great Books wrote in an historical context about issues pertinent to their time and culture, much of what they espoused has profound relevance today. The Gutenberg College faculty’s background in biblical exegesis has convinced them that no writing can be fully understood without a sound knowledge of the cultural background and the history of the times in which a work was written. As with any conversation, one cannot easily jump into the middle and make sense of the discussion; one needs to know the whole course of the exchange. Each thinker is responding to the issues generated by the time in which he lived, and one needs to know what questions the author is addressing in order to understand his contribution. Therefore, the education at Gutenberg places considerable emphasis on the acquisition of a good understanding of the flow of history in Western culture.
The four-year curriculum divides into two two-year segments. The first two years acquaint the student with the historical context and the main themes of the Great Conversation, while emphasizing the development of reading, writing, and thinking skills. Students read works or portions of works by many different authors. In their third and fourth years, students use the skills and knowledge they gain in their first two years to work more independently and to examine complete works by some of the more important authors of our intellectual tradition. Below is a list of some authors and works read in the curriculum.
Western Civilization (WCIV 101-203)
This survey course, at the heart of the curriculum for the first two years, introduces students to significant ideas that have surfaced in the history of Western culture. The survey begins in the ancient Near East and ends with the present. It incorporates a wide spectrum of disciplines—history, art history, philosophy, literature, political science, economics, theology, science, and sociology.
At the beginning of each week, tutors pose a main question and a series of related questions that deal with some significant development in Western culture. (Sample questions from the Western Civilization syllabus are listed below.) All of a week’s activities within the Survey of Western Civilization are designed to help students answer these questions. In two-hour sessions on Monday and Wednesday, tutors and students discuss a reading selection from the Great Books. On Tuesday, a tutor presents a one-hour lecture. During the week, students read 50 to 100 pages of background material pertaining to the historical setting and other aspects of the week’s question. Finally, for two to three hours on Friday, students and tutors meet to discuss the week’s questions. Both students and faculty look forward to the interesting, free-flowing, and fun Friday discussions.
Other parts of Gutenberg’s curriculum are designed to motivate students to answer each week’s questions. An exam at the end of each quarter is based on the weekly questions. And questions asked at the oral qualifying exam at the end of the second year are based on the weekly questions. (See “Second-Year Qualifying Exams” under Evaluating Academic Progress.) Students who conscientiously complete each week’s work will be well prepared for both the quarterly exams and the oral qualifying exam.
Great Conversation (GCON 301-403)
In their third and fourth years, students are ready to participate in the Great Conversation in earnest. The readings for this course are the most important works produced by Western culture and are generally read in their entirety. Two quarters are devoted to reading works written before the Renaissance, and students read them in chronological order. Works written after the Renaissance are studied according to subject matter; a quarter is devoted to each of the following subjects: theology and world literature; epistemology and medieval literature; ethics and modern literature; and sociology and modern literature. Students meet to discuss the reading assignments three times a week, in two-hour discussion sessions.
Some authors and works read in the curriculum:
Fall Quarter, Week One
Main question: Which do you think is more plausible—the modern scientific view of ancient man or the biblical account of ancient man? Do you think they are altogether incompatible accounts? Why?
Related questions: Why did man change from hunting/gathering to agriculture, and what were the resulting social and political changes? What were the distinctive features of hunting/gathering societies? What was the social-political structure? How did this economy affect population growth? How did this economy affect wealth accumulation? How did this economy affect the amount of leisure time? What were the distinctive features of agricultural societies? What was the social-political structure? What happened to population growth? What happened to wealth accumulation? What happened to leisure time? What can we learn about ancient man from his art? What was his worldview? What did he find of ultimate value? Was prehistoric man less intelligent? How does the biblical view of ancient man contrast with the modern scientific one?
Tuesday lecture: Pre-historic/Ancient Near Eastern Art
Great Books: Monday—Hesiod, Works and Days; Wednesday—Genesis 1-4.
Optional Background Readings:
- Kagan, The Western Heritage, Volume A, pp. 4-9
- Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, Chapter 14
- Epilogue of The Search for Explanations: The Emergence of Agriculture
- “Theory of the Origin of the State” from Science
- Gardner, Art Through the Ages, pp. 26-39
Winter Quarter, Week Two
Main question: Are one or more of the Hellenistic philosophies superior to that of Plato and Aristotle? If yes, which one(s) and why? If not, how do you account for the decline of Plato and Aristotle?
Related questions: What is the character of Hellenistic philosophy? Who were the key players and what were the movements, emphases, influences, patterns, characteristics, and ideas of Hellenistic philosophy? What were the philosophies that were competing for attention in the Hellenistic period? What is stoicism? What is Epicureanism? What is Skepticism? What is Cynicism? Were these philosophies in competition with traditional religious practices? Did they have competition from any other quarter? What would it mean to characterize Hellenistic philosophy as “therapeutic” in nature?
Tuesday lecture: Hellenistic and Roman Philosophy
Great Books: Monday—Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Books 1-2; Wednesday—Plutarch, Lives, Volume 1, “Nicias.”
Optional Background Reading:
- Tarnas, pp. 73-90
- Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Hellenistic Thought,” pp. 467-469; “Epicurus,” Volume 3, pp. 3-5; “Stoicism,” Volume 8, pp. 19-22; “Skepticism,” Volume 7, pp. 449-452; “Pyrrho,” Volume 7, pp. 36-37; “Cynics,” Volume 2, pp. 284-285; “Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism,” Volume 7, pp. 37-39; “Lucretius,” Volume 5, pp. 99-101
Spring Quarter, Week Five
Main question: Were the Dark Ages really dark?
Related questions: What were the Dark Ages? What was the state of education in the Middle Ages? Was there social and political chaos during the Middle Ages? Was there any technological progress at this time? Did art survive and/or thrive in the Middle Ages? What happened to the Greek and Roman legacy from classical times? What was courtly love?
Tuesday lecture: Technological Developments in the Middle Ages
Great Books: Monday—Pseudo-Dionysius, Mystical Theology, Chapters 1-5; Cloud of Unkowing, Chapters 3-14. Wednesday—Anselm of Canterbury, “Proslogion,” “Pro Insipiente,” “Reply to Gaunilo.”
Required Background Reading: Kagan, pp. 256-281
Optional Background Reading:
- Spielvogel, pp. 318-338, 354-373 (skim all)
- Cantor, pp. 475-528