Why care about reading? Why care about reading the Great Books? What exactly are the Great Books? What value do they bring to life? What am I missing out on?

In classical education, you hear a lot about The Great Books. Many classical schools even have a statement about the number of Great Books their students will graduate having read and processed. However, most people, including many parents sending their children to a classical school, have no idea what the Great Books are.

First, a quick background nutshell of the literature road to the Great Books- in classical schools we have a high regard for, and love of, good literature. Does it matter what you read to your kids, or what you allow them to read? Absolutely! The cultural idea in education is to just get them reading, it doesn’t matter what it is. But, it does matter! It matters greatly. Your kids need to eat too, but that doesn’t mean you just feed them Fruit Loops!

We start reading and enjoying good, solid literature from that very first read aloud as a baby. We choose high quality literary books for their sophisticated language patterns, their solid vocabulary, and their deep, engaging stories. In the grammar school, these are books like Madeline, Corduroy, Blueberries for Sal, Doctor DeSoto, Aesop’s Fables, Peter Pan, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Robin Hood, and hundreds more. These books prepare our students to enter the great conversation of Great Books when they enter logic and rhetoric school.
What exactly are the Great Books? Why care about them? Why read them? Does it really matter?

​Yes, yes, it does!

What is it about binge watching a Netflix series that we as humans love? It’s exciting to get into the lives of people, to get lost in their stories, to see life, or specific circumstances through their eyes. The story, getting ourselves INTO a story, is what draws us into TV show binges.

What we don’t realize is that the exact thing we are drawn to in a TV binge series can be experienced much more richly in a novel, poem, or epic. The problem is that we rarely take the time to properly enjoy and digest our food, much less a good book. A Great Book is more challenging and as a culture we have lost the ability to wrestle with a complicated book. Instead, we choose the easier, more passive route of trying to satisfy our desire to be in the center of a story by binging on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon video. It takes more endurance and actually requires something of us to feed ourselves with a book. Television requires nothing of us.

So what are these Great Books classical schools talk about reading? Who decides what a Great Book is and why should we care?

What exactly are the Great Books?

The list that comprises the Great Books is an emergent canon. Once you pick up one, you realize it’s referencing Descartes and you wonder who that is, so you pick up that book, and then it mentions Aristotle, and now, you’re going to the library to read him. The Great Books are self-referential and self-evident. Mortimer Adler called them a great conversation between geniuses. They are constantly asking questions, answering each other’s questions, and referring to each other. Different schools, book lists, and libraries have different lists of what they consider the Great Books, but 90-95% of the time the lists are identical because it’s emergent. The books refer to each other and you really have to read them all to get what all of them are saying to each other. Here’s an example of some:

  • Gilgamesh
  • The Codes of Hammurabi and Moses
  • The Odyssey
  • Plutarch’s Lives Vol. 1
  • The Last Days of Socrates
  • Early History of Rome
  • The Aeneid
  • The Twelve Caesars
  • Julius Caesar
  • Eusebius: The Church History
  • Confessions
  • Beowulf
  • Macbeth
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • The Divine Comedy: Inferno
  • The Canterbury Tales
  • The Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Of Plymouth Plantation
  • The Social Contract
  • The Federalist Papers
  • The Anti-Federalist Papers
  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • Abraham Lincoln: Speeches & Writings
  • The Great Gatsby
  • 1984
  • The Iliad
  • Landmark Thucydides
  • The Republic
  • Introduction to Aristotle
  • Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • Emma
  • Moby Dick
  • Democracy in America
  • Huckleberry Finn
Why should we read the Great Books? What do I get out of reading stuff from dead Ancient guys?

The Great Books teach people to reason well and communicate winsomely. ​Reading and studying these books ARE for everyone and reading them helps you to become culturally literate. They teach people to know how to think, and to know what’s at stake. If all we ever do is passively receive information, especially information that is homogenous to our own beliefs and thought systems, we cripple our ability to be culture shapers, to be creators and innovators. We stop ourselves from growing as humans.

What does challenging my thought systems and growing as a human practically look like using the Great Books?

The majority of average education is very pointed. Students grow up, and as adults, they might have an education background in chemistry, biology, engineering or math, but they have major holes. The vast majority of us have lopsided educations. We reach our adult years and realize we missed out on humanities and the liberal arts. We have no idea about psychological thought or philosophical thought and we find ourselves unable to read certain types of literature. This greatly hinders our ability to participate in the great conversations of what it means to be human- testing our belief systems, engaging with people of different faiths, and challenging our own presuppositions about life.

For example, let’s take Plato’s The Republic. It starts by asking, “What is justice?” Justice is wrestled out, the geniuses talk about what it may or may not be. Suddenly, the presupposition I’ve had in my head about justice is being broken. Or is it? We have our own ideas that came from our parents, our faith backgrounds, our educations, and even pop culture. We often aren’t even aware that we have a script about justice until we confront a conversation about justice.

When we use the material of the Great Books to discuss things like justice, we are given the opportunity to test the script we’ve been given, to talk through, debate, and analyze the natural presumptions we hold. Simply reading them isn’t enough. Discussion is where comprehension, and then action takes place. Discussion is paramount, otherwise, we get a bunch of young people who, when asked why they believe something can only respond with, “well, because.” It is only when we firmly believe something that we actually allow ourself to be challenged and change our viewpoints if necessary.

How to read the Great Books

There are so many ways to read, discuss, and enjoy the Great Books. There are all kinds of resources and books online that outline the works considered in the Great Books collection. The two most popular ways to read are syntopically and chronologically.

Syntopically means that you study the books according to a specific topic. For example, going back to justice. You might explore the topic of justice throughout the Great Books and see what people had to say and write about it over a thousand years. This approach is great because you move from author to author and don’t get stuck on one specifically, especially if it’s one where you don’t particularly enjoy the writing style.

Chronologically means you study the books in order. They scaffold on each other, and the author’s reference various works. When you do them in order you understand the references they are making, and the entire conversation begins to make sense.

How long does it take?

Reading the Great Books isn’t something you set out to do in a year. It’s a lifetime growth trajectory in which you are constantly engaging with great minds and great ideas. It’s a transformative lifestyle choice. It doesn’t mean you have to feel overwhelmed by a process that really is never-ending. Sometimes it means you jump in full force for a season, and dial it down a little in other seasons. But what it does mean is that you are always seeking to learn and grow, and what better way to learn and grow than to explore the great minds and great ideas of the past and then, converse with others today about it. How do their ideas flesh out today, what does it mean for humanity? What does it mean for our presuppositions and our own faith beliefs?

How does discussing the Great Books as an adult propel you towards additional growth and learning outside the Great Books?

The process of reading and wrestling with difficult content in the Great Books means you are willing to put yourself in a position where your beliefs are challenged and forced to solidify, change, or grow. How does the great conversation within the Great Books lead to other areas of growth? Maybe it’s finding a challenging podcast to listen to, one that stretches your faith, or one that simply exposes you to others who are different than you, and choosing to sit down over coffee with a group of friends to discuss what new thoughts you encountered.

What does studying the Great Books look like in logic school (7th-8th) and rhetoric school (9th-12th) look like?

At The Classical Academy, we begin students on the lifelong journey of falling in love with the Great Books in 7th grade. Students gain a greater understanding of our world, its history, and our Creator, while learning how to challenge many of the worldviews they will face during their lives.

Our Great Books curriculum track is comprised of primary and secondary books. Primary reading material includes titles from the Great Books within the historical context, while secondary books and readings are from Scripture as well as modern fiction and non-fiction. ​

Here’s an example of how students might work through the Code of Hammurabi in Ancient history, one of the first written records of a code of law. Talk about opportunities to discuss!

After working through the preliminary material, students are led through thought-provoking questions such as “Why are laws necessary? How do we know when laws are just?” After this, students begin reading the first section of the Code of Hammurabi and the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus.

The session activity puts students to work as jurists. They are given three cases with the assignment to judge them according to the Code of Hammurabi and then according to the Bible. All of this is guided by a series of discussion questions. Students extend their learning by drawing up their own legal code for their house rules. Students then read the rest of the Code and continue discussing questions such as “What do laws have to do with justice?” and “How is justice understood in our culture?” Our teacher leads students through a somewhat logical progression of thought as they deal with the key ideas. As students move into the rhetoric stage, they culminate their studies with their own persuasive writings and speeches about their work in the great conversation of the Great Books.

Do logic and rhetoric school students really read every single one of the Great Books?

Studying the great minds and great ideas within the Great Books is a lifetime pursuit, and a lifetime of conversation. With that in mind, we have crafted our curriculum in such a way that allows the average child to excel and the gifted child to be challenged, all while staying true to a classical method of learning. Not every single book will be read in its entirety, but as the learning model goes, students will go deeper and deeper into the material every year.

Want to learn more about the art of dialogue and conversation in learning throughout our school and particularly in our logic school? Check out A Better Approach to Middle School