“Indeed, there is something in the very form of reading—the shape of the action itself—that tends toward virtue. The attentiveness necessary for deep reading (the kind of reading we practice in reading literary works as opposed to skimming news stories or reading instructions) requires patience. The skills of interpretation and evaluation require prudence. Even the simple decision to set aside time to read in a world rife with so many other choices competing for our attention requires a kind of temperance.”Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books
In the realm of Classical Christian Education, you’ll hear a great deal about the “great books.” Indeed, the literary masterpieces of the world serve a central purpose in a Classical Christian school, upon which history, theology, and civics discussions are built. Our Omnibus curriculum - a required two-part course each year that all 7th through 12th grade students take - is built upon the extensive catalog of books the students explore.
When you look at a Classical curriculum, you will find a whole lot of reading. In fact, during their secondary years at Veritas Academy, students will read over 150 books before graduating. 150!
These books are not fleeting, trendy bestsellers or dry, informative texts. Rather, they are the world’s most enduring works of literature - pieces that have shaped entire cultures (for better or for worse) and give profound insight into the human condition.
What are the “Great Books?”
First, we should establish what we mean when we refer to the Great Books. This is not meant to be a subjective list of a school administrators' favorite books. Rather, the “Great Books” refers to those works of literature that tradition (as well as various institutions and authorities over the centuries) has regarded as either establishing or best expressing the foundations of Western Culture. Western culture refers to the heritage of ideas, social norms, ethics, and values that stem from ancient Greco-Roman thought and civilizations, generally encompassing countries in the Americas, Europe, and Australasia.
These books can take the forms of novels, plays, poems, social commentary, philosophical discourse, theology and more. They are written by authors from many backgrounds - Christian and atheist, communist and capitalist, ancient and modern, and everything in between. They have one thing in common: they have endured through time as writings that shaped or defined a culture.
Research will lead you to several comprehensive and authoritative lists of Great Books compiled throughout history. A Great Books education program will draw from these established lists in compiling their curriculum.
Why Focus An Education on The Great Books?
True, one would be hard pressed to find a person who does not believe in the virtues of reading. It’s quite common to hear adults nowadays lament that “I should read more.” So, most of us agree that reading is good. But is it really worth all the time it takes for middle and high schoolers to pour into understanding book after book, week after week? Why not just learn history and literature “the regular way,” with history books and a smattering of important novels, poems, and plays?
We believe that a Great Books education is the best way to prepare our children to understand and engage the world as well-rounded, well-spoken adults. Here’s why.
1. We read the Great Books because of their inherent greatness.
Ty Fischer, Veritas Head of School and editor of the Veritas Press Omnibus curriculum, adheres to a Great Books program because, he says, they are some of the greatest stories that have ever been told and reading books that are true, good, and beautiful helps us to love the true, the good, and the beautiful. These books are great mainly because they have stood the test of time. These books connect us back to people who have lived in the past and give us stories that, we hope, we can share with future generations.
2. They supply us with an almost infinite list of topics and concerns to discuss.
As an Omnibus teacher, Ty has found that a class can uncover profound wisdom through a study of the Great Books.
For example, when we talk about Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, growing up as he goes out to look for his father, we learn a little about growing up ourselves. When we think through the terrible choices and fate of Anna Karenina, we, perhaps, can choose a different path. When Socrates tells us that men are trapped in a cave and that the world that they see is just shadows on the wall, we have ask ourselves if we are actually seeing the world aright. When Huck Finn decides that it would be better for him to be damned than to betray his friend, we (along with Twain’s) readers are confronted with the question of whether we would have such courage.
These books, which have endured through the generations, explore universal human problems and emotions that transcend time, geographical, and cultural boundaries. Through compelling writing, these gifted authors are able to draw us into the reality of their culture paint a rich portrait of issues that we all share, even hundreds of miles or years apart from one another.
3. They help Christians appreciate and understand theology
Yes, this even applies to reading the pagan classics. Professor and author Fred Sanders has said:
“If you go to the great minds well-formed in theological teaching, they have engaged Plato, and Aristotle, and Homer, and the other classics. You can’t pick up Milton’s Paradise Lost and make much sense of it at all if you don’t realize that he’s interacting with the epic tradition that goes before him... There’s this great influence on Christian thought that makes it worth engaging the great texts for contemporary Christians.”
4. They challenge us with different ideas
Your children’s beliefs are most certainly going to be challenged when they go to college, to work, and out into the “real world” in general. Reading the Great Books - especially those written from a vastly different worldview perspective - gives students a safe place to practice interpreting and engaging new (and even dangerous) ideas. That’s why we read Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto. Yes, these are considered “Great Books;” not because the ideas they proliferate are especially great, but because of the momentous wave they created to shape a culture for a time. Great, in this case, means that they have had a great impact and that to understand the story of civilization one needs to read the book (even if its ideas are horribly wrong).
When he was challenged on why we have our high school students read Karl Marx, Ty responded that while the Communist Manifesto is economic bunk and morally repugnant, it is a very important book. Sadly, millions lost their lives because of this little piece of deeply flawed literature. Something in the idea is powerful, and we need to examine it so as not to fall prey to it again. You cannot makes sense of the 21st century without an understanding of Communism.
We read other Great Books like this, too (Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil would be an example), and as a Christian school we believe that every book outside of Bible has some mixture of truth and error in it. Even in reading books that are rife with mistaken philosophies, there is truth we can glean and we train our students to sift out the truth from the error.
5. They help us grasp history far better than a history book
At a Classical Christian School like Veritas, you will find that our history and civics studies are entwined with the reading of the Great Books in our cornerstone Omnibus classes. Each grade focuses on a different time period, so that the ideas, events, and culture they study continually inform one another. English, debate, writing, civics, history, theology, and philosophy are all wrapped up in a cohesive study.
Veritas Dean of Students and Omnibus teacher Graham Dennis says one of the goals of Omnibus is to give students what G.K. Chesterton calls a “democracy of the dead,” letting voices other than our own influence, inspire, and give us perspective that we wouldn’t otherwise have. If you’re only considering the world from the viewpoint of your own time, you’re missing out on many other perspectives, ideas, and thoughts that have preceded us. When you consider the minute slice of world culture that we as 21st century Americans inhabit, our skewed perspective represents a miniscule percentage of history and experience.
History books traditionally studied in schools are written by our own contemporaries, usually within the last ten to twenty years to keep them current. However, the truly best way to understand a time period or civilization is, when possible, from the perspective of its own people.
Graham gives the following example: if I’m reading about the Crusades for instance, as a 21st century person I might have my own political convictions and prerogatives about the Crusades that aren’t accurately reflective of the on-the-ground concerns and problems that Christians in the 11th century were facing. So, it’s more robust to think about the Crusades from the perspective of literature written by later medieval Christians. It gives us a more complex understanding of why someone would give up his entire fortune to march to Jerusalem and be willing to die for the cause of Christ in order to, in their minds, protect this tiny piece of land. So much has changed - politically, geographically, and more - since that time, in Palestine and Europe.
We can think of literature as a carrier of culture. Just as Homeric epic tells us more about Greek culture and civilization than a 21st century historian writing about Homer’s Greece, so literature helps us understand a culture - with all its’ triumphs and flaws - from its own perspective.
6. They train students to read well
Some parents may wonder if a seventh grader is really ready to read many of these complex Great Books? The short answer is “no.”
Graham says that part of the reason why we read difficult books is what he likes to think of as training. In some ways it can be compared to learning to play a musical instrument. The only way to learn how to play difficult, beautiful pieces is by practicing difficult, beautiful pieces. It takes ample practice to master this art, but for most musicians, that practice is utterly necessary to their growth.
The same goes for reading well. In our immediate gratification culture of skim-reading and fluffy, easily digestible online content, the ability to chew on soul-nourishing, mind-bending writings is a skill that is not only lacking in many adults, but is sorely needed and always welcomed. In order for your child to grow into a well-read, well-spoken, and thoughtful adult, you must train their minds to read and think well.
We provide our 7th and 8th grade students with plenty of guidance, teaching tough texts with age-appropriate discussion and explanation. In so doing, we help them learn to read difficult books and wrestle with difficult ideas.
We understand that, when a seventh grader reads Homer’s Odyssey, he will not have the depth of understanding, reflection, and writing ability that he will develop as a junior. It’s our goal to help him develop those abilities and give plenty of opportunity to practice them. That way, when he goes on to college and is faced with a mountain of difficult texts to study, he is far more prepared than even many of his peers. After all, he’s been doing it since the seventh grade.
So, by the time a Classically educated student is a senior in high school, reading difficult books isn’t so difficult at all. Going further, it cultivates good conversation, as these students will tend to become fascinating people to engage in discussion, because of their breadth of cultural and historical understanding, their thoughtful and powerful vocabulary, and their ability to process ideas through a thoughtful and truthful lens.
7. They are fun. It’s just that simple.
We read the Great Books because reading them is fun. Plan old fun. Think of the Great Books as an extreme book recommendation list, passed down from generation to generation as writings that inspire, move, and thrill us. Understanding these stories makes life fuller and trains our sense to see the world in full color with a mature heart and mind. And that, my friends, is a great gift to give our children.
Do you love the Great Books? Want to experience a taste of our Omnibus classes?
Join us for Great Books for the Grown Ups!
You can experience deep discussion on the Great Books with Veritas teachers and friends, too, at our Great Books for the Grown Ups Adult Omnibus Class, running Monday evenings, 7:00 - 8:30 from January 27 through April 20. Drop in for $10 per class any time and come to the Great Books discussion table!
See this type of rich and meaningful learning in action! Visit Veritas for a tour.
Are you hoping for a school that will challenge your child to think deeply about the world around them and speak thoughtfully in their interactions? Does your student crave a full and rigorous learning environment with peers who are excited about school? We invite you to take a peek into a day in the life of a Classical Christian school community. RSVP for a Veritas tour!