Despite having taught a course about Great Books — a series of books widely considered to represent the pinnacle of Western literature — for four years, Harvard University English professor Louis Menand said this canon of literature should not be the hallmark of a liberal education. In the annual William Jewett Tucker lecture and latest installment of the “Leading Voices in Higher Education” strategic planning speaker series, held Thursday afternoon in Filene Auditorium, Menand answered the title question of his speech — “Are the Great Books the Moral Heart of Liberal Education?” — with a decisive “no.”
Menand, the recipient of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in history and a contributor to The New Yorker, examined the structure of higher education by telling the stories of curriculum creation and progression at Columbia University, the University of Chicago and Harvard.
General education requirements at Harvard originally included a Great Books course in order to give students a common ground for discussion, he said.
“In the Harvard model, Great Books are not read because they articulate timeless truths,” Menand said. “Great Books are read because they have been read.”
Harvard later forfeited the Great Books requirement as the concept of academic majors became more clearly defined, though Menand said “belief in knowledge for its own sake does survive,” despite changes in curricula over the years.
Menand also discussed the history of “Contemporary Civilization” and “Literature Humanities,” mandatory Great Books courses at Columbia. They were originally developed by professors to teach students a collective culture and became part of the college’s core curriculum in 1947, he said.
Dartmouth English professor Aden Evens said that the popularity of the lecture — which drew an audience of approximately 200 guests — may have been influenced by Menand’s own star power.
“He represents a certain ultimate possible achievement for academic workers,” Evens said. “He’s at the top of the humanities among professors all over North America.”
Evens said he was interested in Menand’s opinions on higher education in light of Dartmouth’s own curriculum restructuring, as well as in potential changes to the understanding of a liberal arts eduction.
“With Dartmouth undertaking a wholesale reevaluation of their institutional goals for the medium-to-long term, my understanding is that his lecture was part of this reevaluation,” Evens said. “That process is extremely important to me. I worry that Dartmouth is heading in a direction that’s not the one I want it to.”
Parth Kaul ’14 attended the lecture at the recommendation of government professor James Murphy, who teaches Great Books in his theory-based classes. Kaul said he left the lecture with some unanswered questions.
“It would have been really nice if he could have broken down the way the D-Plan follows into the entire philosophy of the system controlling the fate of the students,” Kaul said.
Enfield, N.H. resident Jeffrey Hinman ’68 said he also left the lecture unsure of certain issues.
“I’d never really known what all the Great Books were, and he still didn’t answer that question,” Hinman said.
In response to a question from an audience member, Menand said he continues to teach a course on Great Books despite the fact that they are not essential to a liberal education because students “just love the stuff, and they love to talk about it.” Murphy said Menand’s answer to this question was the highlight of the hour-long lecture.
“At the end, he did give the most powerful defense of the Great Books,” he said. “Everything else he said with skepticism and contempt about the Great Books faded into insignificance. The deeper truth is that what people do is more revealing than what they say.”
by Kira Witkin
Published on Friday, February 17,2012