Professor Louis Menand discuss role of Great Books

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
The Dartmouth

Murphy: The Grass is Always Greener

By James Murphy, Guest Columnist

Published on Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Dartmouth professor recently told a colleague: “Everything I teach my undergrads will be obsolete in 10 years.” He attempted to introduce his undergraduate students to the frontiers of research in his own special field and those frontiers are constantly moving. No doubt we are all tempted to teach our own research fields and try to introduce our students to the issues and questions that we find so exciting. And there is no doubt that our students often enjoy feeling like participants in creating new knowledge.

But research in the psychology of expertise reveals that we professors possess an immense reservoir of factual knowledge and tacit intuition that is almost totally absent in even our best undergraduates. Hence, our students may enjoy the feeling of working at the cutting edge of research, but that feeling is largely illusory. If undergraduates could create new knowledge, then there would be no intellectual justification for graduate education. What our undergraduates need is to develop that broad and deep reservoir of relatively permanent knowledge that will underwrite whatever expertise they choose to later acquire.

Of course, some of our senior majors and honors students can benefit from exposure to scholarly research. But we Dartmouth professors are increasingly teaching our narrow fields of expertise even to our first-year students, as I discovered by participating in a study of our first-year writing program. Studies show that students tend unconsciously to emulate the prose style of what they read, meaning that the last thing we want our writing students to read are scholarly and scientific articles!

Unfortunately, the most up-to-date education is always the fastest out of date. Most of our students want their expensive college educations to have a shelf life of more than 10 years. The old proverb turns out to be true to the psychology of expertise: “Teach the oldest things to the youngest people.” Undergraduate students should focus their learning on foundational theories and texts so that they can acquire the deep reservoir of knowledge that we professors possess. But because our own foundational knowledge is invisible to us, it becomes invisible to our students as well.

My friends who teach at large research universities often say to me, “It must be nice to teach in a department with no graduate students. Your undergrads must get a great education.” But lately I have been saying to them, “It must be great to be able to teach your own field of expertise to graduate students, so that you can give your undergraduates the foundational knowledge they need.” For example, several of the universities best known for their world-class graduate schools — Yale University, Columbia University and the University of Chicago — are also the schools that have most carefully protected the integrity of undergraduate education through Directed Studies at Yale and the core curricula at Columbia and Chicago. When I point to these examples, my friends at those schools say, “Yes, those are great programs, but we are having trouble staffing them because undergraduate teaching is such a low priority here.”

A great college should have some highly specialized, transient or boutique courses that reflect the ever-changing interests of our faculty. But only some. As things stand, the ideals and aims of graduate training are increasingly colonizing our undergraduate curriculum. Cutting-edge research can be exciting, but the path to “new” knowledge runs through “old” knowledge. The job of a great college is to give students the enduring foundation of basic theory and classic texts, so that they can develop the judgment, understanding and intuition that they will later use for discovery and innovation.

Education: The Heart of the Matter

http://www.dartblog.com/data/2011/12/009925.php

It is a measure of the superficiality of most dialogue about the College that when someone writes a significant column for The D, the Editors place it in the last paper of the year and it receives no comments.

This space has noted Government Professor Jim Murphy’s unstinting work to launch his Daniel Webster Project — an effort to offer freshmen the option of first-year, dedicated Great Books curriculum. His recent column in The D, The Grass is Always Greener, merits careful reading.

Murphy’s thesis is that while Dartmouth’s professors should certainly be doing high-end research, and there is value in encouraging undergraduate participation in their scholarship, the faculty should not ignore the fact that students need an honest grounding in any discipline. Allowing course materials to focus excessively on a professor’s immediate interests shortchanges students.

The old proverb turns out to be true to the psychology of expertise: “Teach the oldest things to the youngest people.” Undergraduate students should focus their learning on foundational theories and texts so that they can acquire the deep reservoir of knowledge that we professors possess. But because our own foundational knowledge is invisible to us, it becomes invisible to our students as well…

A great college should have some highly specialized, transient or boutique courses that reflect the ever-changing interests of our faculty. But only some. As things stand, the ideals and aims of graduate training are increasingly colonizing our undergraduate curriculum. Cutting-edge research can be exciting, but the path to “new” knowledge runs through “old” knowledge. The job of a great college is to give students the enduring foundation of basic theory and classic texts, so that they can develop the judgment, understanding and intuition that they will later use for discovery and innovation.

In my experience auditing 30+ undergraduate courses over the past two decades, most Dartmouth professors do a good job in this area, but some do not. Academic freedom may be a sacrosanct value, but the President and the Provost should nonetheless give public and direct guidance here. Just as professors are compensated for publications, participation in professional conferences, and popular teaching, the College should also reward faculty members who strive to give their students a solid foundation in their discipline. Such a policy is not interference; it is good management to assure the high quality of a Dartmouth education. You might even choose another name for setting such a standard: leadership