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Showing posts with label Great Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Great Books. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

New "Great Books" College to Honor C. S. Lewis

One of the great, counter-cultural, signs of hope in recent decades has been the establishment of "great books" colleges. Rather than a menu of trendy, politically correct courses from which students may choose, at the great books colleges students and professors mine the best works of western civilization for the truth. In small seminar classes utilizing the socratic method, students learn to think and defend that truth in debate and in writing. In this regard, we particularly admire Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.

This classical approach to education is a growing movement and a sure antidote to much that ails the modern world. We were, therefore, particularly pleased to learn of a new college in the Oxford tradition, named for and inspired by the great Christian author, C. S. Lewis.

Property purchased by Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. from Northfield Mount Hermon School will become the home of a college to be established by the C. S. Lewis Foundation, the organizations announced Wednesday.

Hobby Lobby, a privately held national retail chain of more than 400 arts and crafts stores, purchased property in Northfield, Mass., from the Northfield Mount Hermon School (NMH).The property will become the home of C.S. Lewis College, a college of great books and visual and performing arts.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Demise of Great Books

From The Daily Texan
By John Davidson

The latest chapter in the long, depressing story of classical liberal education in America is unfolding here in Austin, where the University of Texas has recently snuffed out a nascent Great Books program.

The tale began in 2002, when UT philosophy professor Robert Koons and a few others started working to establish a program focused on Western civilization and the Great Books. Their idea was to develop an alternative liberal arts curriculum that would require undergraduates to read, systematically, seminal western texts such as the Bible, the works of ancient Greece and Rome and the American founding documents. This was considered radical at UT.

Koons and his cohorts persevered despite stiff opposition, and last fall the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions began offering classes. It was, by all accounts, a smashing success: Students were signing up, alumni were sending checks (Koons raised more than $1 million) and a speaker series sponsored by the program was hugely popular. It seemed that classical liberal education was experiencing a renaissance at UT.

Read the rest of this entry >>

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Summer With Aristotle

From The Wall Street Journal
By Emily Esfahani Smith

On a summer day, inside a Stanford University classroom, a blonde, 12-year old girl rises to confront her professor. “You’re wrong” she cries and storms out in tears. The professor, an ethics teacher at the school, is trying to make the case that it’s morally permissible to kill one innocent life to save five. Still later that night, over dinner, the professor and the girl sit side by side, working out their ethical differences thinker to thinker. The young girl even smiles.

Welcome to book camp. With the close of this summer, the Great Books Summer Program, as it is formally called, will have had its most successful year according to Peter Temes, its academic director. Each summer, students ages 12 to 17 gather against the idyllic backdrop of either Stanford University or Amherst College. They attend lectures, participate in discussions, eat meals, and live together as a community of precocious ­thinkers.

Reading the works of Homer, Virgil, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson and so many others, the students are pushed to grapple with questions that have preoccupied the great thinkers of the past 2,500 years. What is the good life? How should I face injustice? What do I owe my neighbor?

The program started eight years ago with a group of 30 students, many of whom were underprivileged, meeting on weekends. Today, the camp enrolls around 600 students and its overlapping one-, two- and three-week sessions run from late June to the beginning of ­August.

Mr. Temes recalls the inspiration he had to start the great books initiative. “There was a brilliant middle schooler in the South Bronx whose teacher one day said to him, ‘I bet you’re really excited for high school.’ The kid stared back at her blankly and said ‘I don’t think I’ll go.’”

Realizing that there were many young students who shared a love of literature and ideas but lacked the “carrot of college dangling in front of them,” Mr. Temes and several others began the Great Books Summer Program “to give these kids a precollege college experience.”

Unfortunately, a great-books curriculum is in short supply even at many colleges today. But recently a small but vibrant group of important professors have been working to restore the great books’ prominence in a liberal arts education. In the past decade, educators at Princeton, Dartmouth and Brown (to name just three schools) have erected centers specifically designed to give students an education in the fundamental texts of the Western canon. Princeton’s James Madison Program, Brown’s Political Theory Project and Dartmouth’s Daniel Webster Project offer or sponsor classes on Medieval and Renaissance political thought, Civil Liberties, Politics and Religion, and so on.

The mere existence of these programs suggests an important trend in student learning habits. The academic radicalism of recent decades is receding, and students are ready to be serious again. Flaky courses—such as Sociology of Heterosexuality (Yale), Philosophy and Star Trek (Georgetown), or Whiteness: The Other Side of Racism (Mount Holyoke)—no longer interest them. Instead, students from book camp and Princeton are interested in “sitting down with Plato, St. Augustine, and James Madison, to think through the perennial issues of politics and citizenship,” says Robert George, a professor and director of Princeton’s James Madison Program.

Since its birth nine years ago, the James Madison Program has dramatically grown in its offerings and influence on the Princeton campus. That’s only been possible because “students are very interested in learning about founding principles. Our class enrollments are very high,” says Mr. George. “In the Constitutional Interpretation class, which has the reputation of being the hardest non-science class at Princeton, 100 to 125 students are typically enrolled.” To put that in perspective, most classes at Princeton hold fewer than 19 students. The James Madison Program’s numbers, along with the Great Books Summer Program’s, say it all. Students want to learn this stuff.

Still, too many colleges are not meeting that demand. Mr. Temes and Mr. George’s programs are one step in the right direction. But without more efforts like theirs, says Mr. Temes, many students will be condemned to “live in a world created by thinkers they don’t know nor understand.”

Ms. Smith is a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Journal this summer.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Richard Dawkins believes that Christianity is an intellectual vacancy. That's probably because he has never visited the astonishing Thomas Aquinas College, says Marc Sidwell.
"I look up now, past a rounded tree which quivers with bird-life, and I see a few of the students. Once again, it's a kind of shock to gaze upon them."
It is unfashionable to acknowledge that good ideas come from America. Thirty years ago Christopher Derrick discovered Thomas Aquinas College in Southern California, and could not conceal his wonder. Here was a community of learning unlike anything left in Europe. He shared his delight in Escape from Scepticism: Liberal Education as if Truth Mattered. Stumbling on his account last year while researching a new history of liberal education, I, too, was exhilarated. The decades have changed nothing; this college is as important as ever.

Thomas Aquinas College is a Great Books school. Its students engage directly with the profound thinkers that define Western civilisation: St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Euclid, Plato and Shakespeare, to name only a few. Classes employ the Socratic method of dialogue. The curriculum is stretching, yet not impossibly demanding. Most important of all, the college is centered on the faculty's profession of Catholic faith. Beginning in wonder, the course aims at wisdom.

"What struck me first was the extreme happiness of the students," wrote Derrick. That still appears to hold true. The discovery of intellectual power in the context of an intellectually rigorous faith looks far more enjoyable than the usual campus free-for-all. For what Thomas Aquinas College rejects is the easy relativism that Pope Benedict XVI has so roundly denounced. Assured of the existence of truth, the mind is freed to engage with the great conversation of the Western mind.

Thomas Aquinas College is a modern exemplar of a great tradition. Liberal education stretches back to the birth of our civlisation-a golden thread of intellectual freedom. It begins in 5th century Athens, as the education due to a free man. Faith and reason intertwined in the Catholic Church, carrying our civilisation forward after the fall of Rome. Now men spoke of universal freedom and therefore a universal education. Preserved in the Benedictine orders, transmitted by schoolmaster-priests, it was the Christian liberal educators who kept the life of the mind alive through centuries of uncertainty and civil strife.

It is extraordinary that the vital educational role of the Church is now so underappreciated. Only last year, suspicion of Catholic schools was common in the Press even as a survey demonstrated their above-average standards and their excellent work towards producing well-rounded future citizens.

Such excellence should come as no surprise. St. Thomas Aquinas, the doctor angelicus, is proof of the high value Catholicism has always placed upon reasoned enquiry into creation. Yet the sceptics like Richard Dawkins continue to sneer at Christianity as an intellectual vacancy. They misquote Tertullian as "I believe because it is absurd" and do not know St. Anselm of Canterbury's Credo ut intelligam. ("I believe in order to understand").

Recently, this teaching has been reaffirmed. Pope John Paul II published Fides et Ratio in 1998, which opens with a ringing endorsement: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."

Only last year His Holiness Benedict XVI used his Regensburg address to say that "the encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance."

Even while Rome speaks, the ideal of a liberal education is almost lost from British discourse. Thirty years after Christopher Derrick's epiphany in Santa Paula, it seems little has changed at home. Instead, the exchange runs the other way. Two British students and one Irish citizen are currently enjoying the Californian sun, not the first to accept the 6000-mile journey as the price of an education no longer available at home.

Today, Thomas Aquinas College is more confident than ever. For 30 years, its graduates have gone out into the world and proven their ability to excel in all fields. One American alumnus runs a network of pre-schools in London. When Christopher Derrick visited, only six years after its founding, there were 33 students. Today, there are ten times as many, and a growing waiting list. For the last three years, the college has been in the top 10 conservative colleges in America.

"The human mind is ordered to truth," says college president, Dr. Thomas E. Dillon, who was a member of the teaching faculty at the time of Derrick's original visit. He notes the Vatican's recent emphasis on this teaching and adds: "If anything, the mission and character of Thomas Aquinas College is more relevant now than it was in 1977."

A liberal education is not exclusively a Catholic prerogative. Protestant and secular schools all do fine work in this great tradition-again, now largely in America. Yet it remains true that the Catholic Church has played the greatest role, and is most likely to be in the vanguard of any revival. To me, an Anglican, it seems tragic that Britain, once the last bulwark of liberal education, should choose to neglect its heritage.

Perhaps foolishly, I find myself inspired by the great unbuilt British college, the College of Light. In 1641 Jan Comenius was invited to London by the Long Parliament to establish the Collegium Lucis: the last moment when scientific thought and Christian faith might have united in a modern British institution. Civil war intervened, and the Royal Society was established instead, without Comenius's (admittedly heterodox) faith.

America, they say, is always a few decades ahead. That makes it high time for Britain to catch up with the principles of Thomas Aquinas College. Meanwhile, the Californians join Pope Benedict in his prayer on the recent feast of St. Thomas Aquinas: "Let us pray that Christians, especially those who work in an academic and cultural context, are able to express the reasonableness of their faith and witness to it in a dialogue inspired by love."

Marc Sidwell is a Research Fellow of the New Culture Forum and a freelance author. He writes articles on liberal education for the Social Affairs Unit and is currently editing a liberal education reader from Plato to the present day.

(This article first appeared in the May 2007 issue of The Catholic Herald of London.