Considering the Great Books Curriculum

Jeffrey Selingo, author of There is Life after College and former editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education in his January 28, 2017 Washington Post article, ‘Business is the most popular major, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good choice,’ questioned the benefit of a business degree for undergraduates.  

Everywhere Mr. Selingo travels he is asked about how best to choose a major and his answer is fairly uniform: “Find a major that will challenge you to work hard and spend time on specific tasks, such as writing, reading, or math programs, and one that will present you with opportunities to learn from the best professors…”

That is why studying the Great Books, in some capacity as an undergraduate, might not be such an impractical response to  selecting a major. What prevents students from  considering the possibility of a Great Books program is lack of knowledge of how a Great Books program works. The details of the workings of a prominent Great Books program might open some eyes.     

St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe (NM), provides a  four-year Great Books program   investigating and discussing the great works in literature, philosophy, history, social science, mathematics, natural sciences and music. In the words of St. John’s brochure these works, ‘illuminate the persisting questions of human existence and bear directly on the problems we face today.’

The seminar is the heart of the curriculum. Each seminar contains 18 students and two faculty who lead the discussions over the homework, which consists of 80-pages of reading, depending on difficulty level. There are two rules of engagement: all opinions must be heard and every opinion needs to be supported by an argument. Furthermore, no discussions are preset: there is no ‘right’ opinion or ‘interpretation’. Should the faculty leaders enter a discussion no special consideration is given to them: ‘reason is the only recognized authority.’

Preceptorials are given after the end of first semester in which one work, such as Faraday’s Experimental Researches in Electricity and Magnetism is explored in depth and students, usually no more than ten, give a final presentation or a paper to cap the session.

Tutorials, consisting of 12 students and a tutor, emphasize ‘methodical and careful study’ of language, mathematics, music, requiring students to constantly discuss and write about concepts and applications encountered.

At St. Johns, mathematics is not ‘artificially’ separated from the liberal arts, but an intrinsic means of understanding the universe and verifying the foundations and thinking in crucial fields of reasoning, such as in the natural and social sciences. The treatises accessed range from Elements of Euclid and the Conics of Apollonius to Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Lobachevski’s approach to non-Euclidean geometry.

Equally interesting is the music tutorial, which features the study of music theory and an understanding of ‘musical literature,’ containing the Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Schubert’s leiders, and the operas of Mozart. Instead of reading critiques of the music, the students listen to the composition and become familiar with all its elements prior to discussion and analysis.  

The Laboratory fills in the natural science portion of the Great Book’s discussion. In the labs students will pursue topics in biology, chemistry, physics through the textual inquiries devised by Galen, Harvey, Newton, Bohr, to name but a few. Then using laboratory instruments, students will note the limitation of the measurements and instruments, the principles, assumptions and observations involved, consider alternative methods of experimentation while analyzing procedures and sources of error.

The entire curriculum for St. John’s Great Books program can be accessed at its ‘Statement of the Program’ at It warrants a visit, especially if you’re contemplating what a college education might be and what graduate studies and careers are pursued by the St. Johns alumni.

Its students do consistently score above the national average on graduate level standardized tests. 17% even go on to business careers.  Yet, more importantly, what many graduates of Great Books programs share is the confidence, capability and understanding to tackle a world of problems, and that’s really what a college education is supposed to be all about.