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It's a Great Time to Revive the 'Great Books'

There was a time when professors committed to teaching core texts, or the "great books," met to swap war stories and generally commiserate about how underappreciated they were. No longer. Tuition sticker shock has changed all that. Parents and, increasingly, state legislators are painfully aware that the costs of a college education have skyrocketed.

Sometimes they tsk-tsk about the sharp escalation of administrative costs; sometimes they worry if their sons and daughters will find a job after graduation; but most of the time, they wonder if what passes for a college education these days really adds up. How could it when most institutions offer a dizzying array of courses, many of which don't make much sense individually or cohere into anything remotely resembling a rich liberal-arts education.

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Enter the Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC), which recently held its second national meeting in Philadelphia. Unlike its predecessors, this group not only boasts about its activist edge but also knows how to bring deans, provosts, and even university presidents into the loop. Granted, a turnout of 80 participants (substantially up from the first national meeting held a year ago) may not seem impressive, but consider the sheer range of institutions represented: Boston University, Kentucky State, Notre Dame, Norwalk Community-Technical College, Skidmore, St. John's, Trenton State. Besides, as Stephen Zelnick, director of Temple University's Intellectual Heritage and ACTC president, likes to put it: "The time is ripe to put the systematic study of great books at the very center of institutional agendas."

Why? Because there is a widespread feeling that college educations no longer last nor do they say anything serious about how graduates might conduct their lives.

Meeting participants explored pragmatic ways of furthering the systematic study of core texts. Sometimes this took the form of how programs might effectively reach out to colleagues in the sciences; sometimes sessions focused on the thorny problem of how the canon could be widened to include more contemporary (read: multicultural) texts.

Not only did programs differ (some were limited to a single semester while others spanned the entire four years of an undergraduate's education). More important, participants avoided the mug's game of trying to establish which specific texts were essential. What mattered was that faculty in the various programs negotiated their choices through a series of thoughtful discussions. Thus, student needs, rather than the attraction-and-rewards of narrow specialization, received a primacy that has virtually disappeared on most campuses.

In short, those committed to an education founded on the great books exuded a supreme confidence not unlike that of Mark Twain's Christian holding four aces. In this case, however, the cards in the respective hands included Plato, Aristotle, Pericles, and Aquinas; Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Dante; or Galileo, Locke, Hume, and Descartes. Better yet, those in the room knew whereof they spoke, as opposed to the usual situation in which shouting matches about the great books are conducted by those who have not bothered to read them.

Still, political realities of a different sort could not help but intrude. Far too many institutions of higher learning reward those who know more and more about less and less - and who publish their findings to fewer and fewer. The notion that anybody can teach a freshman or sophomore core- texts section is simultaneously widespread and wildly inaccurate. If the caliber of discussion at the ACTC meeting was at all representative, considerable skills are required to get students to the gist of why Darwin and Freud are important thinkers.

The ACTC recognizes that nothing will change until people organize - by creating networks of employment, a scholarly journal, and institutional clout. Progress is being made on all these fronts, especially the last. As well-established programs ask the simple, but attention-grabbing question "How does your institution justify its astronomical tuitions or state funding?" there are good reasons to believe that core-text programs may become the bandwagon that administrators resist at their peril.

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All evidence suggests that the systematic study of the great books would be a boon for students who currently pick and choose courses from an ever expanding cafeteria list, many of which seem merely trendy. Moreover, core-text programs would also speak to a larger public that rightly wonders why it is that higher education costs more at the same time it delivers less.

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