For my undergraduate degree I had the privilege of studying in a "Great Books" program at Concordia University's Liberal Arts College in Montreal. This bachelor of arts degree in "Western Society and Culture" is one of a hundred Great Books curricula in North America, Europe and Asia. The Concordia program was modelled on the Great Books movement which began at Columbia University in New York in 1921 and which now constitutes that university's Core Curriculum. The Western version of a Great Books course of study was itself inspired by the medieval and Renaissance educational ideal of a liberal arts education, believed to be crucial to producing a well-rounded, free human being who had the moral and intellectual preparation for social and political life.
The Liberal Arts College at Concordia, celebrating its 35th anniversary in May, was founded in 1978 by Professor of History Frederick Krantz, along with his colleague Professor Harvey Schulman from the Department of Political Science. The program consisted of eight courses that took three years to complete. There were two year-long courses on the "Structures and Dynamics of Western Civilization," two on "Modes of Expression and Interpretation," a one-year course on the "History of Art" and the "History of Music," a one-semester course on "Sciences and Society," and a final full-year course focused on the 20th century. The students liked to joke that the program took us from "Plato to NATO": giving us the opportunity to read not only Socrates' star pupil but also the Book of Job, Sophocles, St. Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Hegel, Tocqueville, Marx, Nietzsche, Woolf, Joyce, Sartre, Beauvoir, Habermas, Foucault and many others.
Along with professors Krantz and Schulman, I also had the opportunity to meet and work with other inspiring professors such as John Laffey, Laszlo Géfin, Judith Herz, Robert Martin, Michel Despland, Géza Szamosi, Claude Lévy, Geoffrey Fidler and Virginia Nixon. And, perhaps most importantly, I had the opportunity to build a community of friends with a common syllabus and a shared project. At the time I did not fully appreciate the education and friendships that I was receiving. It was only when I began to teach full-time as a Lecturer, from 2003-2011, in the superb Social Studies program at Harvard University, that I recognized the value of the books that I had studied. One thing that I have learned from teaching at different institutions is that all students, and not only students, need models by which they can individually and collectively reflect on ethical questions, social and political issues, and the quest for knowledge -- in all its various forms -- that links humanity across geography and history.
Beginning in the 1980s, Great Books programs came under criticism from feminists, anti-racists and postmodernists. The Western canon was interpreted by many as simply a collection of works by "dead white males." This assessment was understandable: women and people historically descended from Asia, Africa and Latin America were right to call for courses that provided them with insight into their contributions to Western and global history and culture. Many of the critiques, however, were not only focused on the books chosen but were also informed by postmodernist questioning of the very idea of "Great Books" -- interpreted as just one more power-laden meta-narrative. While the reflection on the canon was timely, it was also short-sighted. These scholars and activists forgot that students need historical points of support, thinkers who have been interrogated for hundreds and even thousands of years, with which -- and against which -- they might formulate their own interpretations. This need for substantial intellectual traditions has become more apparent in an era of impermanence, consumerism and technocracy.
I am a believer in the importance of Great Books, but how does one teach them in a world characterized by globalization, and cultural, ethnic, gender and sexual equality? This is a question that I have been reflecting on as a professor in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at my favourite Toronto city college and as a lecturer who continues to teach at Harvard in the summer. Contemporary colleges are wonderful -- and demanding -- places to work because they provide the instructor with the most diverse classroom in the world, each containing a variety of cultures as well as of languages, religions, ages, identities and educational achievement. I recently designed a course called "Global Great Thinkers" in which I teach the philosophers of antiquity, not only from the West, but from around the world. Students receive the opportunity to learn not only about Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, but also Confucius, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Maimonides and Averroës. And I teach these thinkers from a perspective informed by numerous critiques -- for example, we investigate how the texts construct and sometimes deconstruct gender roles and identities. The goal is to provide my culturally diverse classroom with the first semester of a global canon. In the ideal world, every student would receive a degree in "Global Society and Culture," and enjoy the shared collective inquiry that comes with it, before proceeding onto a diploma or degree that was more immediately focused on employability. I want to provide my students with critical and creative thinking skills, developed through an encounter with some of the most influential minds in history, to help them deepen their ability to investigate the challenges and privileges of our era, while remaining informed by an understanding of our philosophical and cultural past.
Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.
Photo: Abhi Sharma/flickr