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The Forum | Liberal Arts

The Great Books are Transcendent

June 16, 2021 by Nathaniel Urban

A new book, The Love of Learning: Seven Dialogues on the Liberal Arts, remedies the disjointed approach to liberal arts education. Unfortunately, few liberal arts colleges remain committed to the study of the traditional arts and sciences. Instead, at these institutions, a liberal arts education consists of a cafeteria line of courses in various disciplines, with few or no requirements and little cohesive purpose. Love of Learning, however, proposes liberal arts education transcends racial, cultural, and political boundaries and fulfills students yearning for truth and beauty.

An excellent method of liberal arts education is a course or series of courses in the Great Books, the essential texts that are considered the foundation of Western Civilization. St. John’s College and Thomas Aquinas College are known for having a Great Books-based, four-year curriculum. The King’s College, Baylor University, and the University of Dallas have a primarily Great Books-based core curriculum.

Another notable example is Columbia University, one of the premier institutions of higher education in the country. Since 1919, the Columbia College Core Curriculum has provided “all students with wide-ranging perspectives on significant ideas and achievements in literature, philosophy, history, music, art, and science.” The reading list combines the best authors and texts in the Western tradition for a close examination of human nature, including Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Virgil, Augustine, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Austen, Dostoevsky, and selections of the Bible.

Love of Learning editor Margarita Mooney and contributor Roosevelt Montás discuss the unique purpose of Columbia’s core curriculum. Dr. Montás, former director of the Center for the Core Curriculum at Columbia, says, “At Columbia we emphasize commonality of intellectual experience . . . That has a very powerful impact in creating community, facilitating dialogue, and linking students to a broader, larger intellectual landscape.” The core curriculum connects new classes of students with timeless principles.

The Great Books exceed superfluous boundaries. Columbia’s core curriculum is a shared “intellectual landscape,” Dr. Montás says. Students examine common human experiences: love, poverty, fate, innocence, war, obsession, and other issues that affect us all. Dr. Montás continues, “It is condescending to this diverse student population to suppose that these great texts . . . are somehow inaccessible and that the human experience they explore is irrelevant to our diverse student body.” The Great Books are tools that foster a sound understanding of the human condition. Their ideas move beyond race, creed, wealth, political affiliation, and social status.

Dr. Mooney and George Harne, another Love of Learning contributor, explore the connection between the Great Books and the yearning for truth and beauty. Dr. Harne, former president of Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, says, “At Magdalen . . . We believe that there is a truth that is discoverable and knowable across texts. We spend four years with our students moving across the classic disciplines, , , We do this within the broader context of forming and educating the whole person. But beauty—liturgical beauty, the fine arts, and natural beauty—all play essential roles.” A hidden sensation enthralls a student the first time he or she sees Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, hears Mr. Darcy tell Elizabeth he loves her, or reads Victor Hugo’s description of Notre Dame.

The yearning for truth and beauty is not an uncommon phenomenon. Humans have felt this calling for over 2,000 years. Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know.” C.S. Lewis said, “The fact that our heart yearns for something Earth can’t supply is proof that Heaven must be our home.” Whether it is knowledge, the divine, or a different indescribable feeling, the yearning for truth and beauty is the pursuit of something beyond the individual self. It allows students temporarily to surrender their ego and find peace and meaning in their lives.

Liberal arts education is at a crossroads; it can either continue down its current path (a cafeteria-style selection of unrelated courses), or expose students to the greatest works of literature, history, philosophy, theology, art, mathematics, and science. The Great Books rise above the contemporary differences that students experience and satisfy the longing in their souls for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

The Love of Learning: Seven Dialogues on the Liberal Arts is on sale here.

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Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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