A case for reading THE Great Books

And other great books

In an article critiquing the #DisruptTexts movement, Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Snyder argue, "while the question of what books are taught is clearly important, the question that should really draw our attention is how books are taught." I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. DisruptTexts and similar calls to overhaul the field of the classics miss the point of why texts like the Great Books have been read and taught for centuries: Because they prompt readers to contemplate, discuss, and debate the timeless questions of life. That should be the focus when teaching any book, not whether a book meets modern-day standards on matters of race and gender.

DisruptTexts argues that the literary canon should expand to "center" the voices of people of color and critically analyze (in the critical theory tradition) classical literature. The goal of centering the voices of people of color is for students to see themselves in the literature they read; in other words, the DisruptTexts movement argues that students should read texts by and about people who look like them. Khalid and Snyder assert that this focus "forecloses the possibility of looking beyond ourselves and our own horizons." This is a point worth reiterating. This approach also restricts relatability to the skin color of the characters and the setting of the text. Great books are those that raise questions that have plagued humanity, regardless of time and place. I don't just mean the Great Books. Any book that is worthy of the adjective "great" will evoke questions applicable to all humans, such as: What does it mean to be a good person? What is a good life? How should we live together? And great books tell stories that remind readers that whether the stories are told by an author from Afghanistan or Nigeria or the United States, we all share a common humanity. 

I am at the start of my journey reading the Great Books. Thus, although great books stem from every region of the world and society, my current frame of reference is the Greeks. Homer's epic poems, the Greek tragedies, and the works of Plato have been read and studied by scholars, students, and laypeople for centuries. A reader of these books could focus their critique on the skin color of the authors or what region of the world they are from, as DisruptTexts would have you do, but by doing that you would miss the lessons the books teach you.  

Consider the Odyssey, for example. The primary question that arose for me was: Is Odysseus a good king? And what does it mean to be a good leader? The part of the book that really brought this question to the light was when the father of a suitor, after the suitor's death at the hands of Odysseus, called out Odysseus as a poor leader: 

"Unforgettable sorrow wrung his heart for his son, Antinous, the first that great Odysseus killed. In tears for the one he lost, he stood and cried, "My friends, what a mortal blow this man has dealt to all our island people! Those fighters, many and brave, he led away in his curved ships--he lost the ships and he lost the men and back he comes again to kill the best of our Cephanllenian princes."

Dana Gioia, during an episode of EconTalk, posed other questions to explore while reading the Odyssey that are applicable to modern society, as much as they were to Greek society during the time of Homer. Two stories are depicted in the Odyssey: A son looking for his father, and a father returning home from a war to reunite with his family. These two stories raise several issues to contemplate: Sons without a father, fathers who have abandoned their families, and people returning from war and having to reintegrate into society. Gioia points out that these are all problems of American society today, they are not relegated to Greece during the time of Homer. 

The Greek tragedies also raise timeless questions about humanity. In the tragedy "Prometheus Bound," Prometheus, the God of Forethought, is being punished by Zeus for saving the human race, which Zeus aimed to destroy. Prometheus saved humans by giving them hope and fire:

"I caused mortals to cease foreseeing death.

What cure did you provide against that sickness?

I placed in them blind hope.

That was indeed a great benefaction that you gave mortals.

Besides this, I also gave them fire.

And do creatures of a day now possess bright fire?

Yes, and from it they shall learn many crafts."

The word “hope” is ubiquitous in modern-day society. President Obama used it in his campaign slogan: Hope and change. But what does it mean to have "blind hope"? And how could such hope save humans or allow them to progress?

“Prometheus Bound” is filled with other passages that lead to rich discussion about what it means to be human. For example, the following passage begs the questions: What is tyranny, and what does it mean to hold tyranny? Why might one who holds tyranny not "trust his friends"?

"This is the sickness rooted and inherent in the nature of a tyranny: that the one who holds it doesn't trust his friends."

In Aeschylus' "The Eumenides," the old Gods, known as the Furies, are losing their power and relevance in society. One passage in particular highlights the time-old tension between the older generation and the younger generation: 

"Gods of the younger generation, you have ridden down the laws of the elder time, torn them out of my hands."

This quote is in reference to the transition from Greeks looking to the Gods to carry out punishment to the establishment of the Athenian court system that used the judgement of mortals on a jury to carry out punishment. This process of change and the disconnect between generations is a tension that humanity is currently experiencing, which is evident in how the younger generation refers to the "boomer" generation, and will continue to experience in the future. 

In Plato's Gorgias, Socrates and Callicles have a debate about which way of life is best. Callicles asserts that the selfish, domineering, pleasure-seeking one is best, while Socrates argues that the philosophical life, committed to justice and other virtues, and devoted to learning about and living in accordance with them, is best. For example, in the following quote, Socrates argues that self-discipline leads to happiness: 

"A person who wants to be happy must evidently pursue and practice self-control. Each of us must flee away from lack of discipline as quickly as his feet will carry him, and must above all make sure that he has no need of being disciplined, but if he does have that need, either he himself or anyone in his house, either private citizen or a whole city, he must pay his due and must be disciplined, if he's to be happy."

One could ask after reading this passage, is Socrates correct? Is being disciplined an important component to being happy? 

I could continue on with references to passages that pose the important questions that humans should, and dare I say must, contemplate, but I'll just leave you with these. If you want to understand Western Civilization, you read the Western canon, if you want to understand Eastern Civilization, you read the Eastern canon, if you want to understand humanity, you read great books from a variety of traditions that illuminate the human condition, whether they take place in your neighbor or another country and whether the characters have your skin color or that of another. One of my favorite authors is Khaled Hosseini. His books—the Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed—are beautifully written stories about family, friendship, and survival. I have never been to Afghanistan, where the stories take place, but as a human, I understand and can relate to the stories he tells.

Teachers should diversify the curriculum to include stories that represent the diversity of the context in which they teach, but the books should be great. And the questions teachers pose relating to books should help students see themselves as part of the human race, not just as a singular person living in a specific location during a specific time.