English 287: Great Books
Goals of the Course
Our course has three immediate aims. All of them ultimately converge in the overall project of encouraging you to undertake serious reading of challenging literature as a project of lifelong learning.
(1) To practice reading challenging works of literature with appropriate "agendas of curiosity."
Reading analytically is an art that we can pick up only with practice. With guidance, this practice can be more efficient. Our course is designed to help cue you into the kinds of intellectual moves on the part of a reader are called for by a range of different kinds of fiction.
ranging from the early 7th Century BCE (Homer) to the 20th Century (Vonnegut and Pirsig);
embracing epic, drama, and novel;
and including at least one work from each of the four broad "genres" (based upon one of the four "basic plots") of comedy, tragedy, romance and satire.
Part of the challenge, that is, has to do with noticing that different kinds of literary work call for different specific agendas of curiosity. This means that any "general agenda of curiosity" will incorporate questions that enable us to decide sooner rather than later which specific kinds of curiosity it will pay off for us to pursue in an particular case.
To aid you in reading the works we take up, I will make available two sorts of study guides:
a General Study Guide providing an overall agenda for reading works of literature (you should print off a copy as soon as possible and start pondering its parts) and
a series of study guides directed specifically to the particular works we are taking up in the course of the semester.
(2) To practice discussing challenging works of literature with others.
Discussion, like private inquiry and reflection, is an art. We will practice several kinds of discussion, both
in class and
via our web discussion board.
(3) To enable you to make a first acquaintance with a select few of the acknowledged masterpieces of literature in the Western Tradition.
Note that the phrase "great books" generally has a more comprehensive scope of reference than it does in the title of our course.
Ordinarily it covers "classical" works in theology, literature, history, philosophy, and science, so long as these are directed to the general educated public of the day. St. Augustine's The City of God (412-27), Edward Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), Plato's Republic (first half of the 4th Century BCE), Francis Bacon's Novum Organum (1620) , Freud's Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) , and Francis Crick and James Watson's The Double Helix (1968) all qualify as great books in this perfectly respectable sense of the term. But none of these is a work of literature in the rather restricted sense of that term to which we are appealing here.
And the literary works we are concerned with here are restricted to the Western Tradition.
This means that we will not be reading such masterpieces of world literature as Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji (Japan) or Ts'ao Hsüeh-ch'in's Dream of the Red Chamber (China), or the Mahabharata (India) or the Thousand and One Nights (Arabia).
One reason for reminding ourselves of this limitation is to pique your curiosity for eventually exploring these other realms.
Some avenues for (eventually) going further.
So: our course is an important but still only partial contribution towards the larger aim of equipping college students to carry on their education in the history of human imagination, on their own and in the company of others, beyond their particular career specialty.
Why, though, would one want to do this?
"Why should we read great books that deal with the problems and concerns of bygone eras? Our social and political problems are so urgent that they demand practically all the time and energy we can devote to serious contemporary reading. Is there any value, besides mere historical interest, in reading books written in the simple obsolete cultures of former times?"
A fair question, surely! There is much to be said on the issues raised here, and we will from time to time address one or another of these in the course of the semester. Meanwhile, you might be interested in the answer Mortimer Adler gave when this question came to him.
How does the course propose to pursue its 3 immediate aims?
Because all three of our immediate goals presuppose reading the actual texts of the works we are taking up, substantial credit will be given for a demonstration that you have invested the time, on a regular basis, to do this.
Hence the fact that 200 points in the course will be dependent upon a series of quizzes, scheduled throughout the semester. Since 3 of our selections (The Odyssey, Don Quixote, and Tom Jones) are rather lengthy, they will be the occasion for more than one quiz apiece. But there will be at least one for each work. The quizzes are designed so that, if you have read the sections covered, you should be able to earn full credit, but that if you have not gotten around to part of it, your score will reflect that.
Because our second goal is so important, and important part of the total points for the course -- 100 in fact -- will depend on your participation in the discussions that take place on our class discussion board on the web.
There are 15 weeks in the course, not counting the first week of class and final exam week. I will accord 5 points for each eligible contribution to the discussion board ("message board"), up to a total of 100. So if you post 20 eligible contributions during those 15 weeks, you will come away with 100% on this element of the course. The page on message board discussions defines what counts as an eligible contribution.
Here, though, I will mention one factor in determining this, having to do with "regularity." I do not expect everyone to make at least one contribution each week. (That would, of course, be quite welcome: 1 per week, plus an extra one in each of 5 of those weeks, for example, would certainly do the trick.) But it will not be acceptable to pack all of your otherwise eligible contributions into the last couple of weeks. So one of the criteria for a contribution's being eligible for credit is that not more than 10 submitted in the last two weeks will count, and that not more than 4 submitted in the last week will count. (This means, for example, that up to 6 that came in during the next-to-last week along with up to 4 in the last week would count for credit. So would 10 submitted in the next-to-last week, if none were submitted during dead week.)
How does our selection of readings relate to these goals?
In the course of the semester, we will read through, and discuss, 8 works from widely different "subcultures" that have contributed to what has come to be known as the Western Tradition. There is of course no way in which a single course could introduce students to all of the broad periods into which historians of culture have divided this tradition, even if it were to confine itself to introducing students to "snippets" of key texts. Since one of the assumptions we will be working on is that literary works are wholes, and that the meaning of their parts is importantly determined by their interrelationship within this whole, our main readings will consist of entire works. This means that we will sacrifice greater breadth for greater depth.
I have sought to include at least one work from each of the broad "genres" (based upon one of the four "basic plots") of comedy, tragedy, romance and satire.
(Actually, one of these genres -- romance -- gets short shrift in our course. This is because I find this genre generally boring. [I confess this can be taken as an acknowledgment of a kind of crotchety As it happens, though, there is an interesting brief story in the romance mode incorporated within Don Quixote -- which in other respects is concerned to burlesque a particular sub-genre within the general category of romance. On the other hand, there is a series of enjoyable films we are all familiar with that represent classic examples of the category of "romance" in the sense in which we are using the term, and that is the series you think of under the term Star Wars.)
And I have sought to confront students predominantly with works from the historically remoter subcultures that have contributed to the larger conversation that has given us our own day. That should give us an opportunity to notice the sorts of issues that "remoteness" in time and place (i.e., in culture) put in front of a reader from a different time and place.
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Contents copyright © 2001 by Lyman A. Baker.
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This page last updated 26 August 2002 .