Great Books Curriculum

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Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

With all the talk of curriculum coherence and sequencing and people furiously creating logical progression models and maps there is another way to go. In the United States in particular there is a liberal arts tradition of great books curricula. These programmes run alongside the main curriculum or, in an admittedly dwindling number of liberal arts colleges, are the main focus of studies.

The great thing about these programmes are in terms of sequencing, chronology takes care of all your potential problems. You can start with the Epic of Gilgamesh and end with One Hundred Years of Solitude… well this is where the arguments start. What books to include? The books are drawn from the novel, philosophy, science, plays, it includes great essays and poetry, short stories and speeches, journalism and provocations. There is no reason to assume that the approach couldn’t take in pictures, music, experiments, films, artefacts, buildings, manifestoes, historical events and great people…

The coherence comes from the chronology, the conversation of time but also through the method of teaching. The books are read at the same time in small groups of students who then discuss the work. A teacher creates the conditions for a Socratic dialogue where questioning and disputation, and critical faculties are to the fore. Each student will then write an essay about the book or a number of books they have read.

Mortimer J. Adler the Editor- in-Chief of ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ and the ‘Great Books of the Western World’ thought that Great Books programmes were an essential part of a high school education suggesting with so many years in education going to waste all children before the age of eighteen should have studied a great books curriculum.

The fun comes in deciding what the great books might be…


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