Community college students should study the great books of western civilization, writes J.M. Anderson, dean of humanities, fine arts, and social sciences at Illinois Valley Community College, in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary.
President Obama’s stress on community colleges as job-training centers encourages students to think community colleges are “a means to a credential or a steppingstone to a four-year school,” not a place of learning, he writes. Colleges should provide a “streamlined curriculum centered around the great books” to establish “the unity of knowledge and purpose that is missing in community colleges.”
Now curricula are diffuse, and course catalogs encourage students to think of education as a smorgasbord rather than a holistic undertaking.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard students say, when they see literature under required readings on my course syllabus for Western Civ, “I thought this was a history class, not an English class.” A streamlined curriculum would highlight the interdisciplinary nature of great books while combining both the particular information and the general knowledge they provide.
A great-books curriculum enables students to connect ideas across curriculum areas, Anderson writes.
Because great books are inherently challenging and complex, they are well suited for developing cognitive abilities and stimulating higher-order thinking. They expose students to momentous ideas while teaching them how to penetrate to the root of things, follow their intellect, and acquire genuine understanding. They force students to stretch their minds by thinking through complex arguments in all fields of inquiry.
A liberal education isn’t a luxury, Anderson argues. Studying the great books teaches “all the skills that corporate America now clamors for in college graduates,” such as “effective communication, critical thinking, ethic and civic responsibility, problem solving, quantitative literacy. . . . In tough economic times especially, community college students need great books, not simply to train them for careers, but to train them for life.”