Letters to the Editor

Great-Books Program Benefits Community-College Students in Chicago

April 18, 2012

To the Editor:

It will come as no surprise that as dean of Shimer College, a great-books college in Chicago, I applaud J.M. Anderson's "Why Community-College Students Need Great Books" (The Chronicle, March 18). Like Mr. Anderson, I have witnessed that a great-books curriculum trains students not only for their careers but for life.

The most common objections to a great-books curriculum, according to Mr. Anderson, are that it perpetuates a "white, male, European intellectual supremacy" and that it fails to "take into account recent advances in scholarship, current methods, or the latest knowledge; and doesn't lead to mastery of a particular body of knowledge." Comments elicited by his article evoke another objection, specific to his thesis. The great books cannot be successfully taught at community colleges, this objection posits, because students who require remedial help writing and reading cannot or will not plow their way through Epictetus and Jonathan Swift (or the Bhagavad Gita and Beloved).

Shimer is not a community college; it is a four-year, baccalaureate-granting institution. A small percentage of our student body comprises students from Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, the Chicago community-college system. These are students who are eligible to enroll in one of our core courses at the community-college tuition rate upon successfully completing a great-books course at their home institution. Almost 50 percent of the community-college students who have come to Shimer for a course end up transferring, and most go on to graduate with a bachelor's degree from Shimer in the liberal arts. As a result of the success of this program, we are negotiating to extend our articulation agreement to all City College campuses.

Great books have been part of the Chicago's community-college curriculum since it was established 80 years ago. A formal great-books program was founded at Wilbur Wright College, on Chicago's North Side, in the late 1990s. Constructed around themes like "The Pursuit of Happiness" and "Questions of Good and Evil," this program introduces community-college students to universal questions through canonical texts. A typical assignment has students reading 175 pages of Schopenhauer and drawing parallels from it to The Old Man and the Sea. When The New York Times first heard of Wilbur Wright's great-books program, the story made the front page. The founder and a long-term instructor, Bruce Gans, described how he explained the presence of the journalist to his class of students, mostly minorities and recent immigrants, who were unclear about what made their class newsworthy: "I told them that, frankly, the general public and most educators, including those teaching in community colleges, believed community-college students lacked the intelligence, the skill, and the capacity to read, to understand, and therefore to appreciate classic literature."

At Shimer, we agree with Gans that such a position is "flawed and damaging." We, too, know that community-college students have both the will and the capacity to engage challenging readings in creative and insightful ways.

As Mr. Anderson points out, President Obama has recently allocated funds to community colleges. In February 2009, he shared with Congress his goal to graduate eight million more college students by 2020. His plan emphasizes access and completion, but it also recognizes that quantity means nothing without quality. The work force of the 21st century must have the skills that enable flexibility, critical thinking, and creativity. A great-books curriculum fosters this kind of intelligence—an intelligence that all graduates will need, not just those from baccalaureate-granting liberal-arts colleges like Shimer.

Barbara Stone
Dean of the College
Shimer College