Why Community-College Students Need Great Books

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

March 18, 2012

No president in recent memory seems to have paid as much attention to community colleges as Barack Obama has.

In his 2013 budget proposal, the president allocated $8-billion for partnerships between states and community colleges to train an estimated two million workers in high-growth and high-demand job areas. And last fall, the U.S. Departments of Labor and of Education paid out to community colleges the first $500-million installment of a $2-billion plan to improve career-development programs and train dislocated workers or those with obsolete skills.

This is good news for community colleges, especially during tough economic times when state financing is down, budgets are being cut, and enrollments have begun to decline after several years of steady growth. The Obama administration is not just sending the message that community colleges should be the job-skills training centers of the 21st century; it is giving them the money to fulfill this function.

This is a laudable goal. But the overwhelming emphasis on job-skills training reinforces a common perception that community colleges are primarily vocational schools. True, the majority of students attend community college to complete credits toward a bachelor's degree, but for many of them that simply means satisfying general-education requirements so that they can get to the next level. Students don't understand the rationale behind these requirements—and the president's policies only strengthen their expectations that community colleges are sites to gather credit.

Sometimes students need to be convinced that something is in their best interest, even if it doesn't seem to relate to their career or educational goals. At a community college, this often means impressing upon them that their education is more than simply a means to a credential or a steppingstone to a four-year school. In other words, it means educating them about the broader value of general education that is grounded in the liberal arts.

The most efficient way to do this, while reinforcing the practical and academic goals of general education, is through a streamlined curriculum centered around the great books.

A great-books curriculum, which focuses on masterpieces of Western civilization, establishes 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 curriculum centered around great books reinforces knowledge acquired in other great-books classes, as well as from other courses in students' majors. According to David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns, the "more connections that students can make between past learning and new learning, the more likely they are to determine sense and meaning and thus retain the new learning." When the kinds of connections that exist among great books are "extended across curriculum areas," these connections "establish a framework of associative networks that will be recalled for future problem solving."

Studies also confirm that the more students read books in relation to each other, the more they can comprehend, since genuine learning takes place through appropriate connections and associations. For lasting effects and long-term enrichment to occur, students need consistent contact with related material in an appropriate environment for the nervous system to organize resources and respond accordingly.

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.

I'm aware of the objections to a curriculum centered around great books: It perpetuates a white, male, European intellectual supremacy; it doesn't take into account recent advances in scholarship, current methods, or the latest knowledge; and it doesn't lead to mastery of a particular body of knowledge.

But such objections misunderstand the pedagogical and practical value of great books. In the first place, great books imbue students with the habits of thought and mind appropriate to an educated person, such as verbal expression and judgment; in the second place, they can be used to teach students all the skills that corporate America now clamors for in college graduates—effective communication, critical thinking, ethic and civic responsibility, problem solving, quantitative literacy.

And because these skills are tools for intellectuals and the managerial class—i.e., people in positions of power—community colleges do a great disservice to their students by depriving them of what will enable them to compete with their peers and advance in society.

In fact, Norm Augustine, retired chief executive of Lockheed Martin, and A.G. Lafley, former chairman of Procter & Gamble, have recently argued that businesses would benefit from hiring graduates with the kind of liberal education that a curriculum centered around great books fosters. And companies such as ConAgra are hiring graduates who majored in the liberal arts precisely because they possess broader sets of skills than those trained in a particular specialty.

In tough economic times especially, community-college students need great books, not simply to train them for careers, but to train them for life. 

J.M. Anderson is dean of humanities, fine arts, and social sciences at Illinois Valley Community College, and author of The Skinny on Teaching: What You Don't Learn in Graduate School (Information Age Publishing, 2011).