Curricular Visions: Revitalizing the Great Books

Editor’s Note: David Randall’s Curriculum of Liberty illuminates the pressing demand for American higher education to equip students with essential knowledge, character, and tools needed to confront contemporary challenges, revitalize the American republic, and safeguard Western heritage alongside the principles of free inquiry. This essay draws inspiration from his groundbreaking work and marks the inaugural contribution to Minding the Campus’s latest column, Curricular Visions.


The creation of new institutions, like the University of Austin, and the renewal of existing ones, like New College of Florida, provide us with an opportunity to revitalize the meaning of a “Great Books” or “Classical Liberal Arts” education. Current approaches include St. John’s, Hillsdale, Thomas Aquinas College, the Program of Liberal Studies at Notre Dame, the Core Curriculum at Columbia, Humanities 10 at Harvard, Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture at Princeton and Directed Studies at Yale. The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal provides a useful overview of different programs.

All have their advantages. Yet none fit the current moment well.

Although Great Books or classical approaches are currently coded as conservative or even right-wing, they need not map so neatly to contemporary U.S. politics. I make only one assumption: Every required course should improve a student’s virtue, relative to other courses a student might take instead. This assumption will work just as well for college trustees who value the current “diversity, equity, and inclusion” approach as for trustees who, like Chris Rufo, hearken to “the true, the good and the beautiful.” Whether liberal or conservative, we all want college students to think hard about the fundamental questions: What is the good life? How can I live virtuously? What makes for a just society?

An updated Great Books curriculum should:

  • Be designed for serious students. If you don’t like to read, it is not clear what the Great Books can do for you;
  • Focus on the Great Books of ethics, political philosophy, and literature. All readings must address the fundamental questions, either directly or indirectly;
  • Require one course per semester;
  • Require neither science, math, nor history;
  • Restrict readings to work published at least two centuries ago.

Such a curriculum would be useful, not just to new and renewed institutions, but also to governors and legislators, especially in red states, who want to take more control over their state university systems.

Nothing in this essay demonstrates that a Great Books approach is better than other common practices among elite institutions. Instead, I answer a simple question: Given a desire for a Great Books or Classical Liberal Arts approach, how should it be done?

One Course Per Semester

The number of courses required in Great Books programs runs the gamut from two in Harvard’s Humanities 10, to six in Yale’s Directed Studies, to 13 at Hillsdale, to the entire curriculum at St. John’s. There is an obvious trade-off between the number of courses required and students’ freedom to study other subjects. Very few high school students are interested in extreme approaches like St. John’s. Very few proponents of any sort of Great Books program believe that two or four courses is enough.

A not-unreasonable compromise is to require one course per semester in residence. Advantages:

  • Assuming the usual four courses per semester, this equates to 25 percent of a student’s courses devoted to the Great Books. This is enough of a commitment to be meaningful but not so much as to drive away potential students. Indeed, most elite colleges require at least this many courses as part of their general graduation requirements;
  • Making the requirement depend on residency solves many problems. For a typical student, this will mean eight courses spread over four years. Transfer students who are only enrolled for two years would only be required to take four courses, one each semester in residence. A student who spends his or her junior year abroad would only need to take six courses;
  • The natural ordering of a Great Books sequence is—roughly—by date, not least because later authors themselves have read earlier authors. Students should read The Republic before The Leviathan because Hobbes read Plato. One course per semester makes historical sequencing natural;
  • One course each semester means that every student is always taking one course. This allows the overall Great Books Program direct access to every student on campus, making extra-curricular programming much easier. For example, the Program could work with a student theater group to put on, say, Hamlet and encourage or require every student to attend;
  • Virtue comes over time—if it comes at all. Week in and week out, we need students to think hard about the fundamental questions. One course per semester guarantees that consistency. How can a school claim to focus on the Great Books if it allows juniors and seniors to not read any?


No Science

Science courses, as part of a Great Books program, are rarely useful. Consider some possible approaches:

First, St. John’s students read the classic works of science in the original. If this worked well, other institutions would copy it. Since few do so, we can be fairly sure that there are better approaches. Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is one of the most important books of the last 500 years, but that doesn’t mean that undergraduate students will get much out of reading it. Of course, a student might choose to read such classics as part of more advanced courses, but they have no place in the required curriculum.

Second, we could cover the science education provided by a good high school, along with some further mathematics. This is probably an even worse idea, since the vast majority of elite students will come from good high schools. Why should they revisit the physics that they just learned last year? More importantly, many students have had enough of science. They took a year of chemistry in high school. They did not like it then. Why make them study it now?

We have no problem requiring students to read philosophy and literature even if they claim not to like it because we believe that confronting the fundamental questions is necessary for becoming a better person. Learning about the periodic table or the Krebs cycle is not.

Third, we could require students to learn college-level biology, chemistry, physics and so on. Harvey Mudd does something along these lines, but, obviously, it “seeks to educate engineers, scientists, and mathematicians.” This approach only works at an engineering college and, there, the requirements have nothing to do with the Great Books per se.

Fourth, the final—and, sadly, most likely—approach is to do what other elite colleges do when they claim to provide an intensive study of the natural sciences: Fake it, put together an arbitrary collection of topics, with no real attempt to teach the fundamentals.

See Harvard’s Science & Technology in Society courses in its Program in General Education for examples of this shallow education-as-TED-talk approach. Columbia’s Frontiers of Science class is a little better, but the university itself provides a handy list of science courses for non-majors that fulfill the requirements. How embarrassing! No good college provides a philosophy course for non-majors. You either read Plato or you don’t.

Similarly, you either study science seriously or you don’t.

If it were possible to require rigorous science courses as part of a classical education, then Hillsdale would do so. They do require three science courses for every student: introductory biology, chemistry, and physics. But a glance at those courses demonstrates their lack of rigor. For example, the required physics course is recommended “for the general student, those who have not taken high school physics, and science students who do not take calculus.”

To the extent that one takes seriously a traditional liberal arts education, as Hillsdale purports to do, the biology, chemistry, and physics triumvirate is especially embarrassing. As every pedant knows, astronomy is one of the traditional liberal arts. Why isn’t Hillsdale requiring students to take a science course, which is truly a liberal art? Indeed, why biology instead of geology or chemistry instead of genetics? The obvious reason is that biology, chemistry, and physics are, for historical reasons, the traditional topics covered in American high schools.

Most importantly, studying science does not teach virtue, or, even if it does, it does not do so nearly as effectively as reading and discussing the Great Books of literature, ethics, and politics.


No Math

The same arguments that apply to required science courses apply to required math courses. In fact, it is even more true since students come to college with vastly different math backgrounds and aptitudes. Forcing them all into the same required math course would be torture for all concerned. Placing them in different math courses, the only reasonable approach, just highlights that this is no longer a common curriculum.

It is true that arithmetic and geometry are part of the traditional liberal arts. Given that, one might argue that a classical liberal arts education should require both. However, all elite high school students have studied arithmetic and geometry for at least a year. More time on either makes little sense. Hillsdale describes its required math course as:

Learn Aristotelian logic and deductive reasoning, mathematical arguments and proof, and study axiomatic systems like Euclidean geometry as you explore the nature of mathematics.

There is nothing wrong with these topics, just as there is nothing wrong with almost any topic one might study in college. The question is: Does requiring such a course make sense? Perhaps it would, if the college were truly dedicated to the liberal arts, but Hillsdale’s refusal to require astronomy demonstrates that it is not, at least beyond its—impressive!—marketing efforts.

If our goal is virtue, then we need to focus on virtue. Studying geometry does not make you a better person. It does not help you determine the future you want to have. It does not generate answers to the fundamental questions. Euclid does not lead to an examined life.


No History

There are two approaches to the inclusion of history in a Great Books curriculum: reading history and reading old books by historians.

Hillsdale, in its required sequence—HST 104: The Western Heritage to 1600 and HST 105: The American Heritage—follows the reading history approach. Although some of the assigned material is from the time period under study, most of the readings that describe the actual histories of these eras are written by modern historians, using our latest understanding of the past.

Notre Dame and Princeton require students to read old books by historians like Thucydides and Herodotus.

There is nothing wrong with reading either type of history. Indeed, there is much to recommend both, and any college would be pleased to offer optional courses that do so.

But reading history—like studying chemistry or calculus—has little to do with virtue. It does not necessarily lead students to think harder about the future they should want, or at least it does not do so nearly as well as the Great Books of ethical and political philosophy.

We should not require courses in any topic, regardless of how interesting or important that topic might be, which are not directly connected to fulfilling the promise we have made to our students. A Great Books curriculum forces students to think hard about the fundamental questions: What is the good life? What makes for a just society?

Doesn’t learning about history cause students to think harder about the future they want to have? Probably. But so does learning psychology, economics, sociology and a host of other topics! The question is: Does learning about history do more to make students think harder about their future than other topics do? Probably not. Courses that have that effect need to be designed to do so from the ground up.


Old Books Only

Favoring a Great Books approach is easy. Specifying exactly which Great Books to include is hard, especially for those excessively involved with contemporary politics. Great Books are timeless. Some considerations:

  • Should the Great Books be Western-only or more Global? Confucius’ Analects have much to say about virtue, as does the Baghavad Gita. I recommend including at least some of the Great Books from non-Western traditions, if only to help us better understand the West;
  • We can never know if a recently published book is truly Great. Opinions differ, however, about how long we must wait to make a judgment. I recommend two centuries. So, I would not include anything written after 1824. Feel free to use a different date. Most—all?—Great Books programs can’t abide such a distant cut-off, I suspect because the further back in time you go, the fewer black and female authors are available to be included. The great advantage of a two century delay is that it avoids so many arguments connected to current politics. Instead of debating whether or not Marx or Hayek are truly Great, we can just note that neither is old enough to be included;
  • For conservatives, a longer delay is easy. We like old books! For liberals, the issue is more fraught, not least because of the race and sex distribution of pre-19th century authors. But, even if more recent work is to be included, every effort should be made to include works of lasting value, books which you really believe people might be reading a century or two from now.


What About Art?

Should art—and poetry and plays and architecture and music—be included in a Great Books curriculum? Opinions differ. Reasonable approaches include:

  • We only have eight courses and there is a lot of reading to do. There is nothing wrong with music, just as there is nothing wrong with math, but that does not mean that we should require that students study music and other arts.
  • One or more of the eight courses is dedicated to the arts. Columbia requires both Masterpieces of Western Art and Music Humanities, each a full semester course. Hillsdale requires students take one Fine Arts, providing five courses from which to choose.
  • Incorporating the arts directly into the Great Books courses themselves. Students could examine The Victory of Samothrace while reading Plato or listen to Mozart while discussing Kant.

There are costs and benefits to each of these approaches. My recommendation, however, would be to weave the arts, not directly into the curriculum, but across the entire institution.

Each calendar month, the college, as a whole, would celebrate one piece of art, one work of architecture, one important musical creation, and one poem or play. The focus would be global and historical, but instead of the pre-1824 rule, as we do with the Great Books, we would use a pre-1924 rule. It takes longer to determine if a work of philosophy is of lasting value. Call these creations the Great Works.

These would sometimes be grouped geographically, all the items from the same region of the world. Some of the groupings would be temporal, all from the same historical moment. Some would be thematic.

A committee of faculty and students would create the groupings initially, and then monitor them over time. There are four  each semester. So, a typical student would be on campus for 32 of them. Most groupings would stay the same for decades, at least after they have settled down.

The May and December groupings would always include a play—instead of a poem—to be performed by a student theater group. Some examples:


Daffodils by William Wordsworth, 1804.
David by Michelangelo, 1504.
The Great Pyramid of Giza, 2500 BC.
Symphony No. 5 by Ludwig van Beethoven, 1808.


Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, 1923.
Terracotta Army, 200 BC.
Great Wall of China, 1500.
Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner, 1851.


If by Rudyard Kipling, 1895.
Dance at Bougival by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1883.
Taj Mahal, 1643.
1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, 1880.


Hamlet by William Shakespeare, 1601.
The School of Athens by Raphael, 1511.
St. Peter’s Basilica, 1626.
Pachelbel’s Canon by Johann Pachelbel, 1700.

Again, there are several reasonable approaches to the inclusion—or not—of the arts in a Great Books curriculum. And, to be fair, whether or not the Odyssey or the Inferno, when read in English, should be classified as literature or poetry is a tricky issue.



Any institution considering a Great Books or Classical Liberal Arts program should require one course per semester and focus on the greatest works of ethics, politics, and literature.

All readings should address, either directly or indirectly, the fundamental questions: What is the good life? How can I live virtuously? What makes for a just society? Neither science nor math nor history belong in the required curriculum. Assign nothing written more recently than two centuries ago.

Should an elite college implement this curriculum?

I don’t know. It depends on what the college’s leadership thinks is the best approach. Indeed, the “open curriculum” of a Brown or Amherst has many advantages. Students must take courses and complete a major. Beyond that, they study what they want. It is easy, even common, for students at such schools to never read a book written before 1900. But whatever the benefits of such an education, any school which does not require students to engage with classic works on a regular basis should avoid claiming otherwise. If you are going to do the Great Books, then do them well.

Will this curriculum prepare students for their careers? Perhaps. Learning to read closely, to think deeply, to write clearly, and to argue persuasively are valuable skills, useful in every job. Yet the worth of the Great Books does not depend on such— important!— vocational concerns. Even if reading the Great Books did nothing, relative to taking other college courses, to improve students’ career prospects, we might still require it because confronting fundamental questions is important, in and of itself. There is no easy path to virtue, but failing to take seriously the thoughts of our forefathers makes our journey all the more difficult.

Editor’s Note: This was the first essay for Curricular Visions, our new column where we delve into vital discussions on American higher education curricula. Inspired by David Randall’s Curriculum of Liberty, we seek to ignite broader discourse on educational pathways for universities. We invite you to contribute essays exploring your Curricular Visions. Send your submissions to Jared Gould ( and join us in shaping the future of American higher education.

Photo by maxin — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 669454355


  • David Kane

    David Kane is the former Preceptor in Statistical Methods and Mathematics in the Department of Government at Harvard University.

    View all posts

5 thoughts on “Curricular Visions: Revitalizing the Great Books

  1. I understand the distinction between the cultivation of virtue and other goals, but I don’t see why virtue should be the only aim. For example, I felt a great sense of pride and empowerment when I learned how to use a compass and straightedge to solve a quadratic equation. I learned almost all the pieces in school, but figured how to put them together myself. Technically this is not classical geometry, since Euclid et. al. did not write quadratic equations as we do, but it is quite close. Such empowerment links the student to a chain of discovery and intellectual work dating back to the beginning of civilization, and this is surely what most of us who hope to restore serious education want, even if it can be defined as separate from virtue.

  2. “What is the good life? How can I live virtuously? What makes for a just society?” Good questions for everyone. I’m 85. We used to study civics in high school, that a long time ago. Not so much in college where my focus was on physics, math, engineering and the STEM fields at Montana State, a Land Grant university. Didn’t do much different working on an MBA at UC Berkeley, or on a PhD in Industrial Engineering at Northwestern. I recall a door to door salesman in Berkeley offering a great deal on the full set of Great Books. Told him we couldn’t afford the great deal.

    But somewhere along the line, students need to be asked (required?) to answer questions David Kane has posed. My mind jumps immediately to his questions in relation to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. All American citizens should ponder these issues…read Rousseau in contrast to Adam Smith, or to violate Kane’s “older than 200 years” dictum, read Thomas Sowell’s “Conflict of Visions”.

    How does it help to allow an invasion by 10+ million illegal migrants who know nothing of American heritage, and have no reason to learn?

  3. “Be designed for serious students. If you don’t like to read, it is not clear what the Great Books can do for you;”

    You are going to have to include a course on how to read, and to understand why, you are going to have to look at the K-12 experience of most students, and how reading is taught there.

    We’ve gone from basal readers (e.g. “Dick & Jane”) to Phonics, to Whole Language, and now to a balanced approach using both. But reading instruction only extends to the sentence, maybe the paragraph, and once a student is proficient at that, the teaching of reading ends.

    If you want students to understand great books, you are going to first have to teach them how to read complex works, including grammar which they don’t know.

    You will have to put the work in the historical and cultural basis in which it was written — Homer doesn’t make much sense to those familiar with modern military technology — we’d just drop Napalm on Troy and then all climb into the C5s for the brief flight home.

    In sum, you need to tell them what to look for. Otherwise they’ll process a whole bunch of words with no larger meaning.

    1. Perhaps the skills outlined by Dr. Ed should be taught prior to admission, and attendance, at such a Great Books-oriented college? Perhaps these basic (post-secondary) abilities could be criteria for admission. It’s not that high a bar for an ‘elite’ institution.

      1. There was a time when the SAT sorta attempted to do that, although I’m being pragmatic here.

        If you want students with these abilities, you are going to have to create them.
        This is the same realization a lot of people came to circa 1948 when they realized that they would be getting a lot of WWII vets who had never been taught any of this stuff, and they could either flunk them all out, or presume that they knew nothing and go from there….

        The difference between then and now is that back then the institution could flunk out the GIs and survive – it wouldn’t expand as its peers were, but it would be OK. Now it won’t be — any institution that flunks out students without these skills — or doesn’t admit them in the first place — is going to have a major enrollment problem, and that then become the survival of the institution….

        This likely applies to more institutions than you realize, as a LOT are having problems merely filling seats with paying customers right now….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *