CLEVELAND — It is designed to foster thinking and self-evaluation, to search the words and thoughts that have shaped the Western Hemisphere and the world. It is a pooling of our intellectual tradition. It’s the Great Books program, and it is offered at elite schools like St. John’s College in Maryland, the University of Notre Dame — and Delta State University.
While the first two institutions have offered Great Books programs for some time, Delta State is a newcomer. In its second year, the university is pleased with the early results.
“The only publicity for the program was word-of-mouth and some flyers I tacked up on campus,” said Dr. Miriam Davis, assistant professor of history. “I had 17 people in one of my classes. The Judeo-Christian class I taught was the best I’ve ever led. People were interested and talking. It was fantastic.
“We’re just getting started, so its hard to get a sense of how Great Books is being received. But we’re excited to have the program. As far as we know, we’re the only university in the state offering Great Books.”
As the name implies, Great Books involves the study of the seminal works of Western thought and word, drawing from all the humanities in the truest sense of liberal arts and education. However, perhaps how the works are studied is as important to the effectiveness of the program as the works themselves.
“The basic idea is to have classes where students read, analyze, write and discuss,” said Davis, who, along with Dr. Richard S. Myers, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, was instrumental in bringing Great Books to Delta State. “This is not a lecture where students are passive. It requires active participation, and forces students to work out answers for themselves.”
The structure of Great Books programs varies from institution to institution. At Delta State, there are four courses offered, one class per term. The four, which are all 400-level courses, are: Classical Tradition, the study of the works of the Ancient Greeks and Romans; Judeo-Christian Tradition, delving into the Old and New Testament, Martin Luther and other works from the Middle Ages; Beginning to the Modern World, studying such 17th and 18th Century icons as Adam Smith, Sir Isaac Newton and David Hume; and, Modern World, searching the minds of men such as Leo Tolstoy and his peers of the 19th and 20th Century. The authors named are only for example as they may vary from course to course.
Classes meet one evening per week. Class work and assignments vary between instructors, though heavy doses of reading and writing are required throughout.
Students who successfully complete all four classes are awarded a certificate. However, those choosing to take an additional two courses in any discipline which requires the reading of great books in their curricula are awarded a minor.
Davis said there are already goals in place to grow the program. Since Great Books depends on diversity, she said one goal is to recruit more instructors into the program to keep the learning fresh. Another goal is to develop endowed scholarship money to attract more and better students.
Staying in the area of recruitment, Davis said she would like to see students outside of the campus to come into Great Books. To that end, the university’s continuing education department is helping get the word out, and a brochure is being designed.
“I had a woman in my class who was in her 80s,” Davis said. “And she took both Classical and Judeo-Christian. I would love to see us draw more people from other communities outside Delta State.
“About a third of my Judeo-Christian class was black. Some have asked why would minority students participate in the study of essentially dead white men. But this is about Western tradition. We live in the West. In that sense, this tradition belongs to everybody.”
For more information on the Great Books program at Delta State, Davis can be reached at (662) 646-4174.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at firstname.lastname@example.org.