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Life Lessons from the Great Books

The Thomas Jefferson Center introduces students to the Great Books, a keystone of liberal arts education. Learn how these texts are still relevant.

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etching of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson [Photo by Marsha Miller] 

For any of life’s challenges, there is a Great Book to offer valuable insight. From Homer’s “Odyssey” to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to George Orwell’s  “Animal Farm,” the world’s greatest tomes have touched on themes that are as relevant today as when they were written.

Tracing the ideas, stories and discoveries that have shaped modern civilization, the Great Books do not teach us what to think but how to think, says Thomas Pangle, the Joe R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies in the Government Department.

Professor Thomas Pangle

Thomas Pangle [Photo by Heather Curiel] 

That basic notion provides the foundation for the college’s Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas. Through a six-course certificate program, students explore an ongoing series of debates about human nature, ethics and the meaning of life that have unfolded over centuries, including works by Homer, Plato, Aristotle, the Greek tragedians, St. Thomas Aquinas, Hobbes, and many other giants of the Western canon.

We sat down with Pangle, who co-directs the center with his wife and fellow government professor Lorraine Pangle, to learn more about the Great Books of Western civilization and why they are integral to a well-rounded liberal arts education.

What is the core mission of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas?

We aspire to a 21st century realization of the ideal of Thomas Jefferson: to educate citizens and leaders of a free society by teaching them to understand the meaning of liberty and to exercise it wisely. We believe, with Jefferson, that the best way to do this is to engage students in a direct, respectful but probing study of the most powerful sources of America’s political principles.

We teach the controversies; we teach students to read carefully and to listen respectfully; and we seek to cultivate a spirit of serious citizenship based on civil discourse and argumentation.

Could you describe some of the topics students cover in their coursework?

Students engage in a critical study of major creative and theoretical works that have shaped human thought and history. They enter into debates about human nature, ethics and humanity’s place in the cosmos that have unfolded over centuries. They learn skills of critical reasoning, close reading and clear, cogent writing. They join a community of scholars drawn from many departments and many schools of thought, united by a passion for fundamental questions, a spirit of friendly debate and a willingness to engage in critical self-scrutiny.

The Jefferson Book Club covers a wide spectrum of books and movies from “Casablanca” to “Sense and Sensibility.” What goes on in the book club meetings?

The student-run book club brings together interested undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty to screen and discuss classic movies with rich problematic themes; attend plays on campus and then meet for discussion after with the director and actors; have luncheon conversations with various favorite professors; and read and discuss short excerpts, chosen by students, from classics of all sorts.

What do you hope your students will gain from the six-course program?

Emphasizing debates about fundamental questions of enduring human concern, the program provides grounding in the major ideas that have shaped the Western world and the democratic principles of the United States.

Students engage in a sympathetic but critical study of the great authors’ competing teachings on human nature and the good life. As a result, skeptics and believers, liberals and conservatives alike become more reflective about their own beliefs, more capacious in their sympathies and better prepared to engage in a thoughtful dialogue with people of different schools of thought. They emerge from the program better prepared to live thoughtful, serious lives, both as citizens and as human beings.

A version of this article originally appeared in Life and Letters.