By Eliza Moore, GPB News
On a Friday afternoon at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., Dr. Crescent Rainwater leads a class discussion on the book of Proverbs from the Bible. In a traditional religion class, the students would be taking notes on the lecture, but this class is different.
This is Great Books, and the students’ desks are arranged in a circle facing inwards, seminar-style. The professor only jumps in a few times within the hour, and no one raises their hands before speaking. As their conversation bounces quickly around the room, students like sophomore Eli Gibson are free to argue and defend their ideas about the text.
“One of my favorite things in this class is to play devil’s advocate,” Gibson said, after making his argument. His comment was met with knowing laughter from his peers. “What is learning without opposition?”
Across the country, universities like Mercer offer Great Books programs, classes where students discuss and debate texts from the Western canon.
Junior student Niyati Patel enjoys the nontraditional style of education provided by the Great Books program, one of two general education tracks at Mercer.
“I love the way that the classrooms are set up,” Patel said. “There’s philosophy majors, but there’s also majors like engineering. Hearing different opinions about the same texts that we read is so, so fulfilling.”
However, she said there’s a problem. Students feel that the curriculum doesn’t make enough space for texts that aren’t written by white, male authors.
“I feel like I’m rereading the same packaged opinions over and over again,” she said. “And so that’s what happens when you have the same walks of life telling the same story.”
Patel wants to know: What makes a book great, and who decides what authors in the Western canon are highlighted?
Students in the Great Books program begin their freshman year with Homer’s Odyssey, ending their senior year in the mid-20th century with Dostoyevsky or Camus. They read around 50 texts over the course of seven classes, but it’s not until the final year that students encounter a female author, Jane Austen, unless professors like Dr. Crescent Rainwater choose to deviate from the canon.
In Rainwater’s Hebrew and Christian Traditions Great Books class, she decided to include the female medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, even though that’s not within the traditional core curriculum, because she believed the students would benefit from reading her.
“She’s reading the scriptures and having an encounter with God that’s very different from the other things they’re encountering in this class,” Rainwater said.
Rainwater agrees with Patel: If the vast majority of the curriculum is written by white men, students don’t receive a full, complex understanding of history.
“There is a particular version about history that gets perpetuated by repeatedly reading these same authors,” Rainwater said.
She says one example of this would be reading Thomas Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, without also reading Frederick Douglass.
“You don’t read Frederick Douglass arguing, ‘well, if you actually believed that, then everyone in this country would have the rights of a citizen,’” Rainwater said.
Dr. Charlotte Thomas, the director of Mercer’s Great Books program, said citizenship has been a foundational Great Books principle since the first program was established at Columbia University in 1917.
“In order for democracy to work you have to have an educated citizenry,” she explained.
Thomas said, historically, that’s been the goal of a liberal arts education. Despite popular belief, conversations surrounding what books are included in the Western canon have been taking place since the program was founded.
“There’s this sense that the list of ‘great books’ came down from Mount Sinai carved into stone, and no one can ever change them,” Thomas said. “The truth is that the book lists are changing all the time,” .
At Mercer University, professors have listened to student’s requests to change the reading lists.
“If they see the value in diversifying the lists, then we need to make sure that we are diversifying the lists because we are here for students,” Rainwater said.
COVID-19 slowed progress, but this winter marks the culmination of a three-year effort to add new authors to the Great Books core curriculum. Thomas formed subcommittees with the faculty who taught each course, and together they met, discussed and read samples from each book before finalizing a new course list.
Ultimately, seven new texts from women or people of color have been added to the Mercer Great Books program’s core curriculum.
According to Thomas, these changes are not as straightforward as simply adding new titles to the course lists. The addition of new texts required months of faculty preparation and reworking their syllabus. But, she said, they’re a crucial part of the program’s identity.
“From the very beginning of Great Books programs, there have been debates about what kind of books go into it, what constitutes greatness, and those debates continue,” Thomas said. “I think part of the function of the program is to continue to ask those questions.”
Throughout the country, educational institutions are having similar conversations about reevaluating curriculum and adding new voices, and oftentimes, Thomas said, the pushback against change comes from polarization.
“We live in a polarized world,” she said. “I really think that a lot of the polarization has to do with not talking to each other and not listening to each other,” Thomas said.
Thomas says the skills the Great Books program teaches, like critical thinking and collaborative learning, are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. However, while four out of five employers say students should have a broad knowledge of the liberal arts and sciences, the number of college students pursuing liberal arts degrees is plummeting. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators Project, the number of students majoring in the humanities has declined 17% in the past decade.
The current devaluation of the liberal arts puts programs like Great Books directly under threat and added pressure to meet the needs of students and keep up with the pace of change.
Mercer’s updated Great Books curriculum will begin this spring, with the inclusion of authors like Mary Wollstonecraft, Frederick Douglass, and Zora Neale Hurston. Students like Niyati Patel say this is a step in the right direction, but want to see the program continue to “push the boundaries.”
This story comes to Macon Report through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.