Where have all The Great Books gone?

It’s the time of the year where students have to pick up the required summer reading for high school.  While these lists are filled with good books, they are increasingly light on what are often referred to as “The Great Books.”  They aren’t gone, but they no longer comprise the bulk of the required reading.  They become more prevalent the higher the grade level, but freshman often have none of the so called Great Books in their required summer reading.

Is that a sign of declining educational standards?

Not necessarily.

The required summer reading is largely reading to be studied alone and the student will write a paper or journal of responses to the reading.  It is partially because they are read alone that they aren’t assigned for solitary reading.  Teachers prefer to analyze them in class, particular ones with historical or social context that may not be familiar to students… or is problematic.  Much has been made about Huckleberry Finn being either edited to remove offensive terms or outright banned for them.  Books with similar issues are more often read during the school year than over the summer because they can be presented with the proper historical context, analyzed, discussed, and responded to rather than read in a vacuum.

Part of the decline of the Great Books is also because so many more students MAKE it to higher education.  At the time when the Great Books were first presented, less than half the US population graduated from high school.  Now roughly 86% graduate high school and more than half attend some college.  This means a greater variety of people from more diverse backgrounds persue schooling.

This presents a slight problem with some of the the Great Books and many of the classics in general.  They assume a fairly uniform body of prexisting knowledge because those attending higher education had a very similar background, religiously, culturally, and economically. Greater diversity means that the touchstones that made them resonate with that narrow, homogenous group are missing and more diverse readers may find no connection with them at all.

Many of those Great Books can’t be properly understood or enjoyed without that foundation of other books and cultural knowledge that was assumed to be had by the reader.  While the Great Books help support the body of western literature, they so still require familiarity with certain things.  Biblical allusions are missed by many students.  Anachronistic language requires greater explanation.  Many of the Great Books also refer to historical events that were common knowledge at the time, but are not as innately understood by students now since they did not live through them.

So engagement with the Great Books is delayed to higher levels, in part to build that foundation.  There is no sense having students read them if they won’t actually benefit from reading them.

Also, the Great Books are so influential that many of the themes, ideas, and even the characters are already known to students.  They don’t need to be read directly, yet, because their ideas are no longer revolutionary or the only example.  They have permeated the body of western literature so they no longer serve as the first introduction to those themes.  Students are already familiar with them so when they come to the Great Books, they serve to give them a much deeper understanding of those themes and how they developed. Waiting makes them better.

As such, I’ve noticed that aside from students buying required reading for classes, the primary consumers of the Great Books are those who have recently graduated from school.  Having spent all that time laying the foundations to understand the Great Books, they are now ready to ENJOY them. Even if they read them in school,  many return to them again in their twenties and thirties to enjoy them ad to continue to broaden their education.  That is the true idea of the Great Books, that repeated readings will still benefit the reader.

Those forced to read them before they can benefit from them may never return to them.  Those that have the proper foundation built up before they are introduced to them will return to them again and again.  Those Great Books will make the other books they read afterward even better