Great Books programs do what education is supposed to do

The writings and wisdom of great minds of the past change people and lives today.

Years ago, a morning “drive time” Seattle disc jockey introduced his next recording by explaining that it had been requested by a mother whose son was graduating from high school later that day.

The record he played was Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are,” often known by the first three words of its lyrics, “Don’t Go Changin’.’” The song and its request backstory were etched in more than one listener’s memory that morning because they so poignantly expressed the ironies of education and of growing up.

Education changes people. From kindergarten on up to the highest levels of Ph.D. domains, that is what education is all about. And its potential for change is perhaps nowhere more deeply felt when we send our kids off to college. We know they will change; we want them to change … and we want them to stay the same.

Complicating this enigma is the recent focus of higher education on employment potential. Instead of being proud of their work and convincing employers of its value, many colleges and universities adopted a new attitude of “tell us what you need, and we will equip our graduates to fill the positions.”

Because this occurred during an extended tech boom in our economy, the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects received a lot more attention — and, of course, money.

One easily recognized risk for higher education, though, was that it would become an arm of American employers. Less recognized is the potentially poisonous relationship between the calculated value of higher education and the often-volatile fortunes of individual industries.

If the value of an education is measured by the starting salaries of its graduates — and that is exactly how parents and students are encouraged to evaluate their education — fluctuations in the fortunes of individual industries would constantly be changing education’s value. And its value would also fluctuate with the variations of our gross national product.

The value of education issue has been masked by the remarkable growth of our economy. The number of job openings has exceeded the number of job seekers for over a year. Wages are rising after years of stagnation, which by the current valuation system means that despite its staggering costs, higher education is a “good investment.” It still is, but not for that reason.

One of the measures of real value in higher education is something that doesn’t happen. A truly valuable education avoids an uncomfortable awakening in a life preoccupied with a well-paying job and asking, “Is that all there is?”

There is a program in higher education that wrestles with that question and others head-on. It is called the Great Books Curriculum and is based on classic writings and wisdom of the great minds that have preceded us. It is not a single subject but draws on important knowledge from science to economics to philosophy and much in between.

Associate Professor Sean H. McDowell is the director of Seattle University’s Honors Program, which has three “tracks,” each of which has the Great Books curriculum at its foundation. The Intellectual Traditions track is probably the one which most closely resembles the original “Great Books Curriculum” that has been the standard bearer for undergraduate classic, liberal arts degree education many distinguished colleges and universities.

Regarding change, Professor McDowell says, “Students who select and complete this program will emerge with sharpened skills in critical thinking, oral argument and succinct writing. More importantly, though, they will develop a level of intellectual curiosity that will be their companion for life.”

There is nothing easy about the honors program. The reading lists are demanding; the seminars are as well. And each student must pass an oral examination by a panel of all his or her professors — the same sort of ordeal that PhD candidates go through.

The honors program is not a replacement for a major area of study and is certainly not anti-business in any respect. Business, and work, after all, are what most people do in their lives. The program, though, is aimed at making sure that it isn’t all there is in their lives. Moreover, the perspectives that it provides its students are exactly what businesses need for their successful management.

Seattle University isn’t the only school to offer that type of curriculum. There are flourishing programs at Seattle Pacific University, Western Washington University and Central Washington University. Beyond our state borders there are programs at Yale and Columbia if you like Ivy League schools, Notre Dame University, and famously at Chicago University and St. Johns College.

Great Books programs do not get a lot of publicity, or money but they change people and change lives in a good way. That is what a valuable education is all about.

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