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.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

FILE - In this Tuesday, June 20, 2017 file photo a Boing 737 MAX 9 airplane performs a demonstration flight at the Paris Air Show, in Le Bourget, east of Paris, France. Europe’s aviation regulator has taken a step closer to letting the Boeing 737 Max fly again. It published a proposed airworthiness directive on Tuesday that could see it clear the aircraft within weeks to resume flying after nearly two years and a pair of deadly crashes. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, file)
European regulator moves to clear Boeing 737 for flight

The move comes after the FAA already cleared the Boeing 737 Max earlier this month.

Diners Bonnie Breitman, left, and Casey McGan huddle near an outdoor gas fire as they eat lunch outside in a blustery wind Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, in Bellingham, Wash. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Sunday announced tighter restrictions in the state in response to a flood of new cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Restaurants and bars will again be limited to outdoor dining and to-go service, gyms, and some entertainment centers will be required to close indoor services. Retail stores, including grocery stores, will be ordered to limit indoor capacity and indoor social gatherings will be prohibited unless attendees have quarantined for 14 days or tested negative for COVID-19 and quarantined for a week. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
New shutdown expected to cost Washington restaurants $800M

The Washington Hospitality Association urged lawmakers to figure out ways to support hospitality businesses.

Burton Clemans, an employee at Sisters for 8 years, packages up a Sisters cookie on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Sisters closes, for now, as eateries enter another lockdown

The four-week ban on indoor dining has local restaurants pondering whether to shut their doors for good.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during a news conference, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Inslee announced new restrictions on businesses and social gatherings for the next four weeks as the state continues to combat a rising number of coronavirus cases. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Inslee announces $135 million pandemic relief plan

The state will use CARES Act dollars to help businesses and people impacted by latest restrictions.

The AFK Tavern is closing up shop on Nov. 28 after 10 years due to their lease being up and the impact of COVID on November 15, 2020.  (Kevin ClAFK / The Herald)
Game over: After 10 years, last call at Everett’s AFK Tavern

The closing is due to COVID and the end of a lease. The owner hopes to reopen elsewhere in 2022.

Steve Dickson, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Zach Gibson.
FAA faces its own reckoning as it gives Boeing path to fly jet

The agency is devoting more time and resources to assess how pilots react to emergencies.

Middle-school counselor Shanon Baker poses for a photo in the school's library Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in Sammamish, Wash. A master's degree and a full-time job weren't enough to help Baker land an apartment she could afford in Seattle's east-side suburbs. But a $750 million commitment by a partnership backed in part by Microsoft's affordable housing initiative helped do the trick. Urban Housing Ventures is cutting rents at 40% of the units in three buildings as part of an effort to make sure teachers, nurses and other middle-income professionals can live in the communities where they work. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Microsoft-led housing effort cuts rents in Seattle suburbs

The plan is to help middle-income professionals live in the communities where they work.

The father of Bhavye Suneja, one of the pilots of a Lion Air plane that crashed in Indonesia, reacts as he leaves for the airport in New Delhi, India, on Oct.29, 2018. The pilot's mother, Sangeeta Suneja, says the FAA and Boeing are bringing the 737 Max back to service prematurely. (AP Photo, file)
Pilot’s mother criticizes FAA, Boeing for rushing Max’s comeback

Her son lost control of a Lion Air plane after an automated system repeatedly pushed its nose down.

Steve Hobbs
Democratic lawmakers ask Inslee to lift ban on indoor dining

They want to try to scaling back on occupancy before forcing an end to inside service.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, file photo, a Boeing 737 Max jet, piloted by Federal Aviation Administration Chief Steve Dickson, prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle. The FAA is poised to clear the Boeing 737 Max to fly again after grounding the jets for nearly two years due to a pair of disastrous crashes that killed 346 people. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
After 20-month grounding, FAA clears Boeing 737 Max to fly

U.S. airlines will be able to fly the plane after software is updated and pilots receive training.

Alicia Crank, chair of the Snohomish County Airport Commission, at Paine Field on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020 in Everett, Washington. The Snohomish County-owned airfield is due to update the Airport Master Plan, considered a blue-print for long term development, anticipated land use and a requirement of the Federal Aviation Administration. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Time to update the airport’s master plan, and you can help

The new chair of the Snohomish County Airport Commission wants everyone to get acquainted with Paine Field.

Boeing 737 Max airplanes are parked at Boeing Field in Seattle on July 27, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by David Ryder
Once beloved Boeing is among titans headed for zombie status

Policymakers may inadvertently be directing the flow of capital to unproductive firms.