Must Reads for an American College Education?

Do you have a set of must reads which you believe should lie at the foundation/base of a college education (i.e., American college education), no matter the institution, e.g., Christian college/university, community college, engineering/tech school (e.g., Carnegie Mellon University or MIT), Ivy League, liberal arts college, state university?  If so, what are they and why?  Below’s a recent email from a faculty friend regarding his alma mater, Harvard.

it’s sad but the harvard faculty could never approve anything like the “great books” program…they could never have a coherent view of what education is about, now that the “veritas” of the old harvard has been removed…a cafeteria approach is all that could reach a consenus in the recent revision of the general education requirements…they couldn’t agree or approve the wonderful suggestion of requiring one course in “faith and reason”  (broad guidelines, could even be taught by an atheist)…but too many faculty fussed and worried about any courses that involved that sloppy, unscientific thing called “faith”…St. Johns is one school that does have a “great books” program as the foundation of their liberal arts curriculum…and another school “st. thomas aquinas” (i think that’s the name) also has a similar curriculum…and the conservative “hillsdale college ” in michigan has a coherent liberal arts foundation (freshman take either greek or latin)…. [Follow-up email] … columbia university’s substantial, coherent core curriculum…harvard faculty would  never approve this  old-fashioned approach…consensus is impossible with them…

In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (HarperCollins, 2005), Swarthmore Professor Barry Schwartz takes a few pages to highlight Shopping for Knowledge (pp.14-17):

1. the loss of general education requirements, in particular the capstone course which was intended to teach students how to use their college education to live a good and an ethical life, both as individuals and as members of society and 2. the purchasing of goods such as classes and degrees. … Now students are required to make choices about education that may affect them the rest of their lives. And they are forced to make these choices at a point in their intellectual development when they may lack the resources to make them intelligently.

Upon reflection, my education at Grove City College (1992-1996) began with a class to set the tone for college education but lacked a capstone course.  Furthermore, the core curriculum sought to teach values over the course of several years (6 classes, 1 per term for the first three years) drawing from compilations of readings and Building a Christian Worldview (W. Andrew Hoffecker, editor, P&R Publishing, 1986. Note:  written by a cross-disciplinary faculty team from the college).  Although there was not a focus upon the great books providing the core of College Education, the Good Book (i.e., the Bible) was given significant attention in all the classes (Note:  One of the core classes was a Bible overview).

Back to the question, do you have a set of must reads which you believe should lie at the foundation/base of a general college education (in the United States of America)?

And I guess that I have raised a second question, if must reads are not the center of a core curriculum are there certain principles at the foundation/base of a general college education (in the United States of America)?  Or is a core curriculum only possible in unique educational settings and the ability to assume a college graduate has read or considered certain materials a thing of the past (or possibly one that was only fulfilled in an ideal, distant past)?

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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    Janine Giordano Drake commented on May 20, 2010 Reply

    This is interesting, even if not that surprising. I went to a public liberal arts college upstate NY, and the faculty there in the 1970s started a “great books” core requirement, where about 15 texts would be required to be read by every single graduate. Apparently it was very hard to get this “great books” course passed, but it ultimately became “Humanities I” and “Humanities II” and then later, when I took it, “Western Humanities I” and “Western Humanities II.”

    The name was changed to reflect what it actually was (a regurgitation of the greatness of European-American culture from the European American perspectives of 1970s Cold War intellectuals) but the composition never really changed when the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR collapsed and we realized that “our culture” is not just the history of the West. Nobody to this day has really known how (and if) this curriculum could be adjusted and its key features still saved.

    So, the sequence still stand today, 4 credits each, but I think the program could never get passed today because now it all seems so superficial. Can we really tell, in 15 books or so, the history and literature of our culture? What is the culture that binds together the internationally, racially and definitely culturally diverse students of a college classroom?

    Global History and Global Studies is the new “core” understanding of “Our Heritage” in today’s universities. This is the acknowledgement of Foucault’s matrix of dispersed and interlocking networks of power; the acknowledgement of constant interaction and exchange of ideas, as haphazardly in the past as we think it happens in the present. Empires rise and fall, and big powers always compete with other big powers for control over smaller powers.

    I’m not surprised that Harvard faculty don’t know where to start in naming a series of “great books” to recount this heritage that they see us having. With the Cold War over, it seems such a farce to think of “The West” as something with its own history to recount.

    But to finish the story: When the faculty at my college in the 70s tried to make this course required, the most common retort they got from unsympathetic faculty was, “This isn’t Harvard. That’s too much to ask from our students.” Apparently Harvard says it’s not too much to ask of their students, but too much to ask of their faculty. This intrigues me.

  • Thomas B. Grosh IV commented on May 20, 2010 Reply

    Great story Janine! Any chance you’ve seen/read a copy of Claude S. Fischer’s “Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character,” (University of Chicago Press, 2010)? I came across a brief review at and excerpts posted at

    According to your observations, are books such as “Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character” (or material covered in such pieces) offered to undergraduates as they seek to understand/locate themselves in Global History/Global Studies?

  • Kevin K. Birth commented on May 20, 2010 Reply

    I have taught in systems with core curricula and systems with laundry lists of courses in categories. I have been heavily involved in revising and implementing new general education requirements at Queens College, CUNY; I have been in charge of assessment in our Freshman Year Initiative Program; and I teach a synthesis/capstone course on the topic of time.

    The benefit of a reading list common to all students is that I can refer to it in advanced classes. This benefit only exists if the faculty themselves have invested the time and thought into reading those core works and incorporating them into their pedagogy. Getting faculty to read the same thing is even harder than getting students to keep up with their reading. And when faculty from different disciplines do read the same book, it is usually as if they have read completely different books. This poses its own challenges in the classroom–all too often students think that such arguments are because the faculty don’t like each other (truth be told, my most engaged arguments are always with friends!).

    So, to me, what is far more important than having a core or letting students choose from a variety of courses is that students develop the necessary responsibility and discipline to succeed and, importantly, to be able to educate themselves in new areas of knowledge in which they have not been taught.

    The greatest gifts my teachers gave to me were discipline, curiosity, an intrepid willingness to explore areas of knowledge about which I had not been taught, and the skills to teach myself. And if you think about many of the authors of the “Great Books,” they are exemplars of those qualities.

    Finally, from the trenches of fights over gen ed, I can testify that the major issue is often not the quality of education, but the distribution of resources. Sufficient enrollments are the lifeblood of most departments, so under-enrolled departments want a piece of the gen ed pie. On the other side, departments that offer gen ed courses can find themselves diverting faculty and resources to these courses and away from advanced, hands-on, capstone courses. And often, what drives reform is not a concern about education, but either pressure from an accreditation body, or a college president who wants to use press releases on reform to shake money out of alums. At my own institution, only three weeks after we had implemented a new gen ed curriculum, the president wanted to change it so that he would have something new to tell potential donors.

    Janine Giordano Drake commented on May 20, 2010 Reply

    I am going to look into this book, thank you.

    The trend in teaching history these days is to actually minimize the “distinctiveness” of American culture. Beginning perhaps in the late 1890s at the Columbian Expositions, there has been a tendency among scholars and regular people to declare the United States “exceptional.” i.e. We didn’t have a general Marxist revolution because we had the “frontier” as a safety valve for people upset with urban poor conditions; Being a country of immigrants, we have always prized delayed gratification, believed strongly in the American Dream of class mobility, and shunned working class consciousness. I could go on and on. These aspects of the “American character” are probably the meat of many American History classes–the ways they are true, the ways they are not true, the extent to which this country is “exceptional,” etc.

    I never got a lot out of Global Studies courses, probably because I was among the first generation to go through such things, and my teachers always discussed how daunting their task was and how underprepared for it they were. I think that only now are we beginning to train teachers and professors who can actually be scholars of global studies.

    I’m not sure that Global Studies compensates for a Great Books core, though. What do you, Tom, and others think?

    • Tom Grosh commented on May 20, 2010 Reply

      “I’m not sure that Global Studies compensates for a Great Books core, though. What do you, Tom, and others think?”

      Janine, Off-the-cuff, my answer is “Yes/No.” As you explore in “dig where you stand,”, it’s important to know where you (as an individual and a member of several communities) are located and part of that location is in a matrix (!)

      I can partially envision (maybe I should say ‘yearn for’) a well designed Global History/Studies Series/Core which first identifies/locates/confesses the threads of one’s story (as an individual and member of several communities) and then delves into relationships across stories/localities/communities/cultures. Reading material which provides a shared basis/framework (to be referenced, dialogued with, and critiqued) enables deeper conversation/processing/resolution of issues in the past, present, future. Wish I had more time to write about this, but I have to run. … Yes, what do others have to say?

      FYI: Came across The Association for Core Texts and Courses’ (ACTC) listing of “College Great Books Programs,”

    Andrew commented on May 22, 2010 Reply

    This is a very interesting post. At my undergraduate institution (a large secular university in Canada), there was a year-long course called “Classical and Biblical Backgrounds in English Literature”. It wasn’t mandatory, but about sixty students took it every year. We used as a reader the Norton Anthology of Western Literature, supplanted by the full versions of certain books the professor wanted to study more in-depth. From memory, the reading list was as follows:

    Fall Term:
    Oedipus Cycle
    Apology of Socrates
    Psalms, Proverbs (selections)
    Nicomachean Ethics
    Metamorphoses (selections)
    Aeneid (selections)

    Winter term:
    Gospel of John
    Consolation of Philosophy
    Vita Nuova
    Purgatorio (selections)
    Paradiso (selections)
    Canterbury Tales (selections)
    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
    In Praise of Folly
    The Tempest
    Dr Faustus
    Paradise Lost (selections)

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