So What is “Great”?

socrates bustI know from experience that whenever the title “Great Books of Western Civilization” is used, it rubs people the wrong way. In the previous chapter, I gave an historical account as to why these books are great. Exploring the etymology of the word “great” might also expand its meaning further and illuminate the importance of this designation for my classes I taught.

In Old English ‘great” big, tall, thick, stout, massive; coarse. The West Germanic word grautaz means coarse, thick. The PIE root word ghreu- which means to rub, grind, and the Old English verb, greatian means to become enlarged or the Middle English word greaten means to become larger, increase, grow; become visibly pregnant It seems odd for some of these words to be connected. When I read this history of the word great, I was immediately haunted by memories of my own experience of trying to read the Great Books. I was also haunted by memories of my students connecting to the literature. At first our journey was hard. The literature was thick and course. It rubbed at us, frustrated us, made us feel small; it whittled us down to nothing, almost. However, the mind is a magical creation, for unlike the body it has no limit to its growth and development (Adler & Van Doren, 1972). Once we allowed the thickness and coarseness of the books to whittle away our limited comprehension ability and our limited worldviews, our minds began to grow. These books, in whittling away our own prejudices, brought us out of isolation. They gave us the courage to venture out of our African-American background and forced us to make a greater connection with the whole of the human race that dwells in America.

One element that helped to break down the racial barriers that separated us from the books, was Socratic dialogue. I first was introduced to it at St. John’s College. Most of the time I was the only African American in the class. The majority of the literature was not written by authors that looked like me. Initially, I felt so isolated. I wondered what I could have to contribute to the conversation? However, as I my tutors’ use of questioning within dialogue gently drew me into the literature, making a way for me to appreciate the mind of the philosopher and thinkers of the past, the color lines were erased for me. Instead of my seeing myself as a black woman in a class of white people, I soon began to see myself as a human being in a room with other human beings. Color lines can sometimes turn into blind folds. Could lines and walls and isolation be a hindrance to us actually hearing, seeing and understanding the thoughts of other human beings? Stepping away from the framework of my own prejudices (of color, cultures, religion, values) was painful for me, but very liberating, and I have not been the same since.

After experiencing the power of this teaching tool through my time as a student in a Great Books class, I brought it back to my own classroom. Mortimer Adler (1982) writes:

Discussion draws on the student’s skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening and uses them to sharpen the ability to think clearly, critically and reflectively. It teaches participants how to analyze their own minds as well as the thought of others, which is to say it engages students in disciplined conversation about ideas and values. (p. 31)

During a Socratic dialogue there is no right or wrong (I think that is what makes it frustrating at first). There is just the license to wonder and hypothesize about this or that pertaining to the text. There is the invitation for others to join you in that process of observation, wonder, questioning, understanding, believing, and communicating that belief (whatever that belief may be). Just as I saw my transformation from the books grinding at my comprehension, my belief systems, thoughts and feelings, I began to notice “something” take place with my students. I became somewhat obsessed with engagement in the Great Books. I also became consumed with a desire to use engagement in these texts as a teaching tool.
“Something” begins to happen as we engage in a “conversation” with the authors of the past. For me. I felt my mind greatian or enlarge as I pushed through the difficulty of connecting to these books that represent the thoughts of all men and even the gods. “Something” did happen with my students as well; I saw “something” happen! But what was “it”? This is what draws me to ask the guiding question of my study: What are the lived experiences of African American students reading Great Books literature?

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