How to reinvent higher education.

Examining higher ed.
Nov. 16 2005 6:57 AM

College Makeover

Wrestling with Greco-Roman ideas.

What should students be studying in college? No one seems to agree anymore. Slate has taken the occasion to ask an array of prominent academics to tackle the question at the heart of this debate. Click here to read more from our symposium on reinventing college, and here to read more from Slate's "College Week."

Illustration by Nina Frenkel.

What would I like to offer American students by way of general education? Pretty much what several colleagues and I offer 30 to 35 Princeton freshmen every year: a magical mystery tour through the Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Christian worlds. We have them read the best books we know from the ancient, medieval, and—in the spring term—modern world, in the best translations we can find: Homer, Plato, large parts of the Old and New Testaments, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, down to Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. The course staff—a classicist, a medievalist, a Renaissance literature specialist, and two historians—and some friends who make guest appearances offer three lectures a week. We apply our different methods to the course material, giving the kids examples of literary, historical, and philosophical approaches that they can apply when they write their papers. We also play off and make fun of one another, a game in which the swift-footed young far outscore grizzled veterans like me. Our students meet in groups of 15 for three hours a week of discussion and write six short papers and one long one per semester.

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All students who make it through the year—a few vote themselves off the island after Christmas—seem to work pretty hard. Classroom discussions are intense, funny, mostly on-topic. It's a lot to digest. Some of the readings are alien, subversive, even wicked, from the standpoint of modern American society and culture—Plato, for example, and the Synoptic Gospels. Thucydides and Cicero reveal what it felt like to live in republics whose leaders gave long, coherent speeches to large, attentive audiences. Seneca shows them that they're not the first people to face the task of constructing an acceptable adult self; Ovid makes reading itself an act of wild and complex delight.

Both our choice of texts and the questions we put to them reflect a loosely shared conviction that something like a Western tradition exists and that some of its creations are pretty wonderful. But you won't hear us making propaganda for—or against—the "West" of current political discourse. Mainly we try to get our students excited about old books; to teach them to read and argue more precisely; and to give them a home for the year, a place where they can argue about big questions, passionately and articulately, without worrying that they might have broken the current social rules, which seem to hold that guys don't do humanities and girls who want a social life shouldn't talk in class. Graduates of the course have gone in every imaginable direction: to classics, to anthropology, to making documentary films. All of them tell us that the experience was formative for them as students and thinkers. It's certainly great for the teachers. We have to drop the shield of specialized knowledge and confront, week by week, books that shock and stimulate and amuse after 2,500 years.

This course is expensive, and we pay for it partly with the help of a gift from an alumni family that loves the humanities. To make a course like it work, moreover, you need more than money: You need teachers who have time and space to commit themselves to an enterprise that won't immediately advance their careers, small classes, and students with time to do a lot of reading. That's a lot to ask for in most contemporary universities. Why?

Anthony Grafton teaches European history at Princeton. His recent books include What Was History? and Worlds Made With Words.

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