Reading the Great Books

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Daniel Willingham writing in the Britannica Blog posits:

… any one of these five claims is worthy of careful consideration but I will focus on the fourth: how useful is it for students to read original sources versus secondary sources?

It’s self-evident that neither extreme is workable. I can’t imagine anyone advocating that students never read Shakespeare, Homer, or Milton. Then too, the most ardent advocate of a great books curriculum would admit that supplementary sources and commentary — written or oral — are essential.

So the question is not “great books or not?” but “how many great books and which ones?”

A useful guideline is to bear in mind the two levels of representation in reFrom http://www.lib.utexas.edu, in the :en:pub...Image via Wikipediaading. When we read, we typically do not represent and remember the exact words and phrases used. We retain a more abstract, meaning-based representation. Naturally, that doesn’t mean that the particular words used to express an idea are irrelevant; they may themselves be a thing of beauty, power, or grace.

To put it another way, there are the ideas in the great books, and then there is the way that those ideas are expressed. Many of the great books were written for particular audiences at a particular time, who had background knowledge and cultural points of view that we do not share. For that reason, the expression of the great ideas is opaque to use, and the book off-putting.

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