A great book can change your life.
Sara MacDonald believes that so much that it’s the title of her blog. It’s also the impetus behind her successful advocacy for Global Great Books, a new major at Huron University College.
“Any book that speaks to a pressing or perennial issue of life is a great work,” said the Huron Political Science professor.
The description is not constrained to a specific author, language or even genre – and a ‘great book’ could also include compelling film or art.
In these interdisciplinary offerings, students will learn from primary texts in ancient and modern philosophy, history, literature, constitutions, law and even painting and architecture.
“We hope to have our students recognize that even if they’re not specialists in these areas, they can learn something about each of them,” she said.
MacDonald knows of no similar offering available at any other Ontario university. She founded and led the Great Books program at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick from 2002-15.
In North America, Great Books programs have traditionally been enclaves where students would examine primarily European texts that would deepen their understanding of the world. But Huron’s program, approved by university Senate at its most recent meeting, takes an international look at great books, including from Asia, India, the Middle East and Africa.
It is intended to push students to challenge their perceptions.
The students will become immersed in works whose ‘greatness’ is not determined by the writers’ pedigree but by their capacity to impart important narratives and ideas, MacDonald said.
And these aren’t excerpts cherrypicked from great works, either. It’s vital these pieces be examined in their entirety.
At a time when our focus is diluted by 280-character tweets and 15-second TikTok clips, the depth of an issue or the complexity of a question can be lost in shallow information bites.
“You have to give the work the full benefit of the doubt, you have to give it the benefit of your full attention. Whenever we pull excerpts of a piece instead of reading the full thing, you’re relying on the biases of the person choosing the excerpts. We want them to derive their own conclusions about the importance of a work.”
In contrast with other programs that study great books in chronological order, these courses will be arranged thematically: human nature and the meaning of life); our individual relationships; justice and politics; nature and technology; and reason and revelation.
For MacDonald, Shakespeare’s The Tempest introduced her to great works. Since, Plato’s Republic holds enduring meaning. “Every time I go back to it, and the way a student responds to it, my own response to it deepens.”
Sometimes, the first response is to label or categorize a work but finding deeper meaning in others’ expressions of the world around them helps students improve their critical-thinking skills.
That makes great books not only relevant but essential to living a happy life, she said.
It helps them treat each other’s viewpoints with greater depth and helps them become better global citizens: “The training you get when you immerse yourself in these long works is that you realize that what at first appears to you as obvious is often a product of your own biases and not what the work itself says.
“That translates into how you treat the other students in the class and into how students respond to conflict and different ideas.”