The call was obviously a prank, and Aristotle has in fact been dead for considerably more than 2000 years.
Nevertheless the question is a good one. Why, indeed, does Shimer base its education on the Great Books, which consist mainly of works by authors who have been dead for centuries?
The concept of educating people by means of the Great Books was developed nearly a century ago by Professor John Erskine at Columbia University, who believed a Great Books education was the best possible one for people who wanted to understand the basic principles of their culture. Professor Erskine was breathing new life into a vision of education that had been in decline for several decades. For centuries the study of classics had been regarded as the foundation of any education worthy of the name. Students learned Latin and often ancient Greek, dead languages though they were, so as to be able to read and understand the works of Aristotle and Sophocles and Cicero in their original tongue. As concepts of higher education became more varied, the study of the classics waned. This gave Erskine the impetus to initiate a revival.
That revival was continued and expanded by Robert Maynard Hutchins. When Hutchins became President of the University of Chicago in 1929, he brought Erskine’s Great Books approach to the university. According to the “Hutchins Plan,” all Chicago students were expected to immerse themselves in the Great Books. Hutchins and other advocates of the Great Books held that this form of education was essential to the survival and health of democratic freedoms in a century that had witnessed terrible tyrannies. Shimer College, affiliated with the University of Chicago since 1896, imported its entire curriculum in 1950.
While the University of Chicago has drifted away from the Hutchins Plan, and Shimer has been independent for decades, the Great Books curriculum remains intact at this small college. After more than half a century of practice and refinement, we at Shimer continue to swear by the Great Books approach. This approach cultivates critical thinking. By reading and discussing the Great Books, each student acquires not only key concepts but, more crucially, the thinking that produced those concepts. Students are invited to think along with each author, accumulating a broad and deep understanding of human inquiry in all the major fields of knowledge.
Many fine books are available in our culture, but very few qualify as great. Although people argue about any given list of the Great Books, almost everyone agrees that they are few in number and possess certain characteristics. One of these is that they are foundational to our current culture and situation—decisive steps on the path to the present. This view accords with Erskine’s belief that such texts are the best introduction to Western culture. A second characteristic is that they may serve as exemplars of a period or field of inquiry. A third is that they contain so much richness that even the expert, re-reading the text for the umpteenth time, will find new ideas and insights. The Great Books do not teach us what to think, but how to think. A fourth is that these texts often deal with timeless issues, as relevant today as when they were written.
The ancient Greek and Latin classics are only some of those found in the Shimer curriculum. Many more recent works, including a selected few written by living authors, are included as well. These works have been selected not because they are old, but because they so influential as to be necessary reading. Standards of greatness are of course subject to change, and so to some extent is Shimer’s curriculum. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of cases, greatness is an enduring quality. It is hard to imagine a thoughtful reader denying the greatness of Plato’s Republic, Newton’s Optics, or Euclid’s Elements when these works have, among other things, generated productive conversations for generation after generation among people of hugely varied backgrounds.
The breadth of most of the Great Books is remarkable, which means that the conventional system of specialization does not fit them well. That is why Shimer’s curriculum is divided into broad areas (Humanities, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Integrative Studies), and why interdisciplinarity is encouraged throughout the course of study. Everyone at Shimer has a common basis for conversation, and we use it time and again, with each other and across the generations of Shimer students. (Shimer alumni reunions always include classes held on familiar texts from the Hutchins Plan, with 70-year-olds speaking across the table with 30-year-olds.)
At Shimer, we love the Great Books. We read them, discuss them, and reread them. The Great Books are the common bond that unites us and encourages us to view each other as equals in the Great Conversation.