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The Meh Courses

from The New Yorker

What’s So Great About Great-Books Courses?

The humanities are in danger, but humanists can’t agree on how—or why—they should be saved.

By Louis Menand

Roosevelt Montás was born in a rural village in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States when he was eleven years old. He attended public schools in Queens, where he took classes in English as a second language, then entered Columbia College through a government program for low-income students. After getting his B.A., he was admitted to Columbia’s Ph.D. program in English and Comparative Literature when a dean got the department to reconsider his application, which had been rejected. He received a Ph.D. in 2004 and has been teaching at Columbia ever since, now as a senior lecturer, a renewable but untenured appointment. He is forty-eight.

Arnold Weinstein is eighty-one. Although he was an indifferent student in high school, he was admitted to Princeton, spent his junior year in Paris, an experience that fired an interest in literature, and received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1968. He was hired by Brown, was tenured in 1973, and is today the Richard and Edna Salomon Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature. These two men started on very different life paths and ended up writing the same book.

They are even being published by the same university press, Princeton. Montás’s is called “Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation”; Weinstein’s is “The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing.” The genre, a common one for academics writing non-scholarly books, is a combination of memoir (some family history, career anecdotes), criticism (readings of selected texts to illustrate convictions of the author’s), and polemic against trends the author disapproves of. The polemic can sometimes take the form of “It’s all gone to hell.” Montás’s and Weinstein’s books fall into the “It’s all gone to hell” category.

Both men teach what are called—unfortunately but inescapably—“great books” courses. Since Weinstein works at a college that has no requirements outside the major, his courses are departmental offerings, but the syllabi seem to be composed largely of books by well-known Western writers, from Sophocles to Toni Morrison. At Columbia, undergraduates must complete two years of non-departmental great-books courses: Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy, for first-year students, and Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West, for sophomores. These courses, among others, known as “the Core,” originated around the time of the First World War and have been required since 1947. Montás not only teaches in the Core; he served for ten years as the director of the Center for the Core Curriculum.

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Posted on December 17, 2021 by Editor

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