Big Ideas, Great Thinkers

For my undergraduate degree, I had the privilege of studying in a “Great Books” program at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College in Montreal. This bachelor of the arts degree in “western society and culture” is one of over a hundred Great Books curricula in North America, Europe, and Asia. The Concordia program was modeled on the Great Books movement, which began at Columbia University in the 1920s and now constitutes that university’s Core Curriculum. The Western version of a Great Books course of study was itself inspired by the medieval and Renaissance educational ideal of a liberal arts education, believed to be crucial to producing a well-rounded person who had the moral and intellectual preparation for social and political life.

During my undergraduate degree, I did not fully appreciate the education that I was receiving. It was only when I began to teach full-time as a lecturer in the Social Studies program at Harvard University, that I recognized the value of the books I had studied. One thing that I have learned from teaching at different institutions is that all students, and not only students, need models by which they can individually and collectively reflect on ethical questions, social and political issues, and the quest for knowledge—in all its various forms—that links all of us across geography and history.

Beginning in the 1980s, Great Books programs came under criticism from feminists, anti-racists, and postmodernists. The Western canon was interpreted by many as simply a collection of works by “dead white males.” This assessment was understandable: Women and people historically descended from Asia, Africa, and Latin America were right to call for courses that provided them with insight into their contributions to Western and global history and culture. Many of the critiques, however, were not only focused on the books chosen but were also informed by postmodernist questioning of the very idea of “Great Books”—interpreted as just one more power-laden meta-narrative. While the reflection on the canon was timely, it was also short-sighted. These scholars and activists forgot that students need historical points of support, thinkers who have been interrogated for hundreds and even thousands of years, with which—and against which—they might formulate their own innovative interpretations.

I am a believer in the importance of Great Books, but how does one teach them in a globalized world characterized, at its best, by an aspiration to respect cultural, ethnic, gender, and sexual differences? This past summer I taught a Harvard Summer School course that I recently designed titled “Big Ideas, Great Thinkers” that focused on philosophers of antiquity, not only from the West, but from around the world. Students received the opportunity to learn not only about Plato, Aristotle and Sappho, but also Confucius, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, the Mahabharata, and the Buddha. And I taught these thinkers from a perspective informed by numerous critiques. For example, we investigated how the texts construct and sometimes deconstruct gender roles and identities. The goal was to provide my culturally diverse classroom with the first semester of a global canon.

In the ideal world—or at least at Harvard College—every student would first receive a “global Great Books” education before proceeding onwards. Students should be provided with the critical and creative thinking skills, developed through an encounter with some of the most influential minds in history, to help them deepen their ability to investigate the challenges and privileges of our era, while remaining informed by an understanding of our shared past.


Thomas Ponniah, a lecturer on social studies at Harvard from 2003-2011, is currently a summer lecturer at Harvard and an affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.


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