Great Books?
May 4, 2007 11:56 PM   Subscribe

What books should a Harvard-graduate have read?

I graduated from Harvard last June, and I was very frustrated by the lack of any sort of "Great Books" courses.

If you were speaking with a Harvard-grad, what books would you expect him to have read before receiving his diploma?
posted by jefficator to Education (46 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
The QRR book.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:03 AM on May 5, 2007

well, there's the Great Books curriculum. That's the traditional metric.
posted by crayolarabbit at 12:09 AM on May 5, 2007

The Harvard Classics?
posted by vidarling at 12:14 AM on May 5, 2007

The politically loaded issue of general education might, then, have exploded an underlying difference. Asked about a Columbia University-style "great books" program - for many cultural reactionaries, the Holy Grail of American higher education - Kirby on Monday was surprisingly adamant that such a system is neither traditional nor conducive to contemporary needs. "Harvard has never had a 'great books' system," he said, and, given the varying backgrounds of its students, forcing specific classes in the so-called Western canon would be "treat[ing] them like children." By contrast, Kirby's almost relativistic vision of an ideal curriculum rests more on quality of instruction than orthodoxy of content....

As he explains it, Kirby's general education induces rather than prescribes, empowers rather than limits.

Interview with FAS dean Kirby
posted by vacapinta at 12:19 AM on May 5, 2007

How about those in Columbia's Core Curriculum?
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:59 AM on May 5, 2007

501 Must Read Books by Emma Beare
posted by chillmost at 2:12 AM on May 5, 2007

Not very many, based on the Harvard grads I've met. In some ways it seems like they received a great education -- they certainly feel empowered and connected. But in terms of "great books," or even just basic scholarly depth, the ones I've met suggest that it is really hit and miss.
posted by Forktine at 2:23 AM on May 5, 2007

crayolarabbit writes "well, there's the Great Books curriculum. That's the traditional metric."

That's pretty absurd, though. Das Kap, À la recherche, and Ulysses? Those three alone are a huge investment of time and effort. Unless you're getting a degree in "Great Books", there's no way you could fit that list into an undergraduate education.

What I would expect a college graduate to have read would depend on her field. I guess I would hope they're reading Homer in college, but whatever.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:26 AM on May 5, 2007

And Newton's Principia? Why? Reading the Principia is probably the worst way to learn the central concepts developed in the Principia. If you're interested, go wild, but I'd rather you understood conservation of momentum than you were able to claim you've read that book.

I mean, seriously. The whole thing's in Euclidean geometry. You basically need to be a science historian to even understand it.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:37 AM on May 5, 2007

If I was speaking with a Harvard grad (and I do, frequently), I would expect their education to have given them a background to go explore new ideas, find important books to read, and understand not only what is being discussed, but how it connects to other ideas.

I'm not going to hand them a book list, number 2 pencil, and say, "tick the ones you've read."

Your college education isn't the end of the road, it's the tools to start the journey.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:27 AM on May 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

I expect Yalies and Harvard kids to be well bred. I expect Chicagoans, Reedies and St John's kids to be well read.
posted by The Straightener at 6:04 AM on May 5, 2007 [4 favorites]

I went to Harvard. Among the memorable books we read back in the day, I recall making my way through the entire (English translation of the) Koran, Charles Darwin's *Origin of Species,* Kant's *Critique of Pure Reason,* and a few others. Maybe a few hundred others. We did do a lot of reading.

Snide remarks notwithstanding, it is possible to get quite an excellent education at Harvard. I have no love for the place, really, but if you're going to sneer at it, you might pick something more obviously wrong with the place (at least the college) than its curriculum or the quality of its instruction. It's served me well on a path through the PhD and into the professoriate.

The question really should be, what books should a well *educated* person have read? And it is a fundamentally conservative person who argues there is a single list that can be offered in answer to that question.

I have also been affiliated with a "great books" curriculum as a professor. It's a dumb idea in the modern world.
posted by spitbull at 6:27 AM on May 5, 2007

Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Lays out the fundamentals of economics and capitalism without a single equation.
posted by jtfowl0 at 6:34 AM on May 5, 2007

Might I add that we read a significant chunk of Wealth of Nations in Ec 101?
posted by spitbull at 6:43 AM on May 5, 2007

Here's the thing. For each book you choose to read (whatever it is), read it well, understand it thoroughly, and try to figure out its modern relevance and why someone might still consider it a "great book."

I've sat through many seminars where, for example, Foucault came up, and somebody in attendance had to prattle on in response to every single question because they read Discipline and Punish, dammit, and come hell or high water they were gonna let everyone know it. And frequently they have achieved only a glancing familiarity with the work and it shows painfully as they trot out aphorisms from the text and completely fail to apply the main themes to the topic at hand.

So, don't be that guy. Don't just pick a laundry list of books you should've read and sit around reading them in front of Cardullo's so that you can name-drop next time you're hanging out with your intellectual friends. Some of the major canonical works (especially Kant and Hegel) are very difficult to approach at all, and virtually impossible without a philosophy TA holding your hand; if you read books like that and only get a cursory understanding from them, you'll come off as an insufferable jackass, not a well-rounded intellect.
posted by rkent at 7:03 AM on May 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

I got an English degree from there in 1985 and was given, in advance of my oral examination, a booklet describing all of the works an English major should've read in English and American literature, from Beowulf through the 20th century.

I wonder if the English Department office would send you one? Even so, however, they're only what an English major should have read. And FYI, I hadn't read MANY of them and still haven't!
posted by rleamon at 7:11 AM on May 5, 2007

rkent (or anyone) - assuming you're not currently enrolled at a college or university, but would like to read _and understand_ interesting, great books, how would you try to accomplish this? Most book clubs seem more interested in things that Oprah recommends, which is fine, but not the topic here. Are there stray TA's out in the wild? How do you catch one?
posted by amtho at 7:21 AM on May 5, 2007

Saint John's college entire undergraduate curriculum is based on the reading and discussion of great books. Here's their syllabus, year by year.

I know a graduate, and they really do read all these things (mostly in the original language, I believe). He feels like he got a great education from it.
posted by alms at 7:21 AM on May 5, 2007

I am sympathetic to the notion of a Great Books core in education. It doesn't have anything to do with Harvard and I have no expectations that come with their name or the name of any other prestigious university.

This isn't really the spot to discuss the good and bad behind the notion of a cultural core. I will say, that in my opinion, the humanities went to shit with the founding of the Modern Language Association a 100 years or so ago when founding departments like 'French studies' or 'German studies' became acceptable, and sliding down the slope we went.

But really, basic mathematic and scientific literacy is more important. I think it would be great if every university graduate could read Scientific American. Perhaps though that is a little too 'pie in the sky'.



You would be better off asking that question separately. TA's may be willing to hold forth for drugs and food but they can be tough to catch. While there is a lot of crap published there are also strong commentaries available on most of the great works. Generally the more esteemed a work is, the better the chances that some of the secondary literature is high quality.

Even though reading the main text is the way to go I do understand that not many would make much headway into, say, Blake without Northrop Frye.
posted by BigSky at 7:35 AM on May 5, 2007

Some will argue, but I'm almost certain that you can fake having read anything written before 1930 by reading the collected works of Wodehouse and going to see a few Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.
posted by The White Hat at 7:58 AM on May 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Some will argue, but I'm almost certain that you can fake having read anything written before 1930 by reading...

My (non-harvard) professor once said this of Milton's Paradise Lost. The density of classical and biblical allusions puts you on solid footing for everything written before it, and the contemporary references encapsulates all of the religious and political friction through modern times.

I tend to agree, but Milton is insufferable.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:26 AM on May 5, 2007

If you were speaking with a Harvard-grad, what books would you expect him to have read before receiving his diploma?

Ones relevant to his coursework and, if any, research. Not an arbitrary set of "great books."

The easiest way to put together a list of great books a Harvard grad might have read would be to contact people still at Harvard for the syllabi for courses such introductory political thought or premodern British literature or 19th century novels or Plato's dialogues or any of the other courses I just saw in Harvard's catalog that were clearly on great books.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:55 AM on May 5, 2007

The Táin Bó Cúailnge.
posted by meehawl at 9:24 AM on May 5, 2007

Harvard grads would benefit from reading "Zoo Station", by Ian Walker.

Yale grads would benefit from reading "The Naked and the Dead," by Norman Mailer, and "The Sorrow of War," by Bao Ninh.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:44 AM on May 5, 2007

I agree with NotMyselfRightNow. I expect Harvard graduates to be reading, not just to have read. I don't know what philosophy they're currently using to structure the Core -- I know it's currently in flux -- but when I was there the phrase was "approaches to knowledge"; we were supposed to be learning how to approach questions, not simply learn what the answers were. And among the Harvard graduates I know, that's the fundamental similarity (I think) in how we think or speak: We have a strong basis for looking at something, figuring out what's familiar, what's new, how we can apply our existing knowledge to the familiar parts and how we can creatively expand, combine, and rearrange what we know in order to apply it to the unfamiliar parts.

This may be true of graduates of other schools as well, but it's certainly something I've seen strongly and unmistakably among Harvard graduates from all disciplines (and not something I see as often among the general population).
posted by occhiblu at 9:57 AM on May 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

(Sorry, on reread that looks like I was trying for some rah rah Harvard thing rather than answering your question. I just mean that there's not a list of books I expect Harvard grads to have read; what I expect is an openness to continuing their education by continuing to read throughout their lifetimes, rather than somehow thinking they should have stored up all the knowledge they need during four years and can't add to it anymore.)
posted by occhiblu at 10:56 AM on May 5, 2007

I don't think understanding the history and development of human thought and reasoning (presumably the intent of a Great Books education) is mutually exclusive with understanding how to approach problems and continue your education.
posted by zhivota at 11:47 AM on May 5, 2007

you go to Harvard to be able to eventually choose from the top job opportunities in your field, you don't go to Harvard to read great books -- that's something you do on your own, following your interests, because you certainly don't need to spend that kind of money -- a free library card is all you need, really.

funnily enough, this is exactly one of the reasons I chose not to go to college in the US -- I could figure out a reading list on my own according to my taste, my travels and my own schedule (and yes, it was so expensive that in order to pay off the inevitable debt in a reasonable time I would have had to take the highest-paying job upon graduation, not the job that would interest me the most. Well, that and the New England winters really broke the deal. So I invested a hundredth of the tuition money I'd have spent in travel because, as I said, library cards are thankfully free, and I went to a non-US university where I happily dropped out in due time in order to, heh, have more reading time)

but frankly, unless you graduated in English or Classics, I don't think anybody expects a Law or Med School grad from whatever Ivy League institution to casually quote Hesiod in Greek.
posted by matteo at 11:51 AM on May 5, 2007

(having said that, free access to the Fogg is a totally awesome Harvard perk that I've always envied)
posted by matteo at 11:54 AM on May 5, 2007

At my school it seems that everyone read more or less the same core books, but applied it to different principles (for ex. everyone took a required core social science sequence, but I took one that focused on self, culture, and society, while some of my friends took ones that focused on the "classics" while still others took courses focused on power and identity). Everyone had more or less read:

Adam Smith, Marx (lots and lots of Marx), Weber, Durkheim, Foucault, Kafka, Nietzsche, Kant, Freud, Aristotle, Plato, Rousseau, Hobbes, Tocqueville, Dostoevsky, Dante, Shakespeare, by the time we graduated.

I'm focusing on more social science-y texts and less humanities ones because there was larger variation in terms of what people read for humanities core, and it seemed to me anyways that my school promoted more of a canon in terms of political/philosophical/social science texts. And also, because everyone had read them in courses that focused on different things, I think these could be considered standard?

Like I said, given that everyone had read these more or less by the time we'd graduated, I'm gonna go ahead and say that these (plus others I'm sure I'm missing) are what my school considered canon...and its very proud of this tradition, and I'm happy that I got exposure to all these things. But echoing what everyone else has said here, I think the point is to *keep reading.* The best thing I got out of my college education was this whole "life of the mind" business...keep yourself engaged, but read what you want and not what you think you should. I love that I got all this exposure to Marx, but outside of my school, I don't see people on the street striking up conversations about him, you know? What I did get is the ability to think critically about things (or so I'd like to think) and a desire to *keep* learning. And it doesn't matter where you graduated, I think that's the whole point of college.
posted by Eudaimonia at 11:57 AM on May 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

I don't think understanding the history and development of human thought and reasoning (presumably the intent of a Great Books education) is mutually exclusive with understanding how to approach problems and continue your education.

No, of course not, but when the question's what I expect a Harvard grad to have read, the answer has little to do with Great Books and everything to do with "things that make you think in certain analytic ways about the world."

And I was an English major who read a fair number of Great Books; I just think the reading list is less important than one's approach to each individual work. You could probably just have read one really great book really well and satisfy what comes to my mind when I think of a well-read Harvard graduate, because you'd still be able to discuss and pursue literature in a certain way.
posted by occhiblu at 12:24 PM on May 5, 2007

I would expect that the person knew Rawls' Theory of Justice.
posted by salvia at 1:30 PM on May 5, 2007

What all of them said, but you should probably make sure to read 'Giles Goat-Boy'.
posted by 31d1 at 1:55 PM on May 5, 2007

I expect a well-educated person in the US to be familiar with the basics of at least the following things. (Even if you haven't actually read the books, knowing the cultural touchstones that are associated with the books is what I'm talking about.)

- English Lit 101. Beowulf, at least in translation; at least a couple of the Canterbury Tales, at least in translation, and to know the first lines (Whan that Aprille shure soote..); at least a bit of Paradise Lost; at least a few representative Shakespeare works; to know the major touchstones of English poetry, even if you haven't really read them in depth (eg. John Donne; Kubla Kahn (you need to know who the person from Porlock was); Rime of the Ancient Mariner; The Raven; Ode on a Grecian Urn; on and on.); to know the major touchstone novels, even if you haven't really read them in depth. Don Quixote, Jane Eyre, etc. You should be able to get references to the major characters. You should know how to read poetry, and a bit of the history of English and English literature.

- History of ideas 101. Know the major touchstone philosophical, political and economic theories and rhetorical devices, even if you haven't read them -- A Modest Proposal, John Locke, Adam Smith, Plato's cave and the theory of forms; to know what Socrates was accused of, why he accepted his sentence from the Athenians, what the Socratic method was; to have heard of Descartes and Cartesian skepticism as a method for building up secure knowledge (and to know that Descartes himself wasn't a skeptic); to have heard of Hume and know that he is a skeptic about various things; to have heard of Berkeley and have a cartoon view of his idealism; to have heard of Immanuel Kant and to know that he has things to say about moral duties. To know at least a cartoon version of Neitzsche, Hegel, Sartre, Camus.

- Science 101. Know what Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Darwin did. (Origin of Species is very accessible, if you haven't read it yet.) To understand what DNA is, broadly how genetics work, to have a generally accurate scientific framework, to have some basic quantitative skills. Understand broadly how a computer works; have been walked through a discussion of a Turing Machine. (Much more here; I'm racing.)

- History 101. Know basic world history, and somewhat better European and US history and geography, up through the 20th century. To understand broadly how European colonization happened, the effects of the Reformation, the effects of the scientific revolution and Enlightenment, the effects of the industrial revolution.

- Art History 101. Know basic art history. Recognize and be able to place in history works from the middle ages, Renaissance, 18th century, 19th century, and various movements from the 20th century (cubism, surrealism, art deco, etc).
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:14 PM on May 5, 2007 [7 favorites]

I think that you can't go wrong by reading anything that Umberto Eco or Gabriel Garcia Marquez ever wrote. But I wouldn't worry too much about it. I don't think that you should feel any normative pressure to have read books X, Y, and Z. I really like the LobsterMitten cartoon model: you should feel normative pressure to understand at least cartoon versions of as many important ideas as possible, and you don't need to have read the texts to do that. More importantly, you should be always a) looking to learn new cartoons and b) pursuing a deeper understanding of those cartoons that capture your interest.
posted by Kwine at 7:28 PM on May 5, 2007

jeff, it seems you might be interested in theology.

i took a religion tutorial my junior year at college, focused on religious suffering, and we read some kierkegaard, barth, tillich, schleiermacher. it was difficult for me that the ONE other guy in the class understood it in a much deeper way than me, but it was a great experience.

sophomore year we had been forced to read paden, higgenbotham, otto, which was less fun. seriously.

email me. seriously.
posted by prophetsearcher at 8:56 PM on May 5, 2007

posted by Roach at 11:36 PM on May 5, 2007

I would second the recommendation that you consider Columbia's Core Curriculum. It takes two years at Columbia but I think any Great Books curriculum ought to take at least that long.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 12:54 AM on May 6, 2007

The classic are great, but don't forget post-modern canon: Dellilo (Underworld), Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow), David Foster Wallace (Infinte Jest), Nabakov (Lolita) and maybe a few other works thrown in. Also, unless its a job application you now graduated from a "school in Boston", you're never allowed to say Harvard again.
posted by geoff. at 7:29 AM on May 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

also, related - I'm guessing there are more threads along these lines if you're still looking for more answers, esp about a specific subject area.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:56 PM on May 6, 2007

Some will argue, but I'm almost certain that you can fake having read anything written before 1930 by reading...

My (non-harvard) professor once said this of Milton's Paradise Lost. The density of classical and biblical allusions puts you on solid footing for everything written before it,

I expect a well-educated person in the US to be familiar with the basics of at least the following things. (Even if you haven't actually read the books, knowing the cultural touchstones... You should be able to get references to the major characters... To know at least a cartoon version of Neitzsche, Hegel, Sartre, Camus.

I just want to make a naive and impassioned plea for the opposing view. Worry less about faking it to live up to other people's expectations, and more about actually learning something. Worry less about touchstones, references and cartoon versions, and try to actually understand a couple of things well. I think at the end of the day it is much more damaging to your education to believe that you have "some sense" of a great author by reading textbook crap than to just face your ignorance. When I get into a discussion with someone who acts as if they know something that I have actually studied, and I realize halfway through that they are dropping superficial lingo to play a game, I have much less respect for them than someone who just says they haven't read it.

Now,there are two issues, I guess. One, you may say the ones I catch are just those who do a poor job, and anyone well-schooled can fool me, to which I say the point shouldn't be fooling anyone to start with. Two, you may say that it's better to have a vague sense of the ideas of the past than to have no information at all, and no one is capable of reading everything, to which I say, reach deeply in a few areas and the undercurrents all start to connect. I have a powerful faith that it is much better to be rigorous and interested in something for real than to seek superficial knowledge
and it's Nietzsche, not Neitzsche :)
posted by mdn at 10:24 PM on May 6, 2007

mdn, I think you're drawing a false implication from what I said. I said:
Not knowing the basics about Socrates's trial implies (to me) that one is not well educated.
But of course:
Only knowing the basics about things doesn't imply that one is well educated. So, I wasn't recommending that jefficator seek a superficial understanding, so that he could count as educated.

I took the tone of the question to be frustration that there were not required survey courses featuring the western canon, so I was mainly addressing that. I agree with jefficator that this is a problem in many contemporary university curricula -- students can fill their literature requirement by taking just one course on queer post-colonial poetry in the Caribbean, and they graduate university never having read, for example, Shakespeare at the university level. Now, I think the narrow subject courses are fascinating, I think it's excellent that curricula have so much openness, and I have sympathy for the profs who want to teach courses in their own research specialization. But I think there's a base level of cultural common ground that a university education should guarantee, and that's what I was trying to describe in my comment above.

Occhiblu's point is very good - that a good education is not only about building factual knowledge but (maybe more so) teaching you better ways to think and assimilate new knowledge. But honestly, if you are coming from Big Fancy University, I'm going to expect you to have certain kinds of factual and cultural knowledge. Contrary to jefficator's assumption, it seems to me that this is not necessarily a matter of having read the books, but of having command of a certain set of stock concepts and references. I don't have an ironclad expectation that you have actually read Hobbes in depth, but I do expect that you know what he thought the life of men is like in the state of nature. Violate my expectation and (deep in my secret heart) I will think you're not as well-educated as I would expect of someone from Big Fancy U. I took it that's the anxiety jefficator was expressing.

There are two different questions at work here - one is, what would be culturally embarrassing not to know? The other is, what would be best for jefficator's personal educational well-being? I guess I was mainly answering the former. But I also think a certain baseline level of cultural knowledge is good for one's personal educational wellbeing too, even if one only starts with having it in survey/cartoon form. One is better equipped to appreciate lots of later literature, knowing some things about Dante, because so many writers refer back to him. Even if you haven't read the Divine Comedy, you'll be better off having a cartoon view than knowing nothing about it.

Obviously it's good to know things in depth, and obviously classical works are hugely rewarding and very much worth taking your time with. Good survey classes allow students to figure out which things they'd like to learn in more depth, while also giving them a map of the territory for future reference. It's a shame when schools don't require (or provide?!) solid humanities survey courses; some of the survey courses I took in college were the most rewarding in terms of lifelong value.

Jefficator, whichever books you pick to read now, it will be good. Don't worry too much about what order you go in. (Maybe take a look at syllabi on the web for great books courses, "survey of English literature", "intro to history of science", "philosophy 101" etc, and find out which books appear on all of them, if you need a way to decide what to read first.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:25 PM on May 6, 2007

and yes, typos.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:28 PM on May 6, 2007

I wasn't recommending that jefficator seek a superficial understanding

To be clearer: I wasn't recommending that jefficator seek to have only a superficial understanding. I do think that seeking a superficial understanding of a wide swath would be a useful first step. And then he can decide which bits he wants to pursue in more depth, and I think mdn and I agree about the value of pursuing things in depth.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:33 PM on May 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

rereading my post there I came off a little more heavy handed than i wanted to... no offense meant, & I do respect the variation in approach to education. But I am still of the opinion that superficial knowledge is not really all that much use. It basically gives you a false sense of understanding, and in the case of literature or philosophy, can really get in the way of a real appreciation.

But, I went to an "alternative" style school where we generally only read original texts, and never took them at face value... My concentration was literature, and then I went into grad school for philosophy a little unsure I was properly prepared, as a lot of my peers that first year referred to so many more thinkers than I had read. But I realized over the years that most of them had a very limited sense of a lot of the thinkers they spoke about, whereas at least the few I knew I had direct familiarity with (not saying I had a great understanding, but I still think it's better to meet an author face to face than to envision them just by the rumors & gossip, so to speak...)

It seems like it'd be misrepresenting yourself to say "A says B about topic C" if you haven't read at least one book* by A on topic C. What you really mean is, "X says A says B about topic C" (since you presumably read the textbook X wrote, or heard X lecture about it). And the danger is, I think, that all too often the attribution gets so lost that people start not only dropping the "X says" part but even the "A says" part, so that they are just stating, "B is the case regarding topic C". (This would be fine if it were well understood why the conclusion were reached, but in my experience it is often no more than mere acceptance of some authority)

Even if you haven't read the Divine Comedy, you'll be better off having a cartoon view than knowing nothing about it.

Perhaps it's just some psychological disposition to protect the way I experienced my education ex post facto, but I can't imagine feeling this way...

Obviously it's good to know things in depth, and obviously classical works are hugely rewarding and very much worth taking your time with. Good survey classes allow students to figure out which things they'd like to learn in more depth, while also giving them a map of the territory for future reference. It's a shame when schools don't require (or provide?!) solid humanities survey courses; some of the survey courses I took in college were the most rewarding in terms of lifelong value.

Having never been offered survey courses, and now being asked to teach phil 101 at some local schools, I have been thinking about this issue a fair amount (& looking over syllabi, textbooks, talking to peers, etc), and my opinion is basically the reverse of yours :). To me a survey course feels sort of like watching a montage of two minute movie clips and then claiming to know something about cinema. And that almost cheapens the actual experience of seeing the real movie, because then you've already got the cliche version / reference point in your head...

*presuming A's major contribution came in the form of a book, rather than a shorter piece, or something in another medium, etc
posted by mdn at 6:48 PM on May 7, 2007

Yes, the really excellent surveys I am thinking of were mainly literature rather than philosophy. In lit surveys, you still read whole books, you just read a lot of them fast (so, not a lot of time to get into depth with any one) and you have lectures that describe the historical progression of styles, themes, etc. In a poetry survey, it's a matter of learning some techniques and forms and then applying them/seeing how they are applied in lots of poems over a huge reach of history.

I think a serious philosophy survey can be really excellent, it's just harder to do and less in line with our training. I've seen my share of lame-o philosophy surveys that were worse than no introduction to the material. Typically a good survey gives students a really substantial chunk of someone's writing to work with, and makes a point in lecture of pointing to the development of ideas over time (eg how the people who come after Descartes are reacting to what he has said and to the scholastics). The virtue of the survey is getting that kind of context for a big sweep. The bad philosophy surveys I've seen are ones that give students only a couple of pages of writing, and rely on lecture to describe a thinker's view. This doesn't teach students to read philosophy, or how to follow and evaluate an argument, as well as just reading the person's work would. It doesn't make clear why later thinkers rejected this view in favor of another. It just teaches them to memorize what the view's supposed to be. That's not what I'm advocating.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:12 AM on May 8, 2007

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