Recently, my school purchased its first vehicle. It is a 24-seat bus, a small bus that is great for running our students to sports games or on some field trips. When you purchase a vehicle as an organization, you learn a lot. Who can drive? What insurance do we need? What kind of license plate do we need? When I got to look at our new license plate, my heart actually jumped. There is a class of busses in Pennsylvania that is called an Omnibus and by accident, we had purchased one. The license plate says “Omnibus” on it. How cool! We get kids on the Omnibus many days, but this oddity points to an even greater effort in classical Christians schools and homeschools all over the country. We have been getting kids onto the real Omnibus for 20 years now.
The Omnibus is a course of reading through the Great Books that is built to support work throughout middle school and high school. I was the Managing Editor of the project which took about a decade to create. But why spend so much time and effort on this project and the work that it takes to actually teach Omnibus in schools? Why get on the (Omni)bus?
We love the impact that reading and discussing the Great Books has on the students of our school, but loving the impact is not enough. We need to understand the impacts and why the Great Books, in particular, have these in effects. Why get on the bus? You should read the Great Books because of their powers of formation, their ability to support self-understanding, and the foundation that they provide for all learning.
You can’t be unformed, so you might as well understand what is forming you. If you are reading this Epistula, you are being shaped by the forces unleashed by the Great Books. You have been impacted by Western Civilization. Before we move on, note that all of those impacts are not positive. Forces like individualism that resulted from them, are not unmitigated blessings as the current rates of suicide and despair teach us. When you are being formed by something, it is best to understand what it is and why it’s there. Reading the Great Books is the best way to understand why the West chose to form people that believe in (or should believe in) concepts like the rule of law and the sanctity and dignity of human life. Know what’s forming you and the people around you.
As a brief aside, even if you are not from the West (where many of Great Books originated) you still need to know the good and bad that has come from the West because it is underlies the current global society. The impact of the Great Books and the culture they have built flows out into most of the planet now.
On a related note, everyone has a past. There’s no avoiding it. For many of you, the culture produced by the Great Books is the culture that your families are from. Knowing your family’s history helps you understand the world around you, other people, and, maybe, most importantly, yourself. Reading the Great Books helps you know the events, ideas, and issues that shaped culture. Those ideas still impact your life every day. This doesn’t mean that you are trapped by or have to believe everything taught by the Great Books. You shouldn’t and you can’t. They don’t agree with each other, so many times you have to pick a side. They do, however, help you begin to understand how people in the past looked at the world. Knowing this can help you conserve what is good and see and repair the flaws of past thinking. Being ignorant of this wisdom often condemns people to commit the same wrongs that have already been rejected by past generations.
The Great Books are based on ideas, not tribal or ethnic heritage.They should be welcoming to all who would explore them regardless of where you are from. Now, you might ask, hasn’t the culture of the Great Books produced some notable people who have not lived up to these ideas and ideals? Yes. Yes, it has. When Jefferson says, “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”, one has to hope that one of his slaves would have asked him, “Really, how does that work?” Actually, many years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. took up Jefferson’s great phrase and asked if American had written a “bad check” to the opposed descendants of slaves. But Jefferson’s hypocrisy and King’s retort makes the point. The culture of the Great Books holds people to their words. If those words are true (and I believe that the fundamental equality of men is true), then it can be used by a nobleman, the grandson of a slave, a leader in India, or even by us today to challenge people who would cling to untruth to their own harm and the harm of others.
Finally, the Great Books provide a great starting point for exploration of many traditions because they introduce so many foundational questions. What is man? What is love? How will I find my life’s purpose? The Great Books force you to examine these questions. I was recently teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost. In it, he seeks to justify God’s ways to men. Can we trust a God who allows evil to enter the world? What a great question to consider! The Great Books, more than anything I know, force us to stare at these questions and prod us to consider an answer. This does not mean that we will agree with them or any of them, except Scripture, at all points. It does mean that they do a great job of encouraging us to focus on important matters. This does not mean that we can’t find wisdom in other traditions. You can and should, but when you consider those traditions you need to ask good questions. The study of the Great Books helps you to ask those questions. Riding this bus will help you understand the forces that form you, your own or other people’s stories, and will give you a great foundation or questions to explore its wisdom and the wisdom of other traditions. So, what are you waiting for: get on the Omnibus!
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