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Education | 6 Minutes

The Value of the Great Books for the Mental “Gymnastics” of College, Career, and Calling

The Value of the Great Books for the Mental “Gymnastics” of College, Career, and Calling Written by Ty Fischer
The Value of the Great Books for the Mental “Gymnastics” of College, Career, and Calling

Robert Frost famously noted that he took the road less travel…and that made all the difference. There are many paths, many ways, before each student. The “way” we take forms us and by choosing a “way” our choices after that are along the “way.” 

For many students the “way” leads to college; for all of them, it should lead to calling. That means that there are inevitably going to mean a lot of choices.

There are many educational paths that lead toward college, career, and calling, but a Great Books education provides some excellent advantages as students work through the mental gymnastics of navigating these important decisions. Here are three ways that the Great Books help prepare us for college, career, and calling. 

Advantage 1: Students Must Properly Value Truth, Beauty, and Goodness and the Great Books help Them Make that Calculation.

All of us want to devote our lives to something that pleases God and something that makes a difference. To do that, however, you have to have a sense of what the true, good, and beautiful are. This has been one of the most encouraging things that I have witnessed about so many students that have been educated classically over the last 20 years. They end up devoting themselves to things that purposeful, intentional, and impactful. 

The Scriptures along with the Great Books are exceptional training to help students see and love the true, the good, and the beautiful. There are myriads of examples but here are a few that are most important to me. The example of Martin Luther’s initial fear and subsequent resolution to stand for the truths of the Reformation helps students see what it looks like to value truth. (I have heard Catholics, who don’t agree with Luther’s conclusions who still value this strong stand for the sake of Scripture and conscience.) Or George Washington’s moral clarity as he led the army of the fledgling United States helps students see what real goodness and sacrificial leadership looks like (although it is clear that even Washington did not have moral clarity on all points). The beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry and plays has inspired many to see and love beauty. (One interesting example of this is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s love for Greek Poetry. Listen to this amazing recitation of the first lines of the Iliad from memory.) 

One might say, “But aren’t the Scriptures enough? Why not just learn from them?” The Scripture is sufficient to know all that one needs to know to be made right with God, but Christianity does not end with the completion of the Canon of Scripture. It is helpful for us to see men and women in history who have continued to live faithfully—sometimes at great costs—because it testifies that the work of Christ continues in the world. Also, reading the Great Books helps us to see God’s overwhelming grace which distributes gifts and graces even to those who do not believe. We sometimes see this in Scriptures but we can see even more examples as we consider how Dante viewed Saladin. He places him in the place of the virtuous unbelievers with people like Aristotle and Plato even though Saladin had just turned back the armies of Christendom and driven them from the Holy Land. These stories train the tastes, particularly of the young. Lewis, in his Abolition of Man, pleads with Christians (actually, with all people) to raise their children on good stories that train their tastes so that they never know a day when they did not love the true, the good, and the beautiful. Students trained in this manner are optimally prepared for college, career, and God’s calling. 

Advantage 2: The Great Books Helps Students Take Stock of the Treacherousness of our Culture’s Attitude Toward Young People 

Our culture says that it loves young people. There is much evidence, however, to the contrary. Reading the Great Books prepares them to better see the traps being laid for them. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a superb way to learn about the many temptations that will face young people before they have to face people like Flatterer and Worldly-Wise Man in real life. Vanity Fair bears a striking resemblance to the Mall (or even to Netflix). The Divine Comedy is another great way to prepare for some of the treacherousness of our culture. Many students will seek further preparation for calling and career in college. 

As they approach college, they will be faced with people (often administrators in the Financial Aid Department) who will attempt to squeeze any and every dollar out of them. They can understand a little about these sorts of people when they traverse Hell with Dante and meet in Canto 15 the Usurers tied to the burning sand by the weight of money bags as fiery snow falls on them. The Comedy won’t teach them all that they need to know, but it will teach them what might be the most important lesson—that these sorts of people actually exist and that they should be wary of those seeking to make money multiply unnaturally. Again, the Great Books help young people see and prepare for the traps set by our culture as they approach college, career, and calling. 

Advantage 3: The Great Books Challenge Students Know Themselves and Make Critical Choices about the Future

The Great Reformer John Calvin said that the point of life was to know God and to know ourselves. The Great Books can help students know God and themseves better so that they are better prepared to make the choices that they need to as they approach college, career, and calling. It is often in our studies that we find out what God has called us to be or made us to love. When I am counseling high schoolers about what they should do or what they should major in during their time in college, often, I begin by asking questions like: “what do you love?” or “what do you do with your spare time?” or “what is your favorite book and why?” 

The Great Books should force students to wrestle with the great issues of life and to know, maybe not definitely but at least better, where they stand on those great questions. Students learn this by being placed in the situations that the Great Books and history introduce. These situations and the judgments students make concerning them help them to know themselves and their own faith better. They have to stand with Caesar as he looks across the Rubicon and makes his fateful choice; they sit with Churchill during the Blitz or with Lincoln as he considers the Emancipation Proclamation; they have to think through whether Lizzy should reject Mr. Darcy’s first proposal and why she should accept the second. All of these situations prepare students for life and what is even better: a life well lived. 

God is calling students to be men and women after His own heart. As He does this, they move toward the training they need to fulfill the calling that He has placed on their lives. The Great Books, more than any other means I know, help to prepare young men and women to navigate the gymnastics that they face as they try to make these decisions because the Great Books help them to have a vision for the truth, goodness, and beauty; to see the traps and obstacles that our culture places in their path; and to enable them to know themselves and to see God’s calling on their lives.