“Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition. There never was much doubt in anybody’s mind about which the masterpieces were. They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind ... these books shed a light on all our basic problems, and ... it is folly to do without any light we can get.”—Robert M. Hutchins, educator
Ideally, one should always study under a wise and knowledgeable teacher. The trouble is, such teachers are scarce in our day—a problem I frequently wrestle with myself. Most of the universities (including the one that I attended) are infected with postmodernism and neo-Marxism and disdain the classics, which means that they're useless for, or even detrimental to, the studying of great books. They may instill a deep misunderstanding, skepticism, downright hatred, or a toxic combination of all three with regard to the classics. To be sure, there are still good universities out there, but they require a good deal of digging to find—and usually come with a substantial price tag.
The suggestions below, then, offer some alternative ways to study the great books of our civilization besides attending one of the few sane universities remaining in our country. For many people (including myself), going to such a college isn’t feasible. But that doesn’t mean that your education must end. I hope the ideas below will offer you new avenues of learning to explore. I outline these opportunities not as an expert—I’m not one—but as a fellow traveler in the pursuit of a true classical liberal arts education. I should be clear that I haven't completed all of these programs myself, but they're some of the most compelling among all those that I've researched.
Memoria CollegeMemoria Press has established itself as a significant name in the classical education world. The press offers curriculum and training in the classical model for schools and homeschools, along with online courses at Memoria Press Online Academy.
Per the Memoria College FAQ page, the college isn't accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Some people might see that as a mark in the college’s favor, not against it.
Albertus Magnus InstituteThe Albertus Magnus Institute offers a full-scale online school grounded in the great books. It appears to model itself after traditional academies such as Plato’s in which students are united in a friendship as “Fellows,” under the direction of great teachers, “Senior Fellows.” The Magnus Fellowship page proclaims the fellowship as “the college to end colleges.” It criticizes mainstream universities for their expense and their focus on the goals of money or power rather than education, which, if truly humanizing, is an invaluable good in itself. The fellowship, by contrast, is unaccredited, free, and an end in itself. Once admitted, you become a fellow (with a certificate and all). Then, once you complete the impressive and rigorous three-year curriculum, “rivaling or surpassing the rigor and merit of a typical four-year undergraduate degree,” you become a "Lifetime Fellow."
Here's a sampling of the courses in the core curriculum and list of electives: Literary Tradition I: Homer & Virgil, Geometry & Astronomy I, Rhetoric Tutorial, Music Tutorial, Philosophy of Man, Metaphysics I & II, Plato’s "Republic," and Newman’s Idea of a University. (The latter two courses ran this past summer, and I was able to observe a few snippets. They didn't disappoint.)
The Great CoursesWhile not a school, and certainly not specifically a great books program, The Teaching Company produces hundreds of stand-alone classes, called The Great Courses, on a wide range of topics, from cellphone photography to experiencing Shakespeare. I have been impressed by the sampling of lectures on literature and history from their catalog, but of course, they have a vast array of teachers and topics from many different philosophical and religious perspectives, many of which I would disagree with. Still, by choosing courses carefully, one could learn much through this avenue.
Addendum: The TextsThe quotation at the beginning of this article was drawn from the introductory volume to the “Great Books of the Western World.” I own this book set, published by Encyclopedia Britannica in the United States in 1952. If you choose to buy a set of the most important works of the West, this would be the one to buy—both because of the volumes selected and the beauty and quality of the editions. The project was headed up by Mortimer Adler, one of the original advocates of the study of the "Great Books," who developed one of the first of such courses at the University of Chicago. That might, in part, explain the high quality of this set.
One of its most valuable features is a two-volume index of topics to the entire set that will help you identify the exact volume and page number where any author touches on a given subject (say, “angels” or “war” or “rationality”). It’s a sort of old-fashioned Google search function for the set that allows you to trace the threads of discussion between great minds throughout the centuries in the “Great Conversation.”
As hinted at earlier, self-study is always a dangerous prospect. Some of the volumes contained in the "Great Books of the Western World" contain serious errors (Marx, for example), which Adler was, of course, aware of, but included nonetheless because of the impact of these works and so that people could study the errors and avoid them. But we should tread very carefully. Again, I believe it’s critical to find a trustworthy teacher if possible.