Resources for Studying the Classics

Studying the classics, if done properly, helps us flourish as human beings.
Resources for Studying the Classics
When studying the classics, finding a good teacher is ideal. (Biba Kayewich)
Walker Larson
“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
Studying the classics, if done properly, helps us flourish as human beings—it makes us, in a sense, more human as we encounter “the best that has been thought and said,” in Mathew Arnold’s phrase, about the things that matter most: life, death, love, war, justice, beauty, sin, and the like. We learn about the heights to which humanity can rise and the depths to which it can fall. And we enter into the “Great Conversation” about these most fundamental and vital realities, which has been going on for centuries—until just the last few generations, arguably, when we stopped reading the great minds of history, stopped listening to that conversation, and stopped contributing to it. How can we recover something of this traditional mode of education?

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.

When studying the classics, finding a good teacher is ideal. (Biba Kayewich)
When studying the classics, finding a good teacher is ideal. (Biba Kayewich)

Memoria College

Memoria 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.
Memoria College is a sister institution of Memoria Press. It offers a great books education but is geared toward adult learners. Both a Master of Arts (30 credits) and a certificate (9 credits) in “The Great Books,” at relatively affordable prices, at least compared to most graduate degrees, are offered through the college. The degrees are available 100 percent online. Courses include offerings such as The Education of a Free Man: Introduction to the Liberal Arts, The Plays of Shakespeare, and The Development of Political Theory. According to the college’s Master of Arts degree description, “Graduates of the Master of Arts program will be able to think, discuss, speak, and write on the ideas and texts found in the Western cultural tradition of great books in a meaningful way that prepares them for whatever walk of life they choose.”

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.

The college faculty includes some well-known figures in the classical liberal arts education movement, including Martin Cothran, Joseph Pearce, and Jay Wile. Incidentally, Pearce also edits a series of critical editions of great literature. This is very valuable because it’s difficult to find literary criticism that isn’t highly politicized and progressive, whereas these editions focus on traditional readings of the great texts.

Albertus Magnus Institute

The 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.)

Among the faculty (“Senior Fellows”) of the fellowship, you'll find such noteworthy figures as Anthony Esolen, Jared Staudt, and, once again, Joseph Pearce. The institute also publishes books and produces a podcast, the latter of which I have found to be of high quality.

The Great Courses

While 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.
The company recruits experts to teach its courses, often top-rated college professors. Thus, the quality of the material is probably comparable to many college-level courses.

Addendum: The Texts

The 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.

Walker Larson teaches literature at a private academy in Wisconsin, where he resides with his wife and daughter. He holds a master's in English literature and language, and his writing has appeared in The Hemingway Review, Intellectual Takeout, and his Substack, “TheHazelnut.” He is also the author of two novels, "Hologram" and "Song of Spheres."
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