An unanticipated benefit of the Great Books curriculum

This summer, I have had trouble motivating myself to maintain my foreign language reading abilities. I know it’s necessary and I’ve had reasonable success in doing at least something every weekday, but it has still felt like a chore — or more precisely, it felt like I was just spinning my wheels, making sure I didn’t deteriorate too badly so that the skills would still be useful when I needed them.

Since receiving sample syllabi for the Philosophy and Theology course at Shimer College, which I’ll be teaching in the fall, I’ve had a bit of a revelation: my teaching can easily structure my language maintanence from here on out. For instance, here’s the standard reading list for the course:

Anselm, Prosologion
Augustine, Confessions
Descartes, Meditations
Gospel According to John
Locke, Essay on Human Understanding
Pascal, Pensees
Paul, I Corinthians
Plato, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium
Teresa of Avila, Life of St. Teresa

Now instead of reading in the NT for the sake of saying I’ve read the whole thing in Greek, I have a concrete goal: John and 1 Corinthians. I’ve also got Plato as a more aspirational goal for future years (and he appears in many other classes as well). I’ve got Latin and French here, and even some Spanish (St. Teresa). I assume that German and Italian will “take care of themselves” at some point in the curriculum as well — and if I ever decide to try my hand at Hebrew, there’s a concrete reason to do that, too.

Obviously I can’t master all of these texts in their original tongues in time for my first time through, but over the course of a few years, I could probably make some really significant strides. I was already excited by the “continuing education” that Shimer College’s curriculum represented for me, giving me the chance to really get a lot of canonical texts down cold, but the foreign-language aspect didn’t occur to me before now.

I’m really glad that I got a job at a school where I can be musing about these kinds of issues rather than the precise strategic package of peer-reviewed publications I’ll need to get out there for my tenure bid.