A Great Authors curriculum

A strange thought occurred to me: what would the “Great Books” curriculum look like if it was restructured around a “Great Authors” principle? That is, it wouldn’t be a matter of picking out the most exceptional or useful works to build a curriculum, but of picking out a handful of authors, whose works would be read in full (or as close as possible). What would it look like to provide a plausible education in such a format?

One major change is that the “Stockholm Syndrome” approach that one will often favor in introducing students to new texts (i.e., read as charitably as possible, construe the arguments as strongly as possible, etc.) would be unsustainable. Let’s say you chose Freud, for instance — you couldn’t start from a “Freud is always right unless we’re really, really sure he isn’t” position, because Freud changes his mind too much. After a certain point, it’s no longer about figuring out “what Freud thinks,” but about figuring out the persistent problems that he’s responding to. If students could come to that point, they might arguably have a more lively grasp of what’s at stake in psychology than if they had a sampling of several authors’ views.

Or maybe not. In any case: Who would you choose? And keep in mind that I’m from a less strictly orthodox Great Books school, so you’re allowed to pick contemporary authors and, more generally, there’s no requirement of overtowering obviousness. (In my view, the only author who would be totally non-negotiable is Kafka.)

23 thoughts on “A Great Authors curriculum

  1. I think you’d want to put someone from late antiquity in there like Seneca or Plotinus (the anglo-american/continental divide?). Once you’ve read them, everything else from 100 until Kant (and even then…) seems so derived.

  2. 1. Well, works that come to mind (or rather: into view) are:
    Plato (kind of obvious, very easy to explore in directions different from the established one)
    Aristotle (*hard*, you need to know why this is important)
    Leibniz (tough, especially when you include the mathematical writing (which I haven’t read))
    Kant (another obvious choice; recommended because of his importance and because at least the late, critical writings do not really require previous knowledge)
    Schelling (haven’t really read enough)
    Hegel (my second choice; but if you read him, you will be spoilt)
    Marx (my first choice, though you might scan over some of the newspaper articles)
    Lenin (I will *never* read all 42 volumes and don’t know why anyone would, but could be an interesting experiment)
    Kafka (»non-negotiable«; also fun and inexhaustible)
    Freud (one of the obvious secondary choices)
    Benjamin (the only author I have read every word of; secondary choice)
    Brecht (might be fun, but lots of work to understand why he did what he did)
    Adorno (actually not too difficult, but very argumentative and it really helps to know not only the authors he engages with but also their reception at the time of writing; very comprehensive)
    Horkheimer (very rewarding reading, includes lectures, but also lots of fragments/notes, which might require lots of work)
    Beckett (*much* more fun than people think; doesn’t require previous understanding of literature or philosophy but of history)
    Thomas Bernhard (one of my top choices, lots of references)

    2. The obvious problem with »Great Authors« is that someone who wrote more (or more of which writings were collected) could become less eligible (why would I read every administrative message of Lenin again?). So some common sense is required. That being said, I think that it is very commendable to read at least one author completely (within common sense). Not only because of the reason Adam pointed out ad Freud: in the best case, how new experiences are being handled, how thoughts develop, how difficult it is to make oneself understood and that there is always something the author could not make clear.
    3. My own first attempts at completion were rather (i.e. extremely) obscure. I then worked my way (halfway) through Hegel, then Marx and Adorno. But it seems to me that almost any single author could be used as long as you also work through her references and the history of her reception.

  3. I definitely think that one issue with “great books” is that author’s develop as thinkers and writers, as you point out with Freud. I can only imagine what it would be like to only read the early Heidegger or late Heidegger and not both; or Lacan. Or really any figure. In a way, I think that its the commitment that these folks have to their thinking (and I am referring to all of those authors mentioned above) that makes them so fruitful to read. To see the development of someone’s thought is to notice, as you say, the kinds of questions these figures are dealing with — what are their obsessions? What concerns them intellectually? Great thought experiment!

  4. In addition to some great names already mentioned, the first names that popped into my head that I might add are Austen and Foucault (and if this is an edgy curriculum that includes films, Hitchcock and Woody Allen). All are interesting in the “repeatedly reworking persistent obsessions” way you (very rightly) mention in Freud, which you wouldn’t get from a “Great Works” focus on JUST, say, Pride and Prejudice, Vertigo, Sexuality 1, or Annie Hall. Allen, who as the highest ratio of uninteresting misses, might be the most debatable… But even interesting stuff to make (near) completist pursuit mostly worth it, I say. If this is unsatisfying sub him out for Almodovar (but he might be too close to Hitch to include both in one curriculum).

    Also plenty of poets would be interesting in light of the above criteria…. maybe Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson, Auden, Rich.

    And lots more… Very fun thought experiment.

  5. I think this thought experiment is a fascinating idea. It would allow students (or readers) to experience the fuller, shifting context behind a particular author’s ideas. No opportunity for cherry-picking, certainly, which would save you from a certain kind of eclectic collecting tendency and force you to think about their larger questions of coherence and what they were trying to do, not just whatever the quotation shocks you into thinking. However, I would think you would at least need some passing awareness of contexts for these writers, but that’s for editors to figure out. The harder question is the more immediate one. Which folks would you be willing to spend that much time with? Someone you want hanging out around your dinner table and family for those months. For my money, Plato and Chesterton would probably top my list (excuse me, my religio-literary colors are showing), though Melville and Feynman (or any contemporary scientist who can write and think clearly) would also crack the top five.

  6. Though he might be in the “too soon” category, it seems to me that David Foster Wallace would be a great candidate for this. You get some theory, some modal logic and philosophy, some rap analysis, a history of infinity (which was, alas, disappointing), plus interesting essays and nonfiction on a variety of topics (David Lynch, tennis, Dostoevsky, Kafka, grammar/usage, McCain 2000, right-wing talk radio, porn industry, lobster and state fairs) and that’s not even mentioning the excellent fiction which isn’t an impossible amount, since it’s only 2.5ish novels and 3 short-story collections.

  7. I tend to read this way, so like this suggestion, though I wonder if it wouldn’t just give us a different case of academic Stockholm Syndrome. The people who spend years just reading Aquinas or Barth or Hegel, e.g., seem to have to defend their guy as always “more nuanced” than critics allow.

    Which is an argument I’m totally stealing from Adam from a year ago: https://itself.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/read-harder/

    A similar Kotsko post opposing the idea of this post from 2008: https://itself.wordpress.com/2008/04/26/identifying-with-your-captor/

    Though perhaps this only proves the point of the advantages of the Great Author tactic, as “After a certain point, it’s no longer about figuring out ‘what Kotsko thinks,’ but about figuring out the persistent problems that he’s responding to.”

  8. I think we can read Kotsko in such a way that he’s consistent — for instance, “academic Stockholm Symdrome” only refers to authors so difficult to understand that once one has gone through the pain of learning them, one can’t bear the thought that they’re wrong. The notion of figuring out the persistent problem rather than trying to “save” the author’s positive claims also seems like a good cure for “read harder” syndrome.

  9. Think there is probably a necessity to include works that are not from the America and European traditions. I don’t just mean the Chinua Achebes of the world, but also thinkers and artists who have a linguistic and cultural context all their own, and not one that is filtered through post-colonialism. It would mean engagement with a culture and society on its terms, and not just fitting it to our expectations of what it should be, or what our stance regarding it should be. That would require a scholar’s familiarity with such material though, so that creates a big potential difficulty.

  10. William Gaddis: The Recognitions (takes care of all of po-mo 20th c lit. problems within communication, language, speech vs. language etc … questions of medium, identity, authenticity, religion, morality, etc. ontological questions of being, object, and etc. DFW, Pynchon, etc are nowhere without Gaddis. What’s listed above is far to Catholicized. Boring.

  11. Think there is probably a necessity to include works that are not from the America and European traditions.

    Confucius! (And presumably Mencius with him, but I haven’t gotten around to him yet.)

  12. Well, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I do think this would bias things against female authors to an alarming extent. Given how much harder it has historically been for women to write – what with worrying about finding husbands, covering up for the fact that they don’t want husbands, raising children for their (potentially academic?) husbands, and a fairly common urge to not rock the boat too much if it threatens social ties – it strikes me that most of the female authors I admire have much smaller corpora than the men. I imagine there would be far less opportunity to find authors who had enough work spanning enough time to allow students to come to grips with their changing ideas.

    And now to cheerfully disagree with myself. As a writer, I could see a “Great Authors” approach being extremely helpful. Reading through an author’s work chronologically – so far I’ve only managed Austen and Nietzsche, of all people – can help a young thinker and writer both in coming to grips with the content, but also with the development of the writing skills needed to work through that content.

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