BY JOHN GALLAGHER
Sophocles. Aristotle. Plato. Voltaire. The works of these men and others strike fear into many student scholars. Should that student scholar happen to participate in Franciscan University’s Great Books of Western Civilization Honors Program, that fear will likely dissipate in dissecting these authors’ works, in eight semesters of seminar-style classes.
Joseph Almeida, director of the Great Books Honors Program, best describes the curriculum as one compiled “entirely of original texts of the best thinkers and writers of our history.” For its part, the program itself was founded largely on poet Matthew Arnold’s often-quoted description of culture: “the best that has been thought and said.”
The Honors program itself has more benefits than are immediately evident. First and foremost, in what Almeida describes as its “educational purpose,” the program provides academically gifted students with an encounter with high-quality Western intellectual literature. Secondly, as its “academic purpose,” the program also substitutes for the majority of the invited students’ core curriculum requirements.
In its purpose, content and execution, the Great Books of Western Civilization Honors Program differs from the majority of the Honors programs present at other academic universities. Almeida is quick to acknowledge that the standard definition of an Honors Program consists of accelerated classes “set aside for talented students, mostly ordered toward research, with or without professors, something a little more intense than normal classes.” On the contrary, the Honors Program available to Franciscan University consists entirely of prized literature of Western Civilization, “a program that happens to be offered to Honors-caliber students.”
The success of the Honors Program can be measured by its marked changes over the years since its institution. “The program has gotten bigger, and we’ve invited professors from all majors to teach it,” said Almeida. “We’re true to the idea that the Great Books are accessible to everybody.”
Benjamin Wiker, a professor of theology, acknowledges the program’s unique effect not only on the university’s students, but also on the teachers. He maintains that students learn through dialogue, resulting in a unique reaction on the part of the seminar moderator. “A lot of the time, a teacher in Honors is biting his tongue,” said Wiker. “He may want to leap in and straighten things out, but that is not his task, any more than you can teach someone to drive by continually grabbing the wheel.”
Furthermore, he claims that students who graduate from the Honors program are better prepared to face life after higher education. “Certainly, having been forced to work through the texts that are both profound and difficult creates a kind of intellectual habit that will prove beneficial the rest of their [graduate] lives,” said Wiker.
Ultimately, Franciscan University’s Great Books of Western Civilization Honors Program yields self-aware, educated students. And from its institution, it has existed as a staple of the university’s academic curriculum and the benchmark for engaging student self-education.