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Opinion: How to understand Mercer’s Great Books program

A Great Books student's desk is covered with the books assigned in the first semester of the program.
A Great Books student's desk is covered with the books assigned in the first semester of the program.

This is an opinion article. Any views expressed belong solely to the author and are not representative of The Cluster.

As Plato says, opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance, so I hope to bridge the gap between what Mercer students think they know about Great Books and what Great Books actually is through the eyes of one of its participants. 

Great Books is seven semesters long, ranging from 101, 202 and 203 all the way to 407. It fulfills multiple general education requirements such as the written and oral communication, western civilization, religion and elective requirements. The first two classes have four credit hours because the extra credit hour is dedicated to correcting high school mindsets about writing and teaching fresh bears how to write a college level paper.

For the most part, students stick to the GBK track, but you can drop the track if you realize the course isn’t for you or you don’t have time. The caveat is you can only drop after the first or second course unless you have extreme extenuating circumstances, and you still have to switch to the Integrative Studies Track. GBK 101 will count as INT 101, but that’s all you get. If it seems unfair that Great Books is seven semesters long whereas INT is only three, it’s not. Remember, Great Books fulfills other Gen Eds that INT doesn’t.

The best part of being a Great Books student is finding the humor amongst the seriousness of the topics through the class descriptions. In Understanding Self and Others: Among Gods and Heroes, for those who know, heroes is loosely termed in consideration of Achilles and Oedipus. Classical Cultures comprises Plato and his fanbase — meaning students like Aristotle who put everything in abstract terms. The Hebrew and Christian Traditions focuses on the Christian Tradition because we are predominantly a Christian nation and Georgia is in the Bible Belt. Order and Ingenuity is a descent into hell only Great Books kids understand. The Modern World View’s album title could be “The Enlightenment featuring Shakespeare.” Reason and Revolution is the last time the world makes sense before The Age of Ambivalence wrecking balls your worldview through existential crises.

In all honesty, most of the texts are entertaining, others not so much. Where the texts seem to become problematic is when multiple sections of the same course are being taught with different books. Although there are set books that are required no matter the section, alternative book selection is discretionary by professor. I credit this to the Mercer bookstore only having so many copies of one text, but Amazon is cheaper in bulk and offers free shipping anyway. 

The best advice a Great Books student can ever provide is this: do not take this pathway if you don’t enjoy reading or writing. The minimum number of books I’ve read in a semester is four, and the maximum is twelve. Some of the texts are read in sections and other books are read all the way through.

How many of us actually go back to read to fill in the blanks? How many of us actually read instead of just sparknoting or schmooping? I don’t recommend not reading, though. I know it’s unavoidable sometimes because college students have to do what we’ve got to do — or not do in some cases — but, pro tip,  you’ll benefit from starting your Great Book papers early instead of doing the assignment the night before or morning of. And don’t plagiarize or summarize. 

They’ll know.

Great Books course material never claims to be anything other than completely and utterly ethnocentric in preference of Western tradition. Not to discredit the texts which geographically traverse the United States, the United Kingdom, Ancient Greece and 20th century Russia, but there are very few courses at Mercer outside of history, religion and philosophy departments that allow for the study of Eastern tradition. 

A potential solution to the lack of diverse texts would be to trade out the philosophic texts that disgruntle students the most, such as Locke, Aquinas, Montaigne, Engels and Nietzche. That’s a lot of name dropping, but we need to drop some Western philosophers for Eastern ones.

To take it a step further, I’ve only heard of six women authors in the whole seven-semester sequence: Sappho, Austen, Dickinson, Wollstonecraft, Hurston and Shelley. Women may not have been widely published until later centuries, but in the 21st century, we should at least attempt to be more inclusive of all genders and races. 

Now, if you’ve convinced yourself to stick through this rant to the end like you have to follow through on Great Books, allow me to tell you the value of the Great Books Program. From 101 to 407, you’ll know most, if not all, of the other exhausted but enriched souls in the program. Mercer boasts smaller class sizes, right?  I’ve had a GBK class with fifteen people, which can make for some awkward silences if no one reads. It happens. 

Because the program captures the attention of people in all majors, you’ll make friends with people you’d never see on campus otherwise. The fact that people come from differing majors means differing opinions and, in a discussion-based class like Great Books, that can be extremely entertaining. 

What really makes Great Books worth taking is the professors. They want to teach this class and get trained for it because they come from other disciplines. When it comes to grading, these professors grade approximately 15 to 20 papers every month just in their Great Books class. Sure, we’ve all been frustrated about how long grading takes because we’re paranoid about the grade, but if you read and argued through your understanding of the text well, you’ll be fine. Many professors will read the book with you, which is how they know when you haven’t read, but they’ll also know how best to help you understand any concept you struggle with. And trust me, when you get to the philosophical ramblings of dead white men, you’ll appreciate their willingness to sit with you during office hours to listen to your questions. 

Unfortunately, the professors are limited, too. They’re not supposed to speak during discussions because they’re student-led, but some of the best moments and conversations have occurred when a professor indulges the class in a “Non-Great Books moment.” These moments are when the discussion jumps out of context from the texts’ pages and applies to current events. Some professors want to teach this way, and it really works for the students. 

Overall, Great Books is a “great” program to take. It provides students with friends in other subject areas, lets them learn how society progressed into being as messed up as it is, and shapes them into well-rounded, well-read individuals who will one day become the highlight of cocktail parties. 

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