What are some of the pros and cons of a "great books" education?


I would like to learn more about getting a degree from studying the “great books”?

Is it fulfilling? Is it worth the money?

What type of job can someone get if they have went through such a program without additional training?

Should a graduate pursue additional training?

I would appreciate replies to any of these questions.

Thank you,

The program in New Mexico at St. John’s College,
is very good. You have to love literature to study in this type of program.
I think you can get any job that anyone with a liberal arts degree can get, or get a PhD in English, history or
other subjects. You could become a K-12 teacher as well, with this type of education. You could go to business or law school as well. This type of education prepares one well for the intense reading and writing that is required in law schools. You could get a job in journalism as well, or communication.

Hello and thanks for your comment. I go to a very small classical high school with a modified Great Books curriculum and know a lot of grads from Great Books schools (St. John’s, Thomas Aquinas College, Azusa Pacific, etc.). I will vouch for the Great Books. In my opinion these schools are about as formative an education as you can get. Thomas Aquinas College is one of the highest-ranked value colleges in the United States because the sticker price is under $30,000 a year and graduates are able to find jobs.

While TAC and other Great Books programs are not going to point you toward a specific job, they often do a far better job of the “broadening your horizons” that college is often supposed to do. Yes, most very successful Great Books grads have pursued higher education, but this is true of most people in the fields they’re in (law, engineering, etc.) And these grads have no trouble getting into grad school because what a Great Books education does is teach you how to think.

Check out some grads here: https://thomasaquinas.edu/alumni/profiles-leadership

Hillsdale has a core great books curriculum, but also has specific major areas.

I don’t necessarily think it is true that most successful people in areas like business or engineering have advanced degrees. Some, but most do not. The downside of this curriculum is that you are highly likely to need an advanced degree to have good employment prospects. If you are set with certainty on something like law school or teaching in an English or social sciences subject, then a Great Books curriculum could make sense.

Lawyers in the US require a post-bachelor’s professional degree earned through law school. However, most engineers in the US do so with a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

Generally, most people with bachelor’s degrees do not go on to graduate or professional school. This may vary between specific colleges, including “great books” colleges.

You would be surprised on how many graduates in the LA go on to hold top positions at Fortune 500 companies. Yes many go onto professional schools (MBA/Law) but it is a solid path and the critical thinking that you learn is invaluable. Of course its always better to attend a highly respected college if you want to study the great books.

You might want to read The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins, which was his 1952 introduction to the Britannica Great Books of the Western World collection. If it’s not in your local public library, you may be able to order it online or find it at college library with the rest of the collection.

Mortimer Adler was another promoter of the GB concept. With Hutchins, he established the Great Books Foundation. You might want to look for a copy of his How to Read a Book if you haven’t already.

There are no cons.

I believe there are cons if you have no interest in further education. St. John’s, noted above, says it’s #1 in students pursuing humaniteis PhDs and that 70% of graduates pursue advanced degrees. If you’re not looking for either of those, be sure to ask about employment/placement statistics directly out of undergrad. I can see it being a challenge.

Rue 4 year grad rate at SJ NM is a whopping 53%. In Md, 63%.

If there are cons, I’d say they result from giving up (or delaying) some other kind of education/training you might want, not with the GB concept per se. Not that it hasn’t been criticized (since the beginning), for example for focusing on great books of the western world to the exclusion of other traditions. Early advocates addressed some of those criticisms.

Conceivably, you could go directly from college into journalism, advertising/marketing, sales, low-level management, civil service, foreign service, or any other occupation requiring good judgment and communication (but not specific technical) skills. The practical reality is that you’ll probably need follow-on education/training (especially if you have ambitious salary expectations.) In some cases an employer might help with that, one way or another.

The main con of going to a college that focuses on English literature, would be if you got interested in world languages, science, engineering, accounting or finance. But you could transfer but probably lose some credits, as some other types of education will not accept all the credits maybe, but it depends on where you transfer, and which
degree you end up earning. However, a lot of people switch to accounting later in life, with an English degree, that is possible. Its always possible to add on another bachelors degree later, so its not a huge con in my mind, as long
as literature interests you greatly and you can afford the school.

There are two types of programs:
Some are full-on Great Books: ST John’s MD, St John’s NM, Thomas Aquinas.
These would typically lead to further work in the Humanities, law school or teaching.

Others coexist with a core curriculum, often replacing gen eds (PLS at Notre Dame, Great Conversation at St Olaf…) while students have majors in other fields and usually take gen eds in subjects not covered by their Great Book program.

I don’t see much of a downside to these, it’s a personal preference.

It depends on how far you want to drill down on the formation of the western European nation states and their literary traditions. It’s a compelling story, particularly the crucial role played by “The Church” in perpetuating ancient Greek as the principal written language everywhere from Dublin to Lithuania and parts of North Africa. What GB tends to leave out is all scientific progress after Darwin as well as the eventual dominance of the Koran as a moral and literary force in places where Western ideas had some hopes of spreading. For those and other limitations, IMO, GB has tended to flourish more congenially as a concentration or core within a wider university curriculum.

Even in the full-on St. John’s programs, you do get some foreign language exposure. All students study ancient Greek and modern French. UChicago and Columbia (whose Core programs provide a fairly heavy exposure to Great Books) offer many other ancient and modern foreign languages as well.

The original Britannica Great Books collection does include many natural science, social science, and math classics. Although the whole collection was published in English, only a relatively small subset is fictional English literature (Shakespeare, Milton, Swift etc.) I don’t know how many of them the SJ program covers these days. The UChicago Core program requires courses in physical science, biological science, and mathematics (but those are not “Great Books” courses).

You can major in English at UChicago or Columbia, but courses in your major might only be about 25%-40% of the total program. Many other universities offer courses in the same books/authors included in the Britannica GB collection (or covered in the SJ/TAC programs). You probably could put something tantamount to a “Great Books Lite” major, with a CS/econ/math minor, at an Open Curriculum college (like Brown).

Here is the book list at St. John’s:


Directed Studies at Yale and Plan II at UT Austin are some other examples.

There are some serious deficiencies in the “Great Books” curricula, especially the failure to cover anything prior to the Greeks and the Old Testament. (The Greeks themselves were far more gracious about acknowledging their intellectual debt to the east.) That said, there’s no doubt that SJC tries very hard to develop critical thinking skills in its students, and that is more important than course content when it comes to the humanities.

In The Great Conversation, Robert Hutchins gives a justification for ending the GB collection with Freud (circa 1900).

He also tried to justify the exclusion of non-western writings.

I don’t find any attempt (in The Great Conversation) to justify starting the collection with Homer, but I suppose one could apply a similar argument for excluding Eastern literature to the exclusion of anything prior to the Greeks.

Nevertheless, since Hutchins’ time, many colleges may have expanded/improved their coverage of 20th century literature, non-Western civilizations, or pre-Homeric/pre-OT civilization. If you are interested in exploring any of those areas, there may be better options than a full-on GB program.


My experience at a small college, circa the 1970s, was that by sophomore year, it was nearly impossible to have avoided bumping into works by Marx, Freud, Hobbes, Rousseau, Malthus, Weber, de Tocqueville and the aforementioned Darwin. They were treated with great deference, not just in the social sciences, but, seemed to occupy a very important niche in the humanities, too. I don’t remember a lot of exposure to the ancient Greeks, but, that could be because nearly everyone I knew had taken AP English in high school and I certainly remember weeks of concentration on Plato there - in translation, of course.

To me a “Great Books” program should be a graduate-level program and saved until one is over 40 and already has a steady job.