Beatrix Lillico Sheppard, first GRBK multidisciplinary minor, graduating at age 82
Mortimer Adler

No more preposterous words can be uttered than for someone to say--at the age of thirty, forty, or fifty--'I have now completed my adult education.' To that, the only response should be: 'Are you ready to die? What are you going to do with the rest of your life?'

Adult learning, for the sake of becoming a generally educated human being, once begun, is interminable. Our minds, unlike our bodies, are able to grow and develop until death overtakes us... The mind... is a vital instrument that, if properly exercised, continues to improve. The only condition of its continual growth is that it be continually nourished and exercised. How nourished? By reading the great books year after year. How exercised? By discussing them.

In his A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror (MacMillan 1992, quoted above p.228), Mortimer Adler describes the evolution of the Great Books educational movement in this century. One of its results was St. John's College. He was an acquaintance of its founders, Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan (ibid. pp.62-64):

"In one sense, John Erskine is the grandfather of the New Program at St. John's. He was greatly influenced by Professor George Edward Woodberry, his own teacher, but it was he who originated the great books seminars at Columbia in 1921. It was he who first constructed a list of the great works in Western literature from Homer to Freud. But that, in my view, was not his chief contribution. It was the 'invention' of the undergraduate seminar... The use of the word 'seminar' for a round-table discussion of a book that the undergraduate students had all read was truly an invention on Erskine's part; and with it the introduction of the Socratic method of teaching--by questioning rather than by lecturing.

After the New Program was established at St. John's College (1937) the many articles about it in the public prints referred to it as 'the great books college,' for two great books seminars a week for four years were central in the New Program. Scott Buchanan cannot be credited with that curricular innovation. Scott became acquainted with great books seminars when he and I first became friends at Columbia University in the late twenties. He joined me in proposing the idea of great books seminars for adults to Everett Dean Martin, then Director of the People's Institute in New York... The main contribution made by Buchanan to the great books seminars in the New Program at St. John's was the expansion of the reading list to include the great books of mathematics and the natural sciences along with those of imaginative literature, and works in history, philosophy and theology. But that was by no means his chief contribution. It was rather his insistence that all members of the faculty become generalists, themselves becoming competent as liberal artists, regardless of what their previous academic specialty had been and regardless of what had been the subject of their Ph.D.

To achieve this end, he abolished all departments and professorial titles at St. John's College. Every member of the faculty was simply called a Fellow and Tutor of the College. Every member of the faculty was obliged to teach the whole program. The whole program was required for all students as the indispensable means to their general, liberal education; hence, it should be required for all teachers as a means to the same end.

The whole program consisted of three kinds of teaching and learning experiences: (1) the Socratically conducted great books seminars; (2) three tutorials, in which students were coached in mathematics; in the procedures of laboratory science; and in the acquisition of foreign languages; and (3) one lecture a week for the entire college, after which the students engage the lecturer in discussion of its themes for an hour or two.

As the New Program developed, other elements were introduced, such as senior essays, oral examinations, don rags, and preceptorials, in which extremely difficult books were studied more intensively than their consideration in a two-hour seminar permitted. But after more than fifty years, the tripartite structure of the curriculum indicated above remains intact.

Any one even slightly acquainted with the colleges in this country, presented with this picture of the New Program at St. John's College, will realize at once how difficult--in fact, how impossible--it was to persuade their presidents and their professors to adopt or to imitate the St. John's model. The imitation of St. John's at St. Mary's College and at Notre Dame was limited to a small select group of students and faculty--a college within a college. The only exception was Thomas Aquinas College where, as at St. John's, Buchanan's radical innovations were adopted with some modifications, for the whole student body and the whole faculty."

Dr. Adler has been involved in a number of important efforts that have shaped our current conception of the great books:

Robert Hutchins 1929
Six Great ideas
Aristotle is for Everybody

Dr. Adler's is not the only vision for the Great Books. While the curriculum of the St. John's program is immensely admirable and indeed is among the models to which ECU refers, there are aspects of Adler's philosophy that are hotly debated. Among them are the belief that art and music are not proper fields of moral inquiry since they are not sources of Great Ideas, or indeed that the Great Books should be studied as repositories for Great Ideas (topically) rather than for themselves, that the organization of universities into departments has falsely divided knowledge into compartments, that research is somehow subordinate to teaching (rather than the necessary foundation of it) and publication more subordinate still (rather than the most important form of teaching: educating our colleagues), and that the most important features of Great Books are accessible to the non-expert. Even Dr. Adler stresses that "re-reading" is key to our dialogue on the Great Ideas and that successful instruction requires a Master to ask the right questions. For these and other reasons, the ECU Great Books Program is seeking its own path, and does not claim to adhere to the views of Dr. Adler, who died after this rich career in June 2001.


The ECU Program in Great Books was begun in 1998, inspired by an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education circulated by Dean Keats Sparrow. It proposed that students at state universities are being "trained" in the rigid requirements of modern disciplines, but are missing out on the kind of open-ended inquiry that students enjoy at small liberal arts colleges.

Prof. Rand Evans, Psychology

Dr. Rand Evans, then Chair of the Psychology Department, was inspired by this challenge, and wrote to his fellow chairs that it should not be so, that if the General College experience was not fulfilling this role at ECU, at least the minor should. His idea was that even if one's major field involves training for a skilled profession, it should still be possible to have a more humane education in letters to balance it. He investigated the Great Books program at St. John's College in Annapolis Maryland and discovered that in addition to their core curriculum in the great authors they also have the "symposium", a seminar each semester offered in the evenings which the whole college takes in common. He visited the College and witnessed students (the most eloquent of whom appeared to be a street kid from DC) passionately conducting a debate on the concept of "natural" in Aristotle's Physics with only minimal prodding by the professor. It was this experience which Dr. Evans hoped to bring to East Carolina.

Dr. Evans and Dean Sparrow invited faculty from across the university to attend a discussion for the purpose of forming a Great Books program at East Carolina. More than 30 faculty from several schools and departments attended, after which Dr. Sparrow assisted in the formation of an executive committee to facilitate the most expedient way to bring this kind of curriculum to ECU.

The executive committee was chaired by Dr. Evans, and its members were:

  • Dr. Michael Bassman, Director of Honors
    Dr. Michael Brown, Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Psychology
    Dr. David Conradt, Chair of the Department of Political Science
    Dr. Charles Fantazzi, Whichard Distinguished Visiting Professor of Classics
    Dr. Brian Harris, Assoc. Professor of German, Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures
    Dr. Dona Harris, former ECU Director of Academic Programs, School of Medicine
    Dr. Elizabeth Layman, Chair of Health Information Management, Allied Health Sciences
    Dr. Douglas McMillan, Department of English
    Prof. Carol Pendergrast, Department of Theatre and Dance
    Dr. John Stevens, Curriculum Coordinator of Classical Studies
    Dr. Richard Taylor, Director of Graduate Studies, Department of English
    Dr. Edmund Wall, Department of Philosophy

After careful consideration, it was decided that the program should begin immediately using available courses and curricula. As an interim measure existing courses with an appropriate content were selected from across the university and recommended for inclusion in a multidisciplinary minor (which requires only the approval of the student's major dept).

Beatrice Sheppard, BA ENGL 2002

In the meantime Dr. Evans appointed Drs. Stevens and Wall to develop promotional materials and a website to spread word of the program. From 1999-2002, a working group of Drs. Evans, Stevens, Wall, Fantazzi, Layman and Harris developed a proper curriculum and a free-standing minor. They wrote course proposals for an introductory seminar, senior seminar, and senior thesis which were approved with the Great Books minor in spring 2003. The seminars then became the foundation of the program as the College of Arts and Sciences agreed to support the program with one seminar each semester.

Early introductory seminars borrowed a Classics course number and were taught by Dr. Fantazzi on Dante, by Dr. Wall on Plato, Augustine and Descartes, and by Dr. Evans on the History of Psychology. The program's first graduate with a multidisciplinary minor far surpassed anything the faculty could have hoped for: she was the irrepressible Beatrice Lillico Shephard, an 82-year old great-grandmother from New Bern who studied Latin and Great Books to complete her degree in English.

John Stevens

In 2003, the committee welcomed as chair Dr. Stevens and a number of new committee members: Professors James Reho and Robert Hammond of the Department of Chemistry who developed a new course on the Great Books of Science (first offered in fall 2004); Dr. David Wilson-Okamura of the Department of English who offered a senior seminar on the Faerie Queene; Prof. Tricia Wilson-Okamura and Dr. John Given of the Classical Studies Program; Dr. Debra Anderson, Honors and French advisor for the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures; Dr. Gordon Hull of the Department of Philosophy; Dr. Kevin Moll of the School of Music who offered a senior seminar on the history of aesthetics; and Prof. Anoush Terjanian of the Department of History who offered a senior seminar on the history of Economics entitled "Commerce and its Critics".

Charles Fantazzi

Many of the Great Books faculty are among the university's most eminent scholars. Dr. Evans has been visiting scholar in residence at Harvard University, the University of Applied Science in Potsdam, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. He is author of some ten books and many articles on the History of Psychology. Dr. Fantazzi came to ECU in 1998 after a rich career as chair of the Department of Classical and Modern Language at the University of Windsor and has remained as Thomas Harriot Distinguished Visiting Professor of Classics and Great Books. Author of eight books on Erasmus and Juan Luis Vives and editor of many volumes of the Collected Works of Erasmus, University of Toronto Press, in 2002 Dr. Fantazzi was a fellow of The Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts, and in 2004 he was the Distinguished Visiting Scholar of The Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto and published an edition of Angelo Poliziano's Silvae for the I Tatti Renaissance Library, Harvard University Press.

Noted guest speakers have included Roger Shattuck, University Professor Emeritus at Boston University, and author of Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, and Prof. Gretchen Reydams-Schils of the Notre Dame Program in Liberal Studies.

Great Books Authors