The Association for Core Texts and Courses

Humanities. Liberal Studies. Great Books. The courses have many names but a common format. The students read and discuss freely famous books, often but far from always, books in the Western canon. There’s no intermediary; there’s no authoritative commentator. They’re not reading about famous books and authors. They are reading the books. They are confronting the authors. Plato himself is in the classroom; his thousands of commentators have been banished. (Time enough for the commentators when you get to graduate school.)

And the students love it. They love it because the material is fresh. The books are astounding, unusual, in-your-face, outrageous, by men – and sometimes women – that have been read with appreciation for a hundred years, a thousand years, more.

And they love it because if the course is well run, no one uses the discouraging phrase, “you are wrong.” Students can be asked to take another student’s observation into account; they can be asked why if Socrates indeed meant such-and-such, two paragraphs later he seems to be endorsing something like the opposite. To repeat; there’s no one standard, received interpretation of the author’s intention on the table; no one interpretation to be copied into notes and replicated on the exam. At its best the approach encourages not relativism, but an awareness of the real world’s complexities and students feel that they’ve been introduced to, and welcomed to, the intellectual life writ large.

There’s a professional association that addresses the scholarly, pedagogical and administrative issues involved in teaching these courses at the undergraduate level. It’s called The Association for Core Texts and Courses, ACTC, for short. It meets yearly. As many as four hundred presenters attend. Sounds crowded? Well, it doesn’t feel crowded; we break up into groups of six to eight, and read short papers on related topics and texts; there’s time for discussion.

Last year, I had the rare chance to argue that Canada’s Constitution belongs in the Western canon. This year Sam Ajzenstat gets the equally rare chance to argue that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is grounded in a Jewish defence of liberal contractualism. We are part of the growing contingent of Canadians at ACTC.

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1 Response to “The Association for Core Texts and Courses”


  1. 1 Aspasia April 12, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Whoohoo! Great post. Can’t wait to see you! (Anne)


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