Great Books XXI

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Great Books XXI is a project to draft a list of the world's greatest books that serve as an updated list of the canonical worlds of modern civilization in the twenty-first century. It is meant partly as an intellectual exercise and partly as an open educational resource that educators can use when selecting relevant materials for their students to introduce them to the ongoing Great Conversation.

The list builds on previous work of Mortimer Adler and others in the early twentieth century who put together a list of the "Great Books" that were most pertinent to discussion of Western Civilization. This list, in its variations came to be used as a shorthand for those works with which classically educated people should be familiar, and indeed a number of colleges and universities used them as the basis of their undergraduate programs, with some of these programs surviving to the present.

While this sort of classically minded liberal arts education keeps history close at hand, it also generated increasing controversy as the decades went by. Primarily, the objections to it concerned its "dead white males" approach, where works from woman and people of color were almost entirely discounted. Indeed, when Great Books pioneer Mortimer Adler was asked in 1990 why his list of Great Books did not include any black authors, he responded, "They didn't write any good books."

While such thinking did not raise eyebrows in the early twentieth century, it is not an explanation that educated people in the twenty-first century would find particularly credible. Thus, the purpose of Great Books XXI is to draft a new list of great books, one that is inclusive and takes into account books from the twentieth century, yet retains the original goals that:

  • the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;
  • the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit;
  • the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals since the dawn of civilization.

The list should serve another purpose, however. The idea of using great books as the basis for a liberal arts education is not hindered by the non-inclusive approach taken by previous incarnations. If such a list were to fit into the parameters of the level of education represented by a Bachelor's degree, that might help these works fit into the modern educational paradigm.

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