Scott Postma: Great Books Are the Road to Education

A concise answer to the questions before us might be found in Robert Hutchins’ Preface to The Great Conversation. He writes,

Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition. There never was very much doubt in anybody's mind about which the masterpieces were. They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind. (1)

Hutchins asserts that the great books were, at one time in history, obvious and recognizable because they were the road to education. These were the books that had endured the test of time and were acknowledged by a substantial consensus to be the masterpieces of the Western tradition.

In what follows, I’ll take the questions in reverse and briefly establish what makes a book great, then probe the question of which books should be counted among the Western masterpieces.

The first thing that makes a book great is its aesthetic value. A book with aesthetic value is sometimes called a classic because it is among the finest creations of literature in the Western tradition. Such a masterpiece is often challenging and may not always advance ideas with which we agree, but is always delightful to read because of its rich content and form.

Classics, says Louise Cowan, “not only exhibit a distinguished style, fine artistry, and keen intellect but [they also] create whole universes of imagination and thought.” (2) Likewise, Harold Bloom suggests a book with aesthetic value possesses a “mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, [and] exuberance of diction.” (3)

Further, aesthetic value means a book is endowed with what some have called strangeness. Strangeness in this context means that the book “comes down to us from a distant time and unfamiliar culture…yet because it has shaped so significantly the culture we inhabit, it also has a ring of the familiar. Such a book is recognized through its “mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” (4)

The second thing that makes a book great is its enduring value. It possesses a measure of universality and timelessness—it has literally stood the test of time. In C.S. Lewis’s words, it’s an “old book.” (5) Great books stay in circulation because they still have something to say. They continue to induce in readers what Aristotle would call “an interior movement of the soul.” It’s not so much that these books supply us with “facts and information,” but they continue to offer us “underlying and sustaining insight…a new and profound interpretation of life.” (6)

Also, great books come to us from our Western ancestors, who Chesterton calls “the democracy of the dead.” (7) These books are a rich inheritance of inquiry by way of logos, usually written in response to some previous work of inquiry, creating what Hutchins calls “the great conversation,” or what Richard Gamble calls “a transgenerational conversation.” (8) The very fact that great books are discussed, passed down, cited, and refuted, implies they are meant to be a possession for all.

Finally, a great book is a road to education. A modern best-seller may be entertaining but a great book enlightens while it delights. It challenges our assumptions, stretches our imaginations, and obliges us to contemplate its ideas and converse with others about them.

This speaks to the question, which books are the great books? Which books belong and which books do not? Lists of these books are abundant, so I will merely posit a few guiding principles to better understand our choices.

First, we should be cautious of the idea of a Western literary canon. Transliterated from the Greek word kanón, it means rule or standard, and in terms of writing, it means “official list.” The concept derives from the biblical canon whereby the books of Scripture that were approved as authoritative by the church were canonized. Books that did not meet certain criteria of acceptance were rejected.

In reality, no canon of Western literature exists in the sense that the biblical canon exists since there is no set number of authoritative texts. However, there are numerous authors whose works the vast majority have historically confirmed as essential (e.g., Plato, Homer, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, etc.).

Second, the Western literary “canon” is mildly mutable. Hutchins explains,

In the course of history, from epoch to epoch, new books have been written that have won their place in the list. Books once thought entitled to belong to it have been superseded; and this process of change will continue as long as men can think and write. It is the task of every generation to reassess the tradition in which it lives, to discard what it cannot use, and to bring into context with the distant and intermediate past the most recent contributions to the Great Conversation. (9)

Contrary to the school of thought that attempts to preserve the Western literary “canon” as immutable, the canon is, by nature, self-critical. Contrary to the opposing school of thought whereby works are exchanged for reasons other than aesthetic value or promise of enduring value, the rightful inclusion of a book into the “canon” can never be politically motivated. How the canon changes is key. We must assess the canon as a matter of recovery (e.g., Epic of Gilgamesh, Aristotle, Beowulf) rather than revolution (e.g., exchanges based on race or gender instead of the merits of the work). The latter is contrary to the spirit of inheritance—faithfully receiving our tradition from the democracy of the dead.

Finally, how one views education will largely shape the great books he or she views as preeminent—as being the road to that education—within the now vast Western literary “canon.”

Because all education has a telos, defining that telos will necessarily inform and influence any answer to the disputed question under consideration.


(1) Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, The Great Conversation, 1st ed., vol. 1, 52 vols., of Great Books of the Western World (Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), xi.

(2) Louise Cowan and Os Guinness, Invitation To The Classics: A Guide to Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 21.

(3) Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994), 27-28.

(4) Harold Bloom and Roger Lundin both attribute a quality of strangeness to great books. Bloom, The Western Canon, 3; and, Lundin in Invitation To The Classics, 27.

(5) C. S. Lewis and Walter Hooper, “On the Reading of Old Books,” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 220.

(6) Cowan, Invitation To The Classics, 23.

(7) G. K. Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986), 251.

(8) Richard M. Gamble, The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2017), xvii.

(9) Hutchins, The Great Conversation, xi.



Scott Postma, PhD, is President/CEO of Kepler Education in Moscow, Idaho, providing homeschooling families with a marketplace for live, online courses in the classical Christian tradition.

Dr. Scott Postma
President/CEO of Kepler Education

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