Humane Letters, a Great Books Seminar

Great Hearts Academies July 18, 2017

Humane Letters is the capstone course of the Great Hearts high school experience. Students strive to better understand the world around them through the ideas of those who came before us. For this reason, Humane Letters is first and foremost a Great Books seminar, in which the reading and Socratic discussion of great works of prose, fiction, political theory, epic poetry, philosophy, autobiography, drama, and selections from Jewish and Christian scriptures are the work of the course.

The selection and sequence of the Great Books is not strictly chronological: there is an intentional working-backwards sequence, from 9th grade (American), through 10th  (modern European), 11th grade (ancient Greek), and 12th  grade (Virgil to Dante to Shakespeare, and Descartes to Dostoyevsky). This sequence is above all a developmentally appropriate one for students, both because it not only starts with the most familiar and moves back to the least familiar, and because it allows the depth and difficulty of the books in each course to increase throughout the four-year sequence. The books could not be moved from one course to another without disruption to a proven sequence. Homer and The Republic are for the emerging adult minds of juniors; Fahrenheit 451 inspires deep thought in the minds of freshmen; The Brothers Karamazov could not be anything other than the last book in the 12th grade; and the sophomore year’s Crime and Punishment is the most perfect pairing of book and age group in the entire Humane Letters sequence.

This class sets the tone for all other high school courses and each student’s high school experience. During the four years of high school, students grow along with the curriculum. A freshman discussion differs from a senior discussion in many ways, and the differences demonstrate the reasons why this class is so beneficial for every student in the Great Hearts schools.

While reading these texts, Humane Letters allows students to discuss freely and learn how to maintain a discussion without outside support. They must think about the text critically to bring strong ideas to the table and master integration of their own thoughts with the ideas of others. Students not only know how to do these things with the ideas presented in the books they read, but they also know how to separate their own personal opinions from the ideas in the text. Students learn that perfection is not a standard one must reach, but a goal to strive for in a healthy way. With this solid foundation in the classics, students approach the challenges of today by mastering how to self-evaluate, pursue the truth, and maintain consistent work ethic.

9th Grade – The American Tradition

The Great Gatsby, F.S. Fitzgerald

The Declaration of Independence

Letter from Birmingham Jail, M.L. King

Democracy in America, de Tocqueville

10th Grade – Modern Europe

Pride and Prejudice, J. Austen

Tale of Two Cities, C. Dickens

Second Treatise on Government, J. Locke

11th Grade – Ancient Greece

The Illiad, Homer

History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides

The Republic, Plato

Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle

12th Grade – From Rome to Modernity

The Divine Comedy, Dante

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky

Treatise on Law, Aquinas

Reason in History, Hegel

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