Old Western Culture: A Christian Approach to the Great Books will eventually be a series of four Great Books courses for high school students. Thus far, the first three courses, The Greeks, The Romans, and Christendom are available. The final course in the series will be The Moderns.
The Old Western Culture video course series makes it possible for students to get a Great Books education through independent study using video lectures, student workbooks, and term papers along with the literary works. This is high-quality classical education although it lacks the element of Socratic discussion with other students and a mentor. Each completed course should earn a student two high school credits: one for literature, one-half credit for history, and one-half credit for philosophy or theology.
Students will read many classic works of literature as they become familiar with some of the most influential books that have shaped western civilization.
Classic Christian works are included in the series, including some not on the Great Books list. In the introduction to The Greeks, course teacher Wesley Callihan presents a great explanation of how the Enlightenment influenced the generally-accepted lists of the Great Books, and resulted in the exclusion of many classic Christian works—some of which he will be teaching in this course. This is particularly true of Christendom series.
Each course is presented in four units, with 12 lessons per unit. It should take about nine weeks to complete each unit, although an alternate schedule shows how each unit might be completed in as little as seven weeks. The amount of reading is about 30 to 40 pages a day with the nine-week schedule, so I would be very cautious about shortening the schedule.
Each unit has its own theme. In The Greeks, the four units are “The Epics,” “Drama and Lyric,” “The Histories,” and “The Philosophers.” In The Romans, the four units are "The Aeneid," "The Historians," "Early Christianity," and "Nicene Christianity." In Christendom, the four units are "Early Medievals," "The Defense of the Faith," "The Medieval Mind," and "The Reformation." You can see from these unit titles that the courses delve into history, religion, the arts, and philosophy as well as literature.
For each unit there is a set of four DVDs that comes in a case—four sets of DVDs per course. There is also a streaming option that you might consider.
There are separate student and teacher books for each unit. The first DVD of each unit includes two PDF files: one for the student workbook and one for the teacher edition. The teacher edition is the same as the student workbook but with answers overprinted. If you prefer, you may purchase a print edition of the workbook that has the student pages at the front and the answer key presented separately at the back. You can also download these files from the publisher’s website, something you will need to do if you select the streaming option.
Each unit begins with one or two introductory lectures. Students answer questions in the workbook after watching each lecture. After the introduction, students immediately begin to read the assigned pages in the work being studied. They have “Reading Questions” in their workbook to answer before they watch the next video lecture. Video lessons continue along with both Lecture and Reading questions. The questions include some comprehension questions, but they also pose more challenging questions that get into literary analysis and the author’s intent.
“Discussion Topics” show up at the end of most lessons. These might be used for discussion if someone is available with whom to discuss them, but they might also be used as essay assignments. For each unit, students will write a 750- to 1200-word term paper, and some of the Discussion Topics would be great for those papers. For example, one "topic" in the “Drama and Lyric” unit is, “Why is pride such an important theme in Greek literature? If hubris was a fatal flaw, then why was humility not considered a virtue?” (p. 24).
A Christian outlook is assumed as is evident in both the lectures and questions such as, “Of which book of the Bible do some passages in [Hesiod’s] The Works and Days remind you?” (“Drama and Lyric,” p. 34). Lectures, which are all presented by Wesley Callihan, reflect his Protestant theology. However, his treatment of issues about which Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox might disagree are handled so fairly that I would recommend these to Christians whatever their denomination.
The exception to this is when Christopher Schlect takes over lectures for the period of the Reformation. Schlect's lectures have much less to do with the great books that shaped that period, seeming much more like an apologetic for Protestantism. For example, he has nothing but admiration for Thomas Cramner, and Schlect extols his authorship of the Book of Common Prayer. However, he gives no credit to the Catholic sources on which the Book of Common Prayer was based. Five lectures by Schlect comprise a significant part of the Reformation segment of the course, yet this is a relatively small part of the entire Christendom course. The contrast between Schlect and Callihan is significant. Callihan is clear about his own religious viewpoint, yet he recognizes that Catholics also played a huge role in the development of western culture, and he respectfully acknowledges this.
Lectures make readily apparent Callihan's complete familiarity with each of the works he discusses. He speaks comfortably without notes as he provides background and commentary to help students understand each work at a much deeper level than if they read the books on their own. Callihan is a gifted teacher—so much so that I think parents might want to watch the lectures along with their students for their own enlightenment.
Lectures include images of art works that relate to the stories or the period under discussion. Within each of the first two DVD sets, you get a full-color booklet of about 20 pages with relatively small images of just some of the featured artwork, each accompanied by commentary. Students might simply enjoy the art work as interesting graphics with their lectures, but if you wish you can expand the study into the art to add another dimension, and probably another half-credit. These booklets can also be downloaded from the publisher’s site (www.romanroadsmedia.com/materials/) for free, and you can enlarge images for better viewing with the downloaded files. This allows students to see the full-color details of each work for more in-depth art exploration.
Free final exams are available to download at the publisher’s website. Two versions are made available. If students score lower than 90%, they should take the alternate version a few days later.
The courses include a note about the questionable content in some of the course material such as mature themes, sexual immorality, worship of Greek and Roman gods, and graphic battles in the literature plus nudity in classical artwork. Parents should decide in advance whether or not they want their children exposed to these things, and if so, how they might discuss them.
At appropriate points, Callihan suggests his favorite translations of each of the works, but he also has links to free online versions of each work even though these might not include the best translations. Nevertheless, students can access all of the assigned reading material without having to purchase anything more. (Sometimes, as with The Greeks: The Histories, digital versions of the recommended readings are already included on the DVDs.) Roman Roads Media has web pages for each published unit with links to the required literary works plus titles and authors of recommended translations. There are sometimes links to free audio-book versions. These web pages also include free supplemental resources such as a chart of the Greek and Roman gods.
To make accessing these works in readable translations easier for students, Roman Roads Media has begun to produce companion readers. Thus far readers are available for Drama and Lyric and The Philosophers for The Greeks course; The Historians, Early Christianity, and Nicene Christianity readers are available for The Romans course; and for the Christendom course, two readers are available: Early Medievals and Defense of the Faith.
For many years, I’ve believed that it should be possible to provide study of the Great Books for those unable to participate in group classes either in person or online. Great Books enthusiasts rightly are concerned about the value of the discussion process in learning. But I would rather have something available that makes the Great Books accessible to more students even if it does not conform to the ideal. I think Wesley Callihan has done a fantastic job of providing such an option, and doing it in such a way that students engage with great literary works at a deep level and begin to ponder some of the most important life questions. His inclusion of Christian works and a Christian perspective might even make this an improvement on some “live” Great Books courses.