Old Western Culture: A Christian Approach to the Great Books is a series of four Great Books courses for high school students. The courses are titled The Greeks, The Romans, Christendom, and Early Moderns.
The Old Western Culture video courses make it possible for students to get a Great Books education through independent study by watching video lectures, reading classic literature, answering questions in the student workbooks, and writing term papers. 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 also included in the series, including some that are not on the Great Books list. In the introduction to The Greeks, the course's 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.
Each course is presented in four units, with 12 lessons per unit. It should take about nine weeks to complete each unit, although the "Essentials Schedule for Old Western Culture" shows an abbreviated reading list that makes it possible to complete each unit in as little as seven weeks. Even with the Essentials Schedule, the amount of reading is still very demanding. Both versions of the courses should be considered to be at the honors level. (You can compare the complete reading list with the Essentials 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. The units in Early Moderns are Rise of England, Poetry and Politics, The Enlightenment, and The Novels. 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 videos, a student workbook, and a reader. All of these are available as either digital or physical products. Even if you purchase physical products, you should set up a free account at Roman Roads Press so that you can access the additional resources that include tests and PDFs of both the student workbooks and readers. (Purchasers of physical books will have access to both digital and physical books.)
Students can stream the series of video lectures or view them on DVDs. (The DVDs for each course come in four cases with four DVDs per case.) The student workbooks have their own answer keys at the back. The readers contain all of the literary works used in the courses. You can see which works are included in the readers on the publisher's website. You are welcome to obtain the reading material from sources other than the readers, but having the pre-selected versions and translations in the readers should be most convenient.
How it Works
Each unit begins with one or two introductory lectures that might have no reading assignments. 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 in this fashion, accompanied by questions based on the lectures and the reading material. 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 discussion topic in the “Drama and Lyric” unit of The Greeks is posed as the question, “Why is pride such an important theme in Greek literature? If hubris was a fatal flaw, then why was humility not considered a virtue?” (Lecture 6).
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,” Lecture 10). Lectures, most of which are 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 Christendom course, yet this is a relatively small part of the entire 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. It is important to point out that Schlect's lectures are balanced somewhat by the content of the reader which presents a broader view of Christianity.
The 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 artworks 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. These images are included in a larger format in the online support materials for the courses. Students can then see the full-color details of each work for more in-depth art exploration. Students might simply enjoy the artwork as interesting illustrations for the lectures. But you might want to expand the courses to include in-depth study of the art and grant students another half-credit.
Free final exams are available to download through your account. Two versions are made available. If students score lower than 90%, they should take the alternate version at least a few days later.
For many years, I’ve believed that it should be possible to provide a 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 over other Great Books courses for Christian homeschoolers.