Homer’s “The Odyssey” is a tra­di­tional selection read in Great Books in the Western Tra­dition: Ancient to Medieval, one of the core cur­riculum courses in Hillsdale Col­lege’s great books program, which was ranked No. 3 in the nation by Best College Reviews.
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According to an online college review journal, Hillsdale College has made an odyssey into the nation’s top-ranking lit­er­ature pro­grams.

Hillsdale was ranked No. 3 on a list of the 25 Best Great Books Pro­grams in the country, pub­lished in July by Best College Reviews. The review rec­om­mended Hillsdale’s lit­er­ature program as part of a cur­riculum that requires all stu­dents to take great books courses as part of a liberal arts edu­cation, preparing them for work in many dis­ci­plines.

“Imagine being taught by the greatest masters of the mind that walked on this Earth,” Best College Reviews said on its website. “If you can imagine such a place, you’ve imagined a great books or liberal arts edu­cation.”

Best College Reviews judged col­leges according to a strict def­i­n­ition of the liberal arts. To qualify, col­leges have to offer at least 30 credit hours of “great books-style edu­cation” in small classes where stu­dents engage in Socratic dia­logue while dis­cussing classic texts.

Hillsdale’s cur­riculum requires all stu­dents to take two great books courses regardless of their major.  These classes give stu­dents a foun­dation in fun­da­mental ques­tions, said Dwight Lindley, pro­fessor of English at Hillsdale College.

“We study great books to form our under­standing of the kinds of things humans are inter­ested in,” Lindley said. “They help us think well about the things we’re going to think about anyway: What does it mean to be human? What is com­munity? What is love? A great books edu­cation has the virtue of forming our way of thinking about those ques­tions with the most impressive thinkers we have access to.”

But Lindley said not all great books pro­grams are created equal.

Other fea­tured liberal arts col­leges, including first-ranking Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute in Cal­i­fornia and runner-up New St. Andrews College in Idaho, focus almost exclu­sively on the classics in their cur­ricula, according to Best College Reviews’ website. St. John’s College, which fin­ished fourth, is famous for its unstruc­tured, tutorial-based edu­cation cen­tered on the great books.

“St. John’s has a more text-centric approach,” Lindley said. “Hillsdale’s great books model is more his­tori­cized. One of the defining fea­tures of our model is that we also teach history courses that place texts within a broader nar­rative.”

Best College Reviews noted this wide scope of study at Hillsdale.

Lindley, who grad­uated from Hillsdale in 2004, said he has seen Hillsdale’s pro­fessors shift toward a more tra­di­tional canon of selected texts in the English department, as well as in pol­itics and phi­losophy, in the past 15 years.

Rebekah Slonim, a senior English major, said studying a selected set of great books helps stu­dents appre­ciate good lit­er­ature while also improving their writing skills.

“Stu­dents get to read works that are worth reading,” Slonim said. “The list is somewhat ambiguous — How do we know some­thing is as good as ‘The Odyssey’? — but it’s a great way to learn to analyze lit­er­ature.”

While tutoring stu­dents at the Douglas H. Hawkins Writing Center, she said she noticed stu­dents often are intim­i­dated by the great books courses at first.

“Learning how to analyze lit­er­ature with great books can be scary,” Slonim said. “Stu­dents are just learning to write, and they say, ‘I have to analyze “The Odyssey”?’ It’s hard, but once you’ve done that, you can do any­thing.”

Stu­dents in all majors benefit from reading and ana­lyzing great lit­er­ature, Lindley said.

“I teach lit­er­ature as anal­ogous to sci­en­tific study,” Lindley said. “Though some people see lit­er­ature as mostly sub­jective, they’re really just two dif­ferent kinds of analysis. We use the evi­dence in front of us to reach a probable con­clusion about the things we all care about. People learn better that way. Humans connect to humans — not just ideas.”

Slonim said the great books courses provide a foun­dation for further studies.

“Hope­fully studying great books opens their minds — and their imag­i­na­tions — to what’s in them,” Slonim said.