Invitation to the Classics - book review


As liberal arts programs in universities around the country have marginalized those Great Books which constitute the Western Canon, Louise Cowan and Os Guinness have given us Invitation to the Classics, a concise primer for the literary classics.

Recently the New York Times reported that the University of Chicago is cutting its core curriculum requirements to “make it seem less of a grind” to prospective students. Suffering from what the Times called a “painful identity crisis,” the university hired a new vice president “to improve marketing and recruitment.” Translation: Good-bye great books, hello gender studies!

This latest episode adds the University of Chicago to a long list of casualties that have amassed over the last few decades. Sadly, it is one of the few remaining institutions of higher education that offers a core curriculum based on the Western canon. With vital liberal arts programs such as Chicago's disappearing, exposure to these important texts is falling by the wayside as well. The cost of marginalizing these books will be the loss of the great heritage they have inspired. Rising to the challenge of this crisis is Louise Cowan and Os Guinness's timely and important book, Invitation to the Classics.

This new guide falls well outside David Denby's sentimental “arbitrary narrative,” Great Books, and Harold Bloom's apologetic tome, The Western Canon. What distinguishes Invitation to the Classics from these and similar books is that it does not look back reflexively in regret nor does it have pretenses of defending the works of the West. “We do not seek to solve the controversies,” Guinness writes, nor do “[we] seek to prove the value of the classics prior to reading them.” The sole intent of Cowan and Guinness is to provide a guide to the literary classics. What emerges is a concise primer for the great books.

With the layout and simplicity of a high school textbook, Invitation to the Classics is handsome and easy to navigate. Do not, however, let the aesthetic charm mislead you. This is a highly sophisticated, well-written guide to the seminal texts and their authors during the last 2500 years.

Arranged chronologically, Invitation to the Classics is a series of vignettes, each dedicated to a particular book and its author. From Homer to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, some 70 major thinkers are highlighted. Each essay is approximately four pages in length and provides a biographical sketch of the author and the historical context for each of his writings. Between several of these sections are additional surveys of historic literary genres.

Each chapter concludes with two brief sections, “Issues to Explore” and “For Further Study.” In the first, readers are provided with the opportunity to think through a series of questions as they read the primary text. These questions are designed to draw attention to important principles in these texts. The latter section lists translations the contributors believe provide maximum readability and accuracy. It also includes a list of supplemental resources to facilitate a better understanding of the original works after reading them.

There are three groups who will be well served by Invitation to the Classics. Homeschoolers and teachers will find this guide a great help in creating a curriculum for their children. Along with the biographical and historical information, each section discusses the major themes and ideas employed by the authors of the great books, providing the information necessary to determine which books will be appropriate for the desired lessons and subjects.

Whether home-schooled or in the classroom, the greatest benefactors of a great book curriculum will be the young. “We should do our utmost,” Socrates tells his interlocutors, “that the first stories that they hear should be so composed as to bring the fairest lessons of virtue to their ears.” Ironically, Socrates would have censored Homer's tales. Nevertheless, he understood the importance of introducing young students to right thinking. With the proper guidance, reading the primary texts allows for the student to engage the raw ideas on their own terms. What emerges are the critical thinking skills that give rise to the constituents needed in the formation of character, which is crucial both to citizenship and civility. However, there is something more important than citizenship and civility (dare we say it?): the state of the student's soul. Through reading, children can draw on the heritage of our progenitors and forge the framework of a virtuous life.

Cowan and Guinness's work will also be a godsend to those who have had little or no exposure to the literary classics. As more academic institutions lay waste to their core curriculum — leaving behind only the bric-a-brac of great books — a tremendous void is being created, one that neither “gender studies” nor “parks and recreation” classes will fill. Invitation to the Classics helps fill that void.

If we can no longer turn to the institutions charged with our tutelage for character formation and true education, who will guide us as agents of the democratic ideal? In part, the great books will, as they always have. These books — born of reason, nurtured in the cradle of history — each make up a component part of who we are. Through them, we establish a universal, defined language that binds the dialogue of democracy on common ground. They secure and articulate the terms of our behavior, customs, and laws. They inspire civility, common sense, and a love of justice. We should “let ourselves be persuaded,” Cowan writes, “that their chief value lies in their capacity to enculturate.”

The great books provide a venue for us to explore the human experience without the risk of being all-too-human, to develop character through characters. They are the life we may never live; they are the people we may never meet. Through encounters with them we can engage the ideas we may never have. These are the forces that expand our inner world, making the world around us more meaningful. This is the experience students are being denied across the nation from colleges and universities. This is the very experience Louise Cowan and Os Guinness invite us to share.




Wray, Raymond Matthew. “At Home with Homer.” Crisis (February, 1999).

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

Invitation to the Classics by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness is published by Baker Books, 1998, 384, $28.


Raymond Matthew Wray is a graduate student at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.

Copyright © 1999 Crisis

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