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An alternative ‘great books’ syllabus

Professors’ picks of underrated titles that students should be reading.

BY UA/AU | DEC 09 2015


Generations of undergraduate students have taken “Great Books” courses to introduce them to some of the authors and ideas that are said to have contributed to shaping Western thought and traditions. There are, however, many more notable authors and ideas that these courses leave out. University Affairs enlisted the help of a few professors in drafting the reading list for an alternative to the Great Books course, one designed around titles of enduring import that have been culturally, if not critically, underappreciated.

How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method by G. Pólya (Princeton University Press, 1945)

As someone who values poetry and science equally, I often regret not having a liberal arts education. I think I made up for it somewhat by reading widely on my own. Therefore, I would encourage students to read outside of course curricula as much as possible. However, if I have to recommend a book, it would be mathematician G. Pólya’s How to Solve It. The title alone is appealing, right? Who doesn’t have a problem to solve? I received it as a gift from the person who would go on to become my PhD supervisor.

First and foremost, it is an example of excellent writing, but it promises so much more. (Blurbs claim “it will show anyone in any field how to think straight.”) It’s basically a book that attempts to teach reasoning, but in doing so emphasizes the role of creative thinking – though solving a difficult problem might seem straightforward in retrospect, it never is from the outset. Pólya lays out his approach and provides examples, all the while reminding us that there are many ways to solve a problem. I use many of his strategies in my work as an environmental scientist and in my work as a poet.

– Madhur Anand, professor in the School of Environmental Sciences, University of Guelph

Courage Under Siege: Starvation, Disease and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto by Charles G. Roland (Oxford University Press, 1992)

Without exaggeration, this is the single most compelling, indeed chilling, work of history I have ever encountered. Roland’s medical history of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of the Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe, presents in haunting detail the physical impacts of one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

Courage Under Siege describes the horrific effects of the implementation of Nazi ideology, including imposed hunger (the official ration in the ghetto was 200 calories a day) and squalor that fuelled diseases like typhus, tuberculosis and other diseases of extreme poverty. As many as 100,000 people died of starvation from 1940 until the community was destroyed in 1943, and almost 400,000 others were murdered in the nearby death camp at Treblinka. Despite the almost unimaginable horror of the scene, the narrative is at times unexpectedly uplifting as Roland shows that even the doomed were not without choices; while they perished from hunger, several victims kept detailed medical records so that one day some good might come from their anguish. As the walls literally closed in on the ghetto, those inside organized a clandestine medical school that brought sanity and hope to an impossible situation. They even organized a summer camp to provide children with a fleeting glimpse of normalcy.

As I write this, millions are displaced by conflicts with no reasonable solutions in sight. In Europe, more refugees are on the move than at any time since the Second World War. In Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have been systematically starved and are no doubt experiencing a decline in health reminiscent of what was experienced in the Warsaw Ghetto. This book matters because it presents in dispassionate terms one of the darkest chapters in human history as well as the responses of those who endured it. It reminds us that we are all connected and that the lives of others, even in distant lands, still matter.

– James Daschuk, associate professor in the faculty of kinesiology and health studies, University of Regina

Man & Woman, Boy & Girl: The Differentiation and Dimorphism of Gender Identity from Conception to Maturity by John Money and Anke A. Ehrhardt (John Hopkins University Press, 1972)

Man & Woman, Boy & Girl might seem like an obvious choice for someone who just wrote a book entitled The Man Who Invented Gender: Engaging the Ideas of John Money (UBC Press). Nevertheless, I truly believe in the historical importance of Money’s work. When the book was published in 1972, it was reviewed everywhere (even Time magazine) and became a cause célèbre for its controversial views on the fluidity of gender and sexuality. It was a compulsory text on courses from women’s studies to psychiatry. And yet now, as far as I know, it is out of print.

Part of the reason for this is the David Reimer case – the story of a child who, after a botched circumcision, underwent sex-reassignment surgery and radical gender identity therapy under Money’s care (the tragic story is recounted in John Colapinto’s As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl). Suffice to say Money’s influence in raising the child as female and the later choice by that child to live as a male, destroyed the psychologist’s reputation. He was an easy target as his radical views of sex and gender that seemed so fresh in the ’70s looked dangerous by the late ’90s. However, Man & Woman, Boy & Girl laid the groundwork for much that we think today about sexual orientation and gender. The current cultural role of transgender is a product of the attitudes displayed in this book. No matter what you think of transgender reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, her story would be very different without Man & Woman, Boy & Girl. Everyone should read this book to find out the ghost behind our zeitgeist of sex and gender.

– Terry Goldie, professor in the department of English, York University

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman by Richard P. Feynman, edited by Jeffrey Robbins (Perseus Books, 1999)

Why recommend a book by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist renowned for his work in quantum electrodynamics to undergraduate students in various fields? The reason is this: our understanding of humanity past and present is dependent not just on what we discover or what we know but on how we know what we know about ______. That is exactly what is at the core of Richard Feynman’s collection of short works on the excitement, challenges and beauty of finding things out.

Feynman was one of the most formidable scientists of the 20th century but also one of the most human, as reflected in his often irreverent attitude towards the trappings of scientific awards and honours (this much is apparent in his very popular essay collection, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character). But he also had little patience for those who failed to recognize what was empirically evident, as reflected in his famous minority report on the Challenger space shuttle explosion.

The essays in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out convey the excitement and epistemological challenges of gleaning new understanding of seen and unseen worlds. But Feynman was also a pragmatist; he required that his science recognize doubt and uncertainty as vital to finding things out and he believed that scientists and academics have responsibilities to society. The volume offers both a scientific view of human endeavours and a very human look at science.

– George P. Nicholas, professor in the department of archaeology, Simon Fraser University

Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus (Harvard University Press, 1989)

Lipstick traces stands as an almost perfect example of how academic scholarship and cultural criticism might cross over. It looks like a book about punk music, and in large measure it is, but the beauty of Lipstick Traces lies in the ways music critic Greil Marcus continually explores beyond the music before eventually returning to it. Marcus lifts the punk music of the late 1970s out of the rock music histories to which it has so often been confined, and sets it within the much longer histories of popular revolt and artistic rebellion. In particular, Marcus shows how punk could be part of the broader history of avant-gardes and their invention of new art forms – that punk culture is also a visual culture, a movement deeply engaged in changing visual landscapes.

The subtitle’s “secret history” refers to the history of those 20th century avant-gardes which, in 1989, were still understudied. The connections Marcus draws between music, the visual arts and politics now seem familiar but were then obscure. No one has gone further than Marcus in showing the links between 1970s punk and the post-war European artistic movement known as Situationism and in doing so, Lipstick Traces signalled (and helped kick off) the incredible renewal of scholarly interest in the Situationists which has unfolded since the book’s publication.

– Will Straw, professor in the department of art history and communication studies, McGill University

The Artist and the Moose: A Fable of Forget by Roy Kiyooka, edited by Roy Miki (LINEBooks, 2009)

I wouldn’t want to teach a course called “Alternative Great Books” – not at this point in time. Such a pedagogical rubric wouldn’t do much to shake up the notion of “Great Books” representing the Western tradition and so-called universal values, written by (predominantly) white male authors. “Alternative” in this case would immediately define these books as not good enough to be counted among the great ones or as books whose values and meanings are inassimilable. Furthermore, it would require teaching these titles in the context already established by Great Books, yet another way of signaling that “alternative” in this instance remains determined by the very ideologies that have produced what we call “Great Books” in the first place. The myth of the Great Books may have long been dispelled but, like most myths, it’s proven to be tenacious.

The course I would teach would question the cultural paradigms that have established the notion of Great Books, the very paradigms that the anonymous narrator in Roy Kiyooka’s The Artist and the Moose: A Fable of Forget sets out to probe. The narrator is a Prairie man from Forget, Saskatchewan. Commissioned by the federal government to identify “a Genuine Multi-Cultural Aesthetic for Canadians in the 21st Century,” he travels in the company of a bedraggled moose that has contracted, among other things, smallpox and AIDS. An eccentric whose exploits are parodic and hilarious, he often stumbles on nationalist paradigms such as “the unmitigated Garrison Mentality.” Not surprisingly, he gives up on his quest but not before he tries to solve the mystery of Tom Thomson’s death. It is a great book not only because it deconstructs familiar paradigms but also because it performs the very epistemic shifts necessary for doing away with such categories as those of “great” and “alternative.”

– Smaro Kamboureli, Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature, University of Toronto


The UA editorial team.
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