In this day and age, introducing a Great Books curriculum in a state university is a lot like staging a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Saudi Arabia, but Dr. Mark Winchell has succeeded in bringing the classics to Clemson University in South Carolina, albeit one course at a time.
“The Great Works of Western Civilization minor at Clemson University, which began in the fall of 1998, is comprised of seven courses (21 credit hours) including a required course, Great Books of the Western World,” the National Association of Scholars (NAS) reports. Dr. Winchell himself is a member of the South Carolina Association of Scholars.
Nevertheless, the minor is still on life-support and faces an uphill climb, according to the program’s director. Currently, the minor consists of an introductory course in Great Books and courses on Dante, Tolstoy and Dosteyevsky, Dr. Winchell reports. Dr. Winchell earned a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and previously taught at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Ironically, at the school, criticism of the program comes not necessarily from ideologues who normally frown on courses about “dead white guys” but from technocrats whose concerns are more utilitarian. The manager of Bavarian Motor Works (BMW), which has offered Clemson solicited advice, remains skeptical of the Great Books program. “He said, ‘If we had too many kids studying Shakespeare, where would we find the captains of industry?’” Dr. Winchell remembers.
Clemson, which has historically been a scientific and technical school, sought the support of BMW in its effort to achieve what most colleges and universities prize—a good rating in U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of American institutions of higher learning. “You have bumper stickers at Clemson that read, ‘Destination: Top 20,’” Dr. Winchell says.
Going along with this effort, the school wants to make even its liberal arts program sound as industrially useful as possible. “Clemson offers a Ph.D. in communications rather than an M.A. in literature,” Dr. Winchell says. “In fact, the school of Professional Communications has the unfortunate acronym PC.”
Dr. Winchell co-authored the award-winning Talmadge: A Political Legacy, A Politician’s Life and has written books on such diverse figures as William F. Buckley, Jr. and Joan Didion.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.