There Are Good Books, And Then There Are Great Books
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A conversation with Great Books Summer Program co-founder, Dr. Ilan Stavans
Dr. Ilan Stavans is Founding Academic Host Professor at Amherst College, and co-founder of the Great Books Summer Program. Dr. Stavans holds an endowed chair as Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latino Studies at Amherst College. Dr. Stavans is a prolific author and editor and is well known for his books, such as Spanglish, as well as his definitive collection of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. In 2010, he created the Great Films movie based on a session at Great Books.
Dr. Stavans, please give us some background on the Great Books Summer Program.
The GBSP is a terrific way to spend the summer immersed in ideas and with people who love them. Designed for middle- and high-school students, Great Books Summer Program invites young people to engage with the literary classics (Plato, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Whitman, Tolstoy, Kafka, et al): to open them up, to debate them, to re-imagine them, to apply their message to our time. During the session, campers may enact plays, write stories, recite poetry, and perhaps even make movies, with the guidance of thought-provoking adults who themselves are teachers, writers, and actors.
I co-founded the program a decade ago. My dream was to open a space where teenagers would thrive in, through, and around ideas, to inspire them to have the passion I feel toward books. I combined that vision with Peter Temes who was then the President of the Great Books Foundation and we created the program to employ the love of ideas with the “Shared Inquiry” method, always looking to foster the camper’s critical thinking skills. That’s what we need in this complex universe: critical thinking.
What type of young person would enjoy and benefit from the Great Books program the most?
An engaged, intellectually curious young person interested in the various aspects of culture.
What’s a typical day like at Great Books? What are some of the books that are read and discussed? Who are some of the guest authors?
A typical day starts with breakfast, followed by a morning meeting which features a poetry slam. Then comes a lecture with a distinguished thinker about Homer’s The Odysseyand after a short break there is yet another lecture about Pablo Neruda’s Spain in the Heart. Afterward is a discussion section, in which small groups of campers reflect and share ideas on the content of the lecture. Then comes lunch. A free hour allows campers to take hikes, swim, or stage a play. The afternoon might features electives which include creative writing, visual art, music, theater, and various literature related topics. Each evening features an event—there may be a movie showing (Duck Soup, O Brother Where Art Thou, Citizen Kane) or a guest speaker (Debbie Applegate, Joseph Ellis, John Sayles). In the late evening, campers might read the poetry of Emily Dickinson under the starry sky.
Why do you feel it’s so important for young people to continue learning during the summer?
First, learning shouldn’t be a task. It should be fun and Great Books helps to remind campers that the pursuit of knowledge can be a lively and engaging affair. Second, we all know the importance of maintaining academic progress over the summer, to avoid summer slide. Bright young people should engage in academic pursuits to help enhance what they have learned in the previous school year and to prepare themselves for greater academic challenges in the year to come.
How does Great Books Summer Program help prepare kids for college?
It makes kids intellectually curious, inviting them to reflect in engaging fashion about the political, social, cultural, and moral issues that define us. In addition, campers that attend the Great Books Summer Program are participating in college-level reading and thinking under the tutelage of our experienced staff who make tacking the great philosophical questions of our time both accessible and interesting. The skills that the campers gain in close reading and in expressing their ideas will prove invaluable in their college experience.
Do you offer scholarships or financial aid to cover the Great Books tuition fee?
We do indeed. Limited financial aid is available to help offset the cost of tuition.
For more information on the Great Books Summer Program, visit:
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