Written by Great Books on Monday, September 9, 2019
What they did on their summer vacation: At the Great Books program at Amherst College, reading is a joy, not a chore
At first glance, it looked like a scene from a typical day at Amherst College: about 100 students in a lecture hall, on tiered seating on three sides of the room, notebooks and digital devices like iPads at hand, while a professor stood in the well of the room, looking up at some of the young people seated above him.
The subject matter seemed a serious one. Discussion revolved at first around “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal anti-slavery novel that became a bestseller in the 1850s as the United States moved ever closer to civil war. “That was a time of growing division,” the professor said. “How different is our country today?”
In this case, though, it was early July, and the professor, Ilan Stavans, was wearing shorts and no shoes; as for the students, they looked a little young to be in college. They were, in fact, high school students, from their mid-to-late teens and from across the country and overseas, who had come to Amherst to do something not usually associated with summer camps: read.
The Great Books Summer Program — started at the college in 2002 with a small staff, a relative handful of middle-school students and a limited number of classes — has since grown to include more than 700 students who each summer attend classes and take part in varied activities at Amherst and several other campuses, in California and Illinois, Great Britain, Ireland and China. The program, based in Fairfield, Connecticut, has a basic mission: to cultivate a love not just of books and reading but of curiosity, inquiry, and learning.
“We’re in an age where a lot of people are reading less and less, and where there’s a question about whether books have the gravitas to bring us together,” says Stavans, a prolific and varied writer and longtime professor of Latino culture and literature at Amherst College. He’s also a co-founder of the Great Books program who has taught there since its inception.
The program aims to provide an alternative to that narrative, bringing students together to read a variety of themed material — literature, poetry, history, essays, journalism — in a fun, supportive environment that encourages discussion, in groups small and large, of what’s being read, and which skips the less appealing aspects of, say, a high school English class.
“There are no papers here, no book reports,” Stavans says with a laugh.
And Kenneth Sammond, who teaches writing and literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and is teaching this summer at a Great Books program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, puts it like this: “Great Books is like a book club on steroids.”
In the class Stavans oversaw in early July — these units are actually called “shared inquiry” sessions — there was plenty of that energy in evidence, as Stavans used the selected chapters he’d assigned from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a means of looking at America’s current political and social divisions. The discussion veered from questions about cultural appropriation and respecting different viewpoints to whether the N-word should be removed from Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” because of the term’s ugly history as a slur against blacks.
Hands shot up repeatedly across the room in response to his questions. “When I listen to podcasts, it just seems like everyone is yelling, trying to get listeners angry,” said one white teenage girl. Another student, a black teenage girl, said she worried about censorship in an edition of “Huckleberry Finn” that would substitute “slave” or some other term less offensive than the N-word when referring to the book’s black characters.
“You have to acknowledge the wrongs of history,” she said. “It’s not accurate otherwise.”
Students say these kinds of discussions don’t end when a class does. Most students stay in Morrow Dormitory on the Amherst campus, where they’re formed into small groups of about six to eight teens known as “pods” that often read together in the evening, sometimes aloud. Talk about books and ideas also “goes on at dinnertime, in people’s rooms, just pretty much anywhere,” says Luca Veneziani, a 16-year-old from Italy who’s spending his third summer at Great Books.
And Haviland Whiting, 17, who’s from Nashville, Tennessee and is now in her seventh summer at Great Books, says a big part of the camp’s appeal is the friendships she has made with other teens she has been seeing there for years; she loves being able to talk shop with them. As she puts it, “It’s just really nice to be at a place where you’re not seen as weird” if you like to read.
One afternoon a few days later, some students at Great Books were taking part in a broader range of activities, the kind you might find at other summer camps. On the lawn outside Morrow Dormitory, some younger students — the camp is divided into classes and activities for both high school and middle school students — were kicking a soccer ball around. At the college’s famous Octagon building, about 15 students were jamming on guitars, keyboards, drums and vocals in a session led by a music instructor.
In another building, Matt Goodrich, an actor with Broadway and Off-Broadway credentials, was supervising a rehearsal for a play that other students would be putting on for the whole camp a few nights later. Nearby, another group was making costumes and designing props for the production.
Anna Prenowitz, a 15-year-old from Yorkshire, England was part of the latter group. This is her first year at Great Books; she has family in the Boston area, she said, and as part of her visit to the U.S. this summer, she thought she’d check out the Amherst program. It seemed a natural choice, she added: “I love reading.”
In an age of specialized summer camps — for sports, for computers, for music, for budding business entrepreneurs, for science and environmental studies — it can make sense to have one for reading, too. Except reading, for most people, is a solitary exercise, something you can do any time of the year on your own. So why spend time and money at a summer camp to do it?
That’s easy, says Alexandra Kanovsky, a former camper at Great Books who for the last few years has worked there as a PA, or program assistant, which involves serving as a dorm monitor and mentor to younger students and also leading small reading classes of her own. Now 22, and a recent graduate of Kenyon College in Ohio, Kanovsky — she’s known by the nickname “Zan” — says she has always loved reading on her own. But at Great Books, she found a new way to appreciate the pages before her.
“When you can be with people who love reading as much as you do, who have that same mindset, it just makes for a great experience,” says Kanovsky, who grew up in Philadelphia but has family in eastern Massachusetts. “The discussions we have can just open a lot of doors — you hear a lot of different ideas … you get to share what you’re reading.”
Fees for this year’s programs range from just under $2,000 for one week at Amherst College to just under $2,500 for one week at the program in Ireland, held at Trinity University in Dublin. There is some financial aid available to families, as well as a small number of scholarships. A day program that includes meals but no overnight accommodation is $1,395 for one week at Amherst.
“Selections from Great Books” might be a more accurate title for the program, though not a great one for marketing purposes (and students actually do much of their reading on Kindles). Faculty create weeklong classes on different themes and use a variety of reading material to advance those ideas, but it doesn’t involve reading entire books (except very short ones).
For his first week of teaching at Great Books this summer, for instance, Stavans put together a reading list culled from what he called “Mega Books”: chapters from serious novels such as “Don Quixote,” “The Brothers Karamazov” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” as well as selected chapters from the Harry Potter books, some Sherlock Holmes stories and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” He wanted students to explore the appeal of books that advance big themes or have mass appeal and to consider whether such “mega books” still have the impact today that they had before the advent of mass media.
Spring Greeney, who grew up in Amherst and just completed her PhD in modern American history, has taught at Great Books for several years. This summer, she began with a session called “Empire,” which looked at the Mongol Empire and at modern Mongolia, using a variety of texts, some video and even some period primary sources.
“What I’ve always liked about Great Books is the support they provide to campers and faculty, and the way [the program] encourages curiosity,” says Greeney, who this fall will begin teaching at The Baldwin School, a private school for girls outside Philadelphia. And after spending much of her time in recent years doing research, she notes, “It’s been such a pleasure to teach during the summer.”
Stavans says he and Great Books’ two other cofounders, Peter Temes and David Ward, began the program with a basic question: Where might their own children (Stavans’ two sons were then 10 and 5) go during the summer to read and talk about books? All three had backgrounds in education, as Ward ran a Connecticut company focused on early education and Temes at the time headed the Great Books Foundation, a Chicago nonprofit that since the later 1940s has created reading and discussion programs for students and adults.
“It was the summer after 9/11, and we wanted to have some calm, fun place for our kids to get together,” says Stavans, who notes the first summer of Great Books ran for less than a week, whereas sessions now run through July and into early August, with students attending from one to four weeks at a time. “It was just 30 students. We didn’t know where it would go — we couldn’t see the business model for it.”
But the program took off, and this year yet another “campus” has been added: a weeklong session aboard a sailing ship off the coast of Maine during which high school students help crew the ship, read classic seafaring stories by authors such as Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson and “disconnect from the electronic world,” according to program notes.
Over the years, elective options have expanded to include creative writing classes in addition to focused reading options, and guest lecturers come in the evening to talk about a variety of subjects; local contributors have included historian Joseph Ellis, poet Martín Espada, and young-adult novelist Cammie McGovern. Creativity is also encouraged through open mics and a poetry-reading contest every Friday morning. On one of those recent Fridays, students in small groups, in duos and sometimes alone recited a number of poems, in several languages: English, French, Mandarin, Spanish and others.
Assistant Program Director, Michael Vaclav, read out the “awards” for each presentation, like Professor Dumbledore handing out points for the various houses at Hogwarts. “Twenty-five points for the presentation, 20 points for recognizing a local poet and 50 points for the different languages,” Vaclav called out after four boys had recited a Robert Frost poem in four different languages.
Weekly winners of the poetry contest get to claim the “Hideous Cup,” a cheap, imitation Greek vase that they can sign.
It’s that mix of fun and serious learning that’s kept Amarah Hasham-Steele, a high school student from Toronto, Canada, returning to the program for six years. “I really feel so connected to people here,” she says, “and I’ve brought friends here, too. I feel like I’ve made friends for life … we’ll be talking books for years.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.