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The Story of Great Books Summer Program

Written by Great Books on Friday, October 5, 2018

The Story of Great Books Summer Program

Great Books and Big Ideas. It’s both the driving philosophy and founding principle on which the Great Books Summer Program was founded more than 19 years ago.

The idea to create an academic summer camp was born through the collaboration of three fathers with very different backgrounds. However, they a shared a collective passion for classic literature, the power of learning, the art of civil discourse, and the importance of critical thinking skills.

David Ward was an entrepreneur working in publishing and marketing early learning products. Dr. Peter Temes was the then-president of Great Books Foundation, a non-profit fostering educated discussions about timeless literature. Dr. Ilan Stavans was a prolific author and award-winning professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Each man had young children who were voracious readers. “We asked ourselves, how can we feed their intellectual hunger and curiosity?” said Ward. The end result was the first Great Books session on the manicured lawns of Amherst with the founders’ friends and families. The ‘students’ read classic literature and asked the timeless questions of: What is the good life? What do I owe my neighbors? What must I do in the face of injustice? “When everyone left, they wanted to do it again,” said Ward.

Fostering Bright, Young Minds

Today, the Great Books Summer Program has thousands of alumni and an annual enrollment of more than 700 students from around the world. The program has grown substantially to offer a blend of literary academics with art electives—music, theater, visual art and creative writing—and the fun friendships that come with a summer camp. It has become a place where the love of learning combines with positive academic mentoring to create a warm community where the students are celebrated.

“For students who know how to articulate, we are a platform to further hone skills. For young people who are learning how to articulate, we are an invitation,” said Ward.

The summer program is broken into age-appropriate tracks. The Intermediate Program is for rising grades 6-8. The Senior Program is offered for students in grades 9-12. “I’m proud of it being a welcoming place where students can explore their own ideas, engage in conversations and deep thinking,” said Ward.

Shared Inquiry & Civil Discourse

Teaching is guided by the Socratic philosophy, called Shared Inquiry. The concept of teaching by asking questions is a dialogue-sparking approach where one learns by asking careful questions, listening to students' answers, and engaging in lively, yet disciplined, conversations.

Great Books’ distinguished professors and world-class teachers facilitate discussion-based learning by raising big questions that act as a catalyst for deep discussions and a closer examination of issues. “Great Books is meant to be a starting place for civil discourse. The expectation is that we learn from each other,” said Ward. “There are no wrong answers at Great Books. We teach students to get to the key content, incorporate active listening, recognize their best thinking, and to articulate their ideas clearly and confidently.”

The art of civil discourse is part of the program’s foundation. Students learn how to discuss complex matters with civility, respect, and support for contrary perspectives. As Aristotle once said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Going Global

Although Great Books began at Amherst, it has rapidly expanded over time. The first, new domestic campus was the world-renowned campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA. It was followed by the addition of the University of Chicago where Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler first launched their idea of, “passionate readers meeting to discuss enduring ideas” that became Great Books Foundation in 1947.

Great Books added new abroad destinations to offer students a multi-cultural experience through literary history. The University of Oxford program in England takes students on a journey through literary past and present:

  • A famous location where Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) first met the Dean of the College’s daughter, Alice Liddell, who became the inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
  • A frequent meeting place for the Inklings, a group of Oxford dons which most notably included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of Lord of the Rings and Narnia fame, respectively
  • The cloisters where scenes from the Harry Potter movie was filmed – (including very tree where Mad Eye Moody turns Malfoy into a ferret in The Goblet of Fire.)

The program at the Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland is a week dedicated entirely to the Irish city’s history, folklore, and the literature it inspired. Taking a walking tour of Dublin, students can trace the steps of James Joyce and gain insight into the city that inspired his most famous works Ulysses and Dubliners.

Levering our relationship with Stanford University, Great Books created a Beijing offering at the Stanford Center at Peking University. This allows international students an introduction to the American university-style lectures while exploring the literary works of Virgil, Byron, Confucius, Whitman, Tagore, and more.

“You can explore the cities that inspired the great literature we are reading,” said Ward. “I see more global growth ahead for Great Books. India is a natural place for us to be in the years ahead.”

Moments of Growth

In its most simplistic form, you could say Great Books offers students the first taste of college life but the stories that emerge are moving and transformational.

Ward recalls in the early years of Great Books, a young girl left her urban home in New York City and was awestruck by the sprawling, green, campus lawns at Amherst College. “She had never see grass like that. And a few days later she said this was Heaven to her; beautiful lawns, freedom in learning, and new friends who support each other,” Ward said.

Each year, Ward said, he sees students who arrive as quiet observational young people and simply evolve. “Students move past their shyness to become amazingly persuasive leaders in our classroom,” he said.

“Great Books is really a starting place for civil discourse. We have created a non- judgmental landscape without any impediments to raising your hand and taking a position. And the best part is that the expectation is that we learn from each other.”

The Future

The grown children of Ward and his fellow founders are now adults pursuing their own careers. But like the intellectual curiosity that helped drive its creation, Great Books remains steadfast focused giving students a place to welcoming place to explore literature, ask questions and engage in thoughtful debate.

“It has been said the reason stuff survives and thrives is because people still find it relevant in some way,” said Ware. “My hope is that Great Books remains a bastion of rational thinking: A place of thoughtful, civil discourse where the evidence is always considered using critical thinking skills.”

About Great Books

Great Books Summer Program offers one-week and multi-week sessions from the end of June through the August. Additional programs include Intermediate and Senior level Writer’s Workshop programs. To learn more about the Great Books Summer Program visit,



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