Suggested Reading: Eva Brann, “Eight Theses on Liberal Education”

Eva T.H. Brann (1929-) is a former dean (1990–1997) and the longest-serving tutor (1957–) at St. John’s College, Annapolis. In 2005, she received the National Humanities Medal. Born to a Jewish family in Berlin, Brann immigrated to the United States in 1941. She holds a B.A. from Brooklyn College as well as an M.A. in Classics and a Ph.D. in Archaeology from Yale. From the NEH’s website:

Eva Brann calls herself a latecomer to St. John’s College and its great books program. “I’ve been here only forty-eight years,” she says, laughing.

When Brann arrived on the Annapolis campus of St. John’s in 1957, fresh from Yale with an archaeology PhD in hand, she found herself a student all over again. “I fell in love with it at first sight,” she says. “Our tutors learn along with students. It is an all-required program for the students but it is also all-required for the teachers.”

“I read my way and discussed my way through four years worth of great books,” says Brann. “It’s never boring. It’s sometimes strenuous, but it’s never boring. I can’t remember ever being bored.”

St. John’s is a rarity in American higher education. It is the only nondenominational institution based solely on the study of a great books curriculum. There are no majors and no departments at St. John’s. There are no textbooks. Rather, students go straight to the source of Western tradition, read ing and discussing the classics of literature, philosophy, theology, psychology, political science, economics, history, mathematics, laboratory sciences, and music. In addition, faculty members are called tutors rather than professors, and do not give lectures. Every class is discussion-based, with students talking to each other as much as responding to tutors. “By and large, everything is done in common, which means that they can always talk to each other. And they do.”

A ten-minute interview with Brann is available here:

Brann’s “Eight Theses on Liberal Education” appeared in the Winter 2000 edition of Pepperdine University’s Great Books Quarterly. Here is the short list:

  1. Lectures are not a legitimate part of liberal education, at least not as a primary part.
  2. This subject matter, the matter proper to liberal education, has the following character: It is what is elementary in all the subject matters.
  3. Those who have liberal education in their keeping, by and large the faculties of liberal arts colleges, should not give an inch to demands for utility or currency.
  4. Students should not specialize (or at least not soon), and professors should teach not what they know but what they don’t know.
  5. A large, probably the largest, part of a college education should be prescribed.
  6. Everything falls apart when politics rears its ugly head.
  7. Liberal education is irremediably bound to reading. The reading that defines liberal education is that of great books.
  8. Education should never ever be academic.


I encourage you to read Brann’s full description of each thesis as a PDF.

Questions to Consider:

  • How well does Hope College measure up to Brann’s theses? To what extent does Hope provide students with a liberal education that Brann would recognize as such?
  • When discussing the argument in favor of a prescribed curriculum, Brann asks: “‘First learn, then choose’ ought to be the curriculum-maker’s motto, and who can make curricula but a faculty?” In what areas of the General Education curriculum at Hope College would you prescribe students’ choices? Why?
  • Brann writes: “The thought that there exists greatness not only in books but in other human enterprises defines and illuminates a certain kind of life. It is a life in which there is splendor and drabness, significance and insignificance, extraordinariness and ordinariness.” How well do we educate our students to identify (and pursue) splendor, significance, and extraordinariness? What aspects of undergraduate education (e.g., grade inflation), hinder this?