The Good Books Literature Program and John Senior

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by Elisabeth Carmack, Ph.D., N.D., DiH.

Dr. Elisabeth CarmackJohn Senior (1923-99), the late classicist professor at the University of Kansas (KU), was a student of the poet, author, teacher, and great books advocate Mark Van Doren at Columbia University in the 1940’s. Van Doren was co-moderator of many great books groups at Columbia in the 1920’s with Dr. Adler, and both were students of John Erskine. Senior’s great books credentials go straight back to the beginning of the movement at Columbia. Dr. Adler was invited to lecture at KU in the 1970’s by Senior.

Senior was a very personable, renowned and really beloved figure at KU (along with fellow professors Dennis Quinn and the late Frank Nelick), and all around eastern Kansas, as well as beyond. Unpretentious, he humbly preferred not to be called professor, so we will honor that wish here. My family had the honor of his presence for visits and dinner on occasion in the 1980’s. Unusually well-read and a sagacious judge of literature, he compiled a list of books, broken into four age groups (2-7, 7-12, 12-16, 16-20) he called the “good books,” which he said “everyone should have read.” His son, Andrew, said that his father regarded the compilation of the list as one of the most important works of his life. In his book, The Death of Christian Culture, Senior explained his terminology and selections:

“The Great Books movement of the last generation has not failed as much as fizzled, not because of any defect in the books – ‘the best that has been thought and said,’ in Matthew Arnold’s phrase – but like good champagne in plastic bottles, they went flat.

To change the figure, the seeds are good but the cultural soil has been depleted; the seminal ideas of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and St. Thomas thrive only in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes, and adventures: the thousand books of Grimm, Anderson, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas and the rest.

Taking all that was best of the Greco-Roman world into itself, Western tradition has given us the thousand good books as a preparation for the great ones – and for all studies in the arts and sciences. Without them all studies are inhumane. The brutal athlete and the foppish aesthete suffer vices opposed to the virtue of Newman’s gentleman. Anyone working at college, whether in the pure arts and sciences or the practical ones, will discover he has made a quantum leap when he gets even a small amount of cultural ground under him: he will grow up like an undernourished plant suddenly fertilized and watered.

Of course, the distinction between great and good is not absolute. Great implies a certain magnitude; one might say War and Peace and Les Miserables are great because of their length, or The Critique of Pure Reason because of its difficulty. Great books call for philosophical reflection; good books are popular, appealing especially to the imagination. But obviously some authors are both great and good, and their works may be read more than once from the different points of view – this is true of Shakespeare and Cervantes, for example.

It is commonly agreed also that both great and good can be judged only from a distance. Contemporary works can be appreciated and enjoyed but not very properly judged; and just as a principle must stand outside what follows from it (as a point to the line), so a cultural standard must be established from some time at least as distant as our grandparents’. For us today the cutoff point is World War I, before which cars and the electric light had not yet come to dominate our lives and the experience of nature had not been distorted by speed and the destruction of shadows. There is a serious question – with arguments on both sides, surely – as to whether there can be any culture at all in a mechanized society. Whichever side one takes in that dispute, it is certainly true that we cannot understand the point at issue without an imaginative grasp of the world we have lost.

Everyone will find more than enough that he hasn’t read in our Good Books list; and everything on this list is by common consent part of the ordinary cultual matter essential for an English-speaking person to grow in. Remember that the point of view throughout a course of studies such as this is that of the amateur – the ordinary person who loves, and enjoys what he loves not, of the expert in critical, historical or textual techology.


Dr. John Senior

Dr. John Senior

The books have been divided (sometimes dubiously because some bridge two categories) into stages of life corresponding to the classical ages of man, and in general agreement with the divisions of modern child psychology.because sight is the first of the senses and especially powerful in the early years, it is very important to secure books illustrated by artists working in the cultural tradition we are studying, both as an introduction to art and as part of the imaginative experience of the book. This is not to disparage contemporary artists, any more than the tradition itself disparages contemporary experiment – quite the contrary, one of the fruits of such a course should be the encouragement of good writing and drawing. The good work of the past is a standard, not a straight-jacket. Book illustration reached its perfection in the nineteenth century in the work of Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, Gustav Dore, George Cruikshank, “Phiz,” Gordon Browne, Beatrix Potter, Sir John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, and many others. The rule of thumb is to find a nineteenth-century edition or one of the facsimiles which (though not as sharp in printing) are currently available at moderate prices.

Literary experience begins for very young children with someone reading aloud while they look at the pictures. But they can begin to read the simplest stories which they already love at any early age.”

We have researched John Senior’s list of Good Books, to age twelve, to find all that are in print, at reasonable prices. At present, this totals to roughly 140 books. We have further sub-divided them into grades, and in each grade put them in a rough order of difficulty, while avoiding too much repetition of sets in one year – merely as a suggestion for parents lacking the time to do so. Those “good books” no longer in-print may often be found at libraries or used book stores. Whatever the merits of other such elementary reader lists, John Senior’s is an enchanting and rapturous tour through an imaginary and romantic world of beauty, truth, goodness, and love which “everyone should have read.”  


Pearson Great Books Program Logo

Pearson Great Books Program Logo



KU logo for the Pearson IHP program.

KU logo for the Pearson IHP program.



Students Say High Schools Let Them Down

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A large majority of high school students say their class work is not very difficult, and almost two-thirds say they would work harder if courses were more demanding or interesting, according to an online nationwide survey of teenagers conducted by the National Governors Association.

The survey, being released on Saturday by the association, also found that fewer than two-thirds believe that their school had done a good job challenging them academically or preparing them for college. About the same number of students said their senior year would be more meaningful if some of their courses could be counted toward college credit.

Taken together, the electronic responses of 10,378 teenagers painted a somber picture of how students rate the effectiveness of their schools in preparing them for the future. The survey also appears to reinforce findings of federal test results released on Thursday that showed that high school seniors made almost no progress in reading and math in the first years of the decade. During that time, elementary school students made significant gains.

“I might have expected kids to say, ‘Don’t give us more work; high school is tough enough,’ ” said Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat and chairman of the governors association, which opens a three-day summer meeting here on Saturday.”Instead,” Mr. Warner said, “what we got are high school students actually willing to be stretched more. I didn’t think we’d get much of that.”

The governors’ survey was conducted as part of the association’s effort to examine public high schools and devise strategies for improving them. Mr. Warner has made high school reform his priority as chairman of the association. His term ends on Monday, when Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a Republican, is scheduled to succeed him. While a vast majority of respondents in the survey, 89 percent, said they intended to graduate, fewer than two-thirds of those said they felt their schools did an “excellent” or “good” job teaching them how to think critically and analyze problems.

Even among the remaining 11 percent, a group of 1,122 that includes teenagers who say they dropped out of high school or are considering dropping out, only about one in nine cited “school work too hard” as a reason for not remaining through graduation. The greatest percentage of those who are leaving, 36 percent, said they were “not learning anything,” while 24 percent said, “I hate my school.”

Experts in education policy said the survey results were consistent with other studies that have shown gaps between what students learn in high school and what they need for the years beyond.”A lot of business people and politicians have been saying that the high schools are not meeting the needs of kids,” said Barbara Kapinus, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association. “It’s interesting that kids are saying it, too.

Shurley English Report by 5th Grade Student from Alaska



I live in Alaska, the 49th state in the winter. I stay with my cool grandpa in a small village called the Nikiski. Alaska is the most northern state in the United States and the weather can be very cold in the winter.

My favorite spot in Alaska is my Grandpa’s log cabin in the woods. The cabin is on a big hill with a lake at the bottom. We go sledding down the hill and onto the frozen lake. If we like, we can clear the snow from parts of the lake and go skating. We go cross country skiing on the lake and on some of the trails in the woods. My cousins have snow machines. We have big parties with all my cousins and ride snow machines all day. Even when the weather is cold and snowy, we just dress warm and have fun. There are many mountains near Grandpa’s house. It is fun to spend all day down hill skiiing. My favorite place to ski is called the Mount Alyeska.

Most of all, I enjoy my Grandpa. He is too old to ski now, but he tells us stories that are interesting. He used to run sled dogs when he was young. He even ran sled dogs in the Army because he is so good at it. His favorite lead dog was Murphy. When the Alasken Earthquake came in 1964, Grandpa, my mom, Uncle Stan and Aunt Gretchen were out on the lake coming home in the dog sled. The ice broke into little pieces and water was everywhere. Grandpa says he was scared and wanted to get off the lake. He yelled at Murphy who was scared too. Murphy pulled hard and got the other dogs pulling. They got Grandpa off the lake with mom, Uncle Stan and Aunt Gretchen and took them to the nearest house.

Murphy is dead now and Grandpa doesn’t run sled dogs anymore, but he can still tell stories. I love Alaska and I think it is one of the most interesting states. Alaska reminds me of my Grandpa. 

Newly Updated Classical Homeschooling Online Magazine

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Our free online magazine, Classical Homeschooling has recently been updated to make viewing the articles easier to find and read.  Many members of the Angelicum Academy have submitted articles to this magazine over the course of the past ten years.  To visit the site, please click here. 

Below are some of the distinguished contributors to Classical Homeschooling Online Magazine. 

Saint Bede’s Hall at Oxford Now Accepts Angelicum’s Great Books Program Credits


Fr. Gareth Jones

Fr. Gareth Jones

We are pleased to announce that Saint Bede’s Hall, Oxford is the latest college to join the rapidly growing UOWC network of cooperating colleges.  Rev. Gareth Jones, Fellow and Chairman of St Bede’s Board of Management has been accepted to the UOWC Board of Governors.  St. Bede’s Hall has as one of its principle aims to make the “Oxford experience” available to American Catholic students, for one to three semesters (terms), or longer. Angelicum Great Books students may enter St. Bede’s directly after successful completion of the four-year Great Books Program, which they may begin as early as 9th grade.  For more information, please call Dean Stephen Bertucci at 360-496-0007.   He will be happy to answer your questions. 

Oxford, UK

Below: Church for Saint Bede’s Hall in Oxford 


Please Donate What You Can to Haiti Through CRS

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Catholic Relief Services


A cross stands amid the ruins of the Eglise Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart Church), in downtown Port au Prince, Haiti

Poorest of the Poor

Poorest of the Poor

Angelicum Student’s Second Semester Essay on Oedipus


In Ancient Greece, justice was the absolute good that a person could achieve. To obtain justice, Greeks sought peace within themselves by acknowledging their sins and by atoning for them, but not by asking for forgiveness of those sins. This is the case in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Oedipus is capable of forgiving the murderer of Laius, himself, his sons, and Creon, but he doesn’t know to forgive. He doesn’t understand that forgiveness is part of the atonement for the sins he has committed. Forgiveness is something that a person must receive and experience before they can conceive of it.

To end the plague in Thebes, Oedipus sets out to find and punish the murderer of Laius. Justice was the ultimate goal of a Greek citizen.  According to Plato, justice is bringing two warring parts within a person or city to a harmonious relationship. Oedipus felt that by punishing the murderer he would bring harmony to the city thus ending the plague. To the Greeks that punishment was often very serve and would include banishment from your homeland or even death. This is contrast the Christian view. Christians seek atonement for someone’s sins, but also seek to forgive them. It is the forgiveness that brings harmony within a person or city not a punishment or revenge. Christians believe that you learn forgiveness through Christ’s example. Oedipus had never experienced forgiveness therefore did not consider giving it to the murderer of Laius.



Oedipus did not have an understanding of forgiving one’s self. When Oedipus first realized that he is the one who killed his father, he is horrified by his crimes. Oedipus decides to blind himself with Jocasta’s pins. He explains that he is in agony and could not face anyone again especially his children. He begs Creon to put him to death or have him banished. He had such a strong feeling of responsibility to carry out the punishment of Laius murderer. However, this left his children alone and ruined his life and others. For Christians, there is a responsibility to acknowledge your wrongdoings and do a penance, but you also have to forgive yourself. Oedipus should have realized that the events that occurred were not his fault. He could have forgiven himself. The outcome could have been different for everyone. However, he could not imagine forgiving himself. Oedipus did not have Christ to show him how to forgive. In the book of Mark in the Bible it states, “And Jesus looking upon them said, with men it is impossible, but not with God, for with God all things are possible.” You have to accept His forgiveness and experience His mercy before you can forgive some one or yourself.

Oedipus’ son, Polynices, comes to see him for his own self interest. He wants to be king, and wants Oedipus blessing. However, Oedipus is still very angry because of his son’s part in his banishment. He has a lot of resentment towards both of his sons. He curses them because of their pride and selfness. However, Oedipus asked for the banishment. He even suggested being put to death. Creon and Oedipus’ sons only honored his wishes. Oedipus is not justified in his anger towards them concerning the banishment. He should forgive them for that. He is so upset about his situation that he is looking for someone to blame. His sons make it easy for him because of their self righteousness and pride. Christians try to take responsibility for our own problems and the things that they created. They also try to understand why a person is they way they are. Oedipus should have tried to understand why his sons acted the way they did. He could have tried to forgive their actions. Oedipus forgiving them would have made him feel better.

Oedipus never had forgiveness shown to him. Without forgiveness a person can’t find peace within himself.  Oedipus was never happy after all the events occurred because he never was forgiven nor did he forgive himself or anyone else. His sons were disliked by their father for many years because of what Oedipus asked for in his own search for justice. This destroyed their lives and turned it into hatred for each other and made them selfish. Creon was treated poorly by Oedipus then he became power hungry. He was happy to see Oedipus forced from Thebes. Only if Oedipus showed forgiveness to the murderer of Laius none of the pain, sadness, death, and greed would have occurred. He was only in favor of Greek justice. He lived during a time were forgiveness was not known. Forgiveness must be experience in order to truly understand what it is. Christ was able to show what true forgiveness and thus showed people how to forgive.  


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