Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Note from the President

Many years ago, when I was a young Navy engineering officer learning the ropes, a World War II veteran Chief Warrant Officer offered some advice⎯“if it’s working, don’t take it apart to find out why.” Over the years that followed, as I moved from large reciprocating steam engines to the financial markets as a banker, I came to realize that we need to take things apart to find out why they work as they do.

Twenty years ago, I joined the board of directors of the Great Books Foundation to provide some financial experience to the organization, and I discovered a fascinating intellectual technique for taking apart ideas. Shared Inquiry, the central discussion-based focus of the Foundation for the past 65 years, is a wonderful question-based device for engaging people in the search for why ideas have power. It is as perfectly built for civil discourse as any form of communication in our public commons, and I became convinced that helping to sustain the Foundation would be a noble and rewarding use of my intellectual energy.

Ten years ago, not long after I retired from the financial world, an opportunity presented itself for me to assume the presidency of the Foundation and to devote myself full-time to furthering our cause. While we have touched the lives of millions of people over the last six-plus decades, my only regret is that there remains a much larger audience that has not benefited from the “read think discuss grow” programs of the Great Books Foundation. We shall keep trying, however, and I hope you will help us touch more lives than we have been able to reach on our own.

George Schueppert has been president of the Great Books Foundation since the autumn of 2002. He arrived late to the liberal arts world—after graduating with a degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin, spending over three years as an engineering officer in the U.S. Navy, working as a banker for more than 20 years while earning an MBA from the University of Chicago (the original home of the Great Books Foundation), and serving as a chief financial officer of two NYSE companies. He joined the Foundation’s board of directors in 1991 and has been enamored with Shared Inquiry ever since.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Salvage the Bones, by Jemsyn Ward

Bloomsbury USA, 275 pages, $24

Reviewed by Sharon Crowley

Young writers are often told, “Write what you know.” But few writers follow this advice as successfully as Jesmyn Ward in her breathtaking second novel, Salvage the Bones. Winner of the 2011 National Book Award, Salvage the Bones chronicles twelve days in the lives of fourteen-year-old Esch and her family as Hurricane Katrina threatens their precarious existence on the Mississippi coast.

My family and I survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005; we left my grandmother’s flooding house, were refused shelter by a white family, and took refuge in trucks in an open field during a Category Five hurricane. I saw an entire town demolished, people fighting over water, breaking open caskets searching for something that could help them survive. I realized that if I was going to assume the responsibility of writing about my home, I needed narrative ruthlessness. I couldn’t dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life does not spare us.

Nor does life spare any of the characters in Salvage the Bones. Esch, motherless, lives in a house full of men on family land called the Pit in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage. Her beaten-down, alcoholic father barely manages to provide his children with daily meals of Top Ramen mixed with hot dogs. Esch’s world revolves around her brothers—seventeen-year-old Randall, who dreams of attaining a better life through basketball, sixteen-year-old Skeetah, who seeks purpose and profit through his beloved pit bull China and her sickly newborn pups, and young Junior, who hungers for anyone’s attention—and their male friends who visit the Pit. As the family collects water and scavenges for wood to prepare for the storm, Esch discovers she is pregnant by a boy who dismisses her in public and refuses to kiss her when he reaches for her in private. Sex isn’t new to Esch, but her consuming love for the coolly disinterested Manny is, and its power feels as destructive as the approaching wind and rain.

It all seems too much for a young girl to bear. But Esch is smart, strong, and emotionally self-sufficient out of necessity. The only perfect thing in Esch’s life is her assigned summer reading, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Although her teacher couldn’t have predicted the challenges of the coming summer, the Greek myths provide Esch with desperately needed strong female role models and kindred spirits caught in equally harsh circumstances. The tale of powerful yet lovelorn Medea is exactly what Esch needs to help her survive two forces of nature—love and a hurricane—that are beyond her control.

Salvage the Bones is luminously written, poetic, and unflinchingly direct. Ward doesn’t shy away from describing the realities of rural poverty, including fierce and bloody dogfighting. Ward’s honesty and nonjudgmental attitude are what make Salvage the Bones a novel readers will revisit for a second or third reading. For most Americans, Hurricane Katrina was a horror witnessed through the safety of television and computer screens. Salvage the Bones brings attention back to the summer of 2005 and to the vulnerable people who lived through the wreckage.

Sharon Crowley works in K-12 marketing at the Great Books Foundation.
She was a Junior Great Books student and is forever thankful to her
fourth-grade teacher Ms. Lott for introducing her to the delight of
discussing stories.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Once - No Twice - No Thrice Upon a Time

by Michael Elsey

Every Sunday night I watch the ABC series Once Upon a Time with great anticipation. The series revisits the Snow White fairy tale with the notion that Prince Charming and Snow White's daughter and grandson are the keys to saving the inhabitants of Storybrooke from the evil Queen's curse. The twist is that the inhabitants of Storybrooke are trapped in our world with no knowledge of their past as fairy-tale characters such as the Huntsman or Jimminy Cricket.

Modern day twists on fairy tales aren’t limited to television. Hollywood will soon release several film versions of the Snow White story—Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, and The Order of the Seven, a Far East infused action riff from Disney. What draws us to fairy tales to revisit, revise and reinvent them? Besides the enjoyment of a good tale what good are fairy tales?

In the words of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "Don't worry about the apparent terror and bloodshed in children's books, the real children's books. There is none there. It only represents the way in which little children, from generation to generation, learn in ways as painless as can be followed, the environment of life and death."

Life and death. Not magical singing birds and whistling dwarves, but big issues like life and death. As child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explains in his study of the meaning and importance of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, fairy tales help children to see that "a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence, but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious."

It interests me that Hollywood's reinvented, and revised versions of the tales are often pitched as “darker versions.” Hansel and Gretel will soon be in a theatre near you as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Hollywood, however, shouldn’t take too much credit for adding a dark spin to well-known tales. The earliest versions of Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and other tales are quite dark. Over the years many fairy tales became santizied as retellers removed elements perceived as too frightening or intense for children. Today screenwriters are returning to the original tales, mining the darker elements to create dramatic big-screen moments.

Given the darkness of our times perhaps fairy tales give us the assurance that steadfastness and perseverance will triumph over evil, that we may prevail against the forces arrayed against us and occupy a small plot of land in the field of hope.

Michael Elsey is the Vice President of New Media at the Great Books Foundation. He has a long history as a Senior Trainer for the Foundation and in his new role is eager to explore the wonders of technology to enhance and expand the experience of Shared Inquiry discussion. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

New Name, New Format

For sixty-five years, the Great Books Foundation has provided opportunities for readers of all ages to pursue learning through discussing written works and ideas of enduring value. The adult education division of the Foundation supports a network of self-directed discussion groups, produces anthologies of literature, provides workshops in the Shared Inquiry™ discussion method, works with colleges interested in discussion-based learning, hosts Great Books Chicago and other events, advances initiatives such as Great Books groups in prisons, and collaborates with other organizations for special projects. We have decided to bring this wide array of activities under a single new name, Great Books Discussions. We think this name captures the essence of all that we stand for and all that we know you value: the reading of outstanding literature and the rewards of discussing the ideas that this literature embodies.

Great Books Discussions is here to serve your needs and interests, and we welcome hearing from you. It is your commitment to the discussion of enduring books and ideas that keeps the Great Books community vital.

Donald H. Whitfield
Director, Great Books Discussions

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tearing Apart a Book in Junior Great Books

Reprinted with permission of the author, Jenny Voelker.

It’s a Darien parent’s dream. Imagine a group of enthusiastic third graders fired up to talk about not the newest Wii or Xbox game but … quality literature!
Thanks to an independent, nonprofit educational organization called The Great Books Foundation, many Darien students are enjoying a different kind of fun called Junior Great Books (JGB).
JGB is an enrichment program offered at Ox Ridge School and other schools all around the country. There are no lectures. No tests. And no wrong answers (other than those completely off topic which are hard to have unless you are trying to be a wise guy). But this is not some flaky joke of a class. Far from it, the participants in JGB are prepared, having read their assigned stories at home once, often twice. They are engaged, interested, opinionated, and wonderfully willing to share their views.
How does JGB work? The students read a story at home. Parent volunteers bring in a list of interpretive questions that have more than one answer supportable with evidence from the text. The parents then simply facilitate the give-and-take exchange of ideas amongst the students. The students learn the meaning of the text, not by hearing what the adult says it is, but by listening to each other. To use JGB terminology, the children learn by having a “Shared Inquiry discussion”.
I have to confess—last year when I took the training class to learn how to lead a JGB group of second graders, I wasn’t entirely convinced that my young child participants would be able to have a Shared Inquiry discussion. I had those kinds of discussions in torts class in law school. Could 6 and 7 year olds really do the same thing?
Apparently they can and they do. To my pleasant surprise, the class was buzzing with ideas. The conversation was not punctuated with awkward confused silences, but a seamless flow of comments, follow-up questions. One hand up would trigger another hand or two to follow suit. Anyone worried about the state of learning in public schools should take a look at what these Ox Ridge kids are doing. It is a beautiful thing.
This year my co-leader Karen Stamoulis and I are working with third graders. And today’s session of JGB flew by. The children discussed a Japanese folktale entitled “Ooka and the Honest Thief”. Can a thief be honest? At the beginning of class, SIX children believed that stealing one grain of rice was just as bad as stealing a whole sack and that the thief who took a little bit of rice should be punished. FOUR children believed that in this story, the thief had not really stolen because he only took what his family needed to survive and he went to extraordinary lengths to return what he had taken back to the owner.
The students bounced ideas off of each other like a game of ping pong. At the end of our session, four students still had their hands in the air, and one student burst out “oh please!” begging to have the final word.
In the process some people changed their opinion on whether the thief was honest. Some people stood firm with their original view. Some were still hovering in the middle like one girl who said “the thief stole but he’s still honest at the same time – it’s weird.” We didn’t have all of the answers. But by grappling with a host of questions together, all of us (including the discussion leaders!) understood the story a bit better than we did when we first came in.
I would encourage Darien parents to sign their child up for JGB at their child’s school. When JGB runs as it’s supposed to with parents who have been trained and children who are prepared to discuss a story, the children really are capable of tearing apart a story, pulling evidence from the text to back up their arguments, thinking critically about what the author is saying, learning how to speak up in a group setting, and more.
But to me, the biggest benefit of being a JGB participant is being present with other inquisitive children who share a passion for books. The enthusiasm is contagious and Karen and I always leave a JGB session feeling rejuvenated and inspired by the expanding young minds in our midst. This all sounds high flying, a little too good to be true, like a dream, I know. But I saw it with my own eyes.

Jenny Voelker went to Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She practiced corporate law at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and Davis & Gilbert in New York City. After having children, thanks to her hardworking husband, she was able to stay home with them. She currently lives in Darien, CT where she is part of a wonderful network of involved mothers who try to do their best for their children and to grow and reinvent themselves at the same time. You can read more about her and her blog posts at She can be reached at