GSE Publications

Document Type

Journal Article

Date of this Version

March 1995


Should American education focus on "the Great Books?" Neither side in the "canon dispute" looks closely at the relational side of great books teaching. To provide more information to use in judging great books curricula, this article presents a study of relational processes in great books classes. The results show that great books have both strengths and risks. The research focuses on how teachers involve students with the great books by connecting their experiences with the insights presented in the text. Among other devices, teachers use examples to establish these connections: the class explores some aspect of the text by discussing an analogous case from students' experience. This article describes how such examples carry a certain risk. These examples can lead students to experience the text so fully that they act it out. Instead of dispassionately discussing the text, students and teachers enact the roles described in the text and the example, thus creating an analogous interactional event in the classroom. This article describes and illustrates this interactional pattern, drawing on ethnographic observations, interviews, and analyses of transcripts taken from a three year study of high school English and history classes. In light of the findings, the article reassesses the pedagogical strengths and weaknesses of great books teaching and examples as pedagogical devices.


Reprinted from Mind, Culture, and Activity, Volume 2, Issue 2, Spring 1995, pages 67-80.

NOTE: At the time of publication, author Stanton Wortham was affiliated with Bates College. Currently June 2007, he is a faculty member in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

The author has asserted his right to include this material in ScholarlyCommons@Penn.



Date Posted: 01 June 2007

This document has been peer reviewed.