Teaching with Internet-based Texts: a “Great Books” Approach

Prepared for presentation at the Lilly-South Conference, 
Athens, Georgia, February 11-13, 2000

Robert F. Mulligan
Western Carolina University & 
State University of New York at Binghamton

Students are rarely exposed to the best offered by the disciplines represented in undergraduate curricula.Use of primary texts, either as supplements to a conventional course textbook, or as the only assigned readings, can address this problem.Students build critical skills, gain higher levels of reading comprehension, and deeper understanding of fundamental issues in the discipline.


    Even cursory examination of undergraduate texts in many disciplines reveals a narrow, technical focus.Consequently these courses are limited in the extent they can contribute to maturing our students into educated people.
    Recently, great emphasis has been placed on incorporating the use of information technology into the undergraduate curriculum.Popular techniques include websites and computer software, which are valuable pedagogical aids in their own right.Though use of technology promotes technical literacy, it often does little or nothing to stimulate students' critical faculties.
    Using a "great books" approach addresses this shortcoming, and contributes to students' liberal education.The essence of this approach is to discuss reading assignments from primary texts provided on the internet.Students clearly benefit from reading seminal authors of the discipline in a way reading any contemporary textbook cannot approach.All these public domain texts are available free-of-charge as teaching resource on the web, from various sources.Some are discipline-specific while others are more general.

The “Great Books” Approach

    The goal of college education should be to facilitate the emergence of confident adults with a broad general experience. One way to inject the "big-idea" humane studies focus back into undergraduate teaching is to assign supplemental readings for class discussion.Supplemental readings from primary texts enrich student intellectual development and also raise the level of discussion of theoretical issues addressed by contemporary textbooks.
    Gift and Krislov (1991) suggest the following criteria for identifying a classic:
    1.The work must have advanced the methodology of the discipline and must have used this advance to produce new insights.
    2.The work must incorporate, either by synthesis or antithesis, previous understanding of its topics.
    3.The book must be used as source material on discipline-specific issues by scholars outside the discipline.
    4.The book must be source material for scholars within or without the discipline on broad questions of methodology, philosophy, and policy.
    5.There must be evidence the book has influenced research agenda outside the discipline.
    6.The impact of the work must be cross-cultural and timeless, and it must invite rereading.
    Gift and Krislov conclude that various works in economics meet these criteria, particularly Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Thomas Malthus’s Essay on Population, Karl Marx’s Capital, Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, and Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics.Using the same criteria, the present author would add Carl Menger’s Principles of Economics, and Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action.
    Nevertheless, Gift and Krislov’s six criteria are too narrow in that they clearly only apply to scientific or technical works, but not to fiction, poetry, and other works valued for their literary qualities and broader intellectual appeal.
    Quality of literary exposition and clarity of expression should be considered in selecting readings.Smith and Menger have outstanding English writing styles.Turgot, J.S. Mill, Marx, and Veblen are particularly difficult authors.In the case of Turgot and Marx, this criticism is directed at their English translators.Students may benefit from grappling with high language, but also need role models.Instructors might ask “who would I like my students to emulate in their writing?”

    Kish-Goodling (1998) provides an outstanding and very thorough discussion of applications of monetary economics presented in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.Aristophanes’s The Frogs gives the earliest statement of Gresham’s law, and can be used to illustrate that principle.L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an allegory on the politics of bimetallism (Rockoff 1990).

    Watts and Smith (1989) provide an excellent survey of drama and fiction works useful for teaching economics, including Dickens, Dos Passos, Huxley, Steinbeck, and Wilder.O’Donnell (1989) discusses fiction written with the explicit intention of illustrating economic principles, though these novels typically do not qualify as great books.

Cultural Bias

    Though there may be some exceptions, the vast majority of acknowledged “great books” are authored by dead white males.A further issue of cultural bias is raised by the fact that these authors wrote in a context not generally conducive to attitudes we would recognize today as enlightened.Although some writers come across as fairly enlightened by today’s standards, others do not, and perhaps should be avoided for precisely that reason.
    Even the more enlightened writers may display glaring instances of insensitivity.For example, in the nineteenth Africans were routinely described as savages by educated Europeans and European-Americans.Many primary texts display poor understanding of geography, even given the state of the art at the time.What the writer has to offer your students should be weighed against the liabilities.
    Shortcomings and insensitivities should be pointed out by the instructor and discussed in class.It can be used as a gage of civilization that educated people do not believe these things anymore.
    A possible further solution is to include readings by more contemporary authors like Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, or Toni Morrison.Unfortunately, these authors’ works are not in the public domain.A search for appropriate author websites turned up several with excellent presentations of the author’s works, including complete lyric poems, passages from novels, Nobel prize addresses, interviews, and critical and interpretive articles.
Design Issues: Setting up a Reading List
    Two models of implementation will be presented to serve as a basis for discussion.Model A consists of five phases: selection, dissemination, discussion, evaluation, and feedback.Model B adds an additional initial phase, requirement specification, but is otherwise identical.Model A implementation is easier and less time-consuming for web novices to set up and apply.
    Basically, instructors select readings from the set of texts they know to be readily accessible and available, e.g., through the McMaster University Archive of the History of Economic Thought website.A helpful rule of thumb is to plan on one reading per week if the course is built around the primary text readings, and one every two weeks or longer if the primary texts are assigned to supplement a standard textbook.
The difference between these two models of implementation is in what comes first:selection of the readings, as in model A, which is more appropriate for new adopters, or course needs, as in model B, which is most easily realized once the instructor has become accustomed to what can be accomplished with this approach.

    Anyone with a webbrowser can set up a supplemental reading list in an afternoon.  As a first step, it may be helpful to explore what is available, but for economics courses, most readings are available through the McMaster University website. Once course contact time is divided, a topic area is selected for each reading.When primary texts are used to supplement a course textbook, topic areas can be chosen to correspond to chapter coverage in the course textbook.Then a primary source reading is chosen for each topic.
    Once the instructor has selected readings, they need to be disseminated to the class, which can be done in low-tech mode in a handout with each web address listed, or in high-tech mode on a course website with hyperlinks to each reading.Some lecture time (or recitation time, if available) must be set aside for discussion of the readings.Particular emphasis must be placed on relating the content of the readings to the standard content in the primary textbook.
    The approach is essentially passive and conservative.Facilitating access to on-line texts, in and of itself, goes only a short way toward transforming faculty from transmitters of information to guides and mentors, (Wolfe et al, 1998, p. 31,) but it is a start.Instructors can exercise discretion about how far and how fast to embrace additional applications of technology to facilitate active learning.

    Ideally, in-class discussion of primary texts enlivens and complements discussion.Instructors should mention the relevance of the primary text assignments whenever they appear relevant to the standard course coverage.Feel free to mention how previous readings are relevant, or how future readings will be relevant, to the present discussion.If the instructor prefers, classroom discussion can be supplemented or replaced with on-line bulletin boards.

    Discussion of primary texts provides a medium to develop student vocabulary.Usually the level of language used in primary texts is high and often archaic.Students benefit from learning unfamiliar words, and encountering obsolete technical terms offers the instructor the opportunity of pointing out more modern equivalents, and perhaps explaining why and how obsolete expressions were superceded.

    In addition, sometimes seminal works of the discipline present simpler theoretical constructs than today’s accepted knowledge.Simpler, more primitive models, often serve as an excellent introduction to the more complicated state-of-the-art.The insights gained from discussing and analyzing the evolution of concepts cannot be overstated.No matter how well one might appreciate ideas in the context of contemporary consensus, ideas cannot be fully understood outside their historical context.

    The evaluation phase consists of including specific references to the primary text assignments in graded diagnostic instruments, e.g., multiple-choice questions, essay questions, and/or term papers.In the last phase, student feedback should be elicited, perhaps in the form of a questionnaire.Students can be asked their favorite and least favorite readings.

    For low-tech implementation, it is only necessary to provide a paper handout with the assignments and website addresses printed out on paper.A logical next step is to provide the handout as a page linked to the instructor's course website or on-line syllabus.The instructor can also provide hyperlinks on an online assignments page, for ease of use by students.Here is an example provided by the author for his Principles of Microeconomics and Macroeconomics classes: [http://www3.wcu.edu/~mulligan/supreads.html].

    One caveat to be red-flagged is the importance of proofreading web addresses.A typographical error in a web address renders it useless, and such errors are very difficult to diagnose and correct.The McMaster University website addresses all include the ambiguous extension "/3113/, " which can be interpreted as containing ones or lower-case Ls - the threes suggest a number, but the figures are in-fact Ls.

    This difficulty is alleviated if the instructor adopts a higher-tech implementation of an assignments website with hyperlinks.The instructor will know to adjust the linked addresses until they work, and can minimize address ambiguities by using the cut-and-paste utility to copy the addresses directly from your webbrowser.

Assessment and Evaluation

    Instructors must ensure time is available for intelligent and thorough discussion of supplemental readings.This should not be an issue if the primary texts are the only reading assignment, because then the course discussion is built around the readings.Students will probably feel cheated if confronted with an impressive set of difficult reading assignments, completion of which detracts from other activities, if the readings are not discussed in class.
    Students will likewise feel cheated if course diagnostic instruments do not include some references to the primary texts.Multiple-choice questions about the readings, essay questions referring to the readings, or term papers, are alternative solutions to this problem.Students should be encouraged to print out a copy of each assigned reading to mark up, bring to class, study from, etc.Reading from a printed copy also minimizes eyestrain.
    Primary texts lend themselves well to writing assignments which can center around technical problems of the discipline addressed in the readings.Because primary texts are by definition, great literature addressing important problems, they can also be addressed through literary analyses.Torres (1995) gives a useful framework for this approach, discussing many practical issues.
    Applied to non-fiction, Torres’s approach requires students to 1. demonstrate the distinction between understanding and interpretation of concepts presented in the primary text, e.g., by posing and answer a compelling question raised in a text, 2. construct a bibliography of works by the primary text author, related primary texts, and scholarship, including criticism, relating to the work studied, 3. identifying and analyzing their emotional response to the text or passage, 4. writing a passage in discipline, perhaps mimicking the author’s vocabulary and writing style, 5. demonstrating mastery of the language of the discipline in formulating a thesis, 6. involving each other in communal evaluation workshops.
    Manning (1996) observes that traditional techniques for teaching economics fail to facilitate higher-order analytical skills.She recommends the solution strategy of integrating writing and computers into classroom teaching and assignments, and provides a helpful discussion of implementation issues.

Implementing Continuous Improvement

    Primary text-based readings can be used as supplemental assignments.Since many primary texts are available free-of-charge on the internet, instructors have a resource which allows them to chose from a wide variety of specifically history-of-economic-thought readings.
    Instructors are able, in effect, to edit their own book of readings or supplemental readings, drawn from the classics of economics or other literary sources.You get to assign from a set of readings you edited, which are provided at no cost to your students.The cost of a set of readings would be high, and published selections do not necessarily meet instructor requirements.If students had to buy a copy of each book assigned, the cost might be prohibitive, and might influence instructors to economize on sources.


    Internet implementation of primary text assignments serves two goals: broadening the perspective of undergraduate education, and implementing technology in the classroom.The exposure to technology is important but perhaps superficial and transient, as technology will change at an ever-increasing rate.Exposure to great ideas, great and original minds, through the great books exposes students to something not subject to obsolescence.
Computer technology becomes a vehicle for stimulating students’ critical faculties.Although students clearly benefit from technological implementation of pedagogic methods, the real benefit is in the depth and breadth of scholarly experience contained in the great books.



Gift, Richard E., & Krislov, Joseph. (1991). Are there classics in economics? Journal of Economic Education, 22(1), 27-32.
Kish-Goodling, Donna M. (1988). Using the Merchant of Venice in teaching monetary economics. Journal of Economic Education, 29(4), 330-339.
Manning, Linda M. (1996). A classroom strategy for teaching economics in a multidisciplinary context. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 7(1), 57-69.
O’Donnell, Margaret G. (1989). A historical note on the use of fiction to teach principles of economics. Journal of Economic Education, 20(3), 314-320.
Hugh Rockoff. (1990). The Wizard of Oz as a Monetary Allegory. Journal of Political Economy, 98(4), 739-761.
Torres, Evelyn M. (1995). Analytical literacy: Making scholars out of students. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 6(2), 17-29.
Watts, Michael, & Smith, Robert F. (1989). Economics in literature and drama. Journal of Economic Education, 20(3), 291-307.
Wolfe, C.R., Crider, C., Mayer, L., McBride, M., Sherman, R., & Vogel, R. (1998). Toward a Miami University model for Internet-intensive higher education. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 9(1), 29-51.

Internet resources:
Primary Texts and the Great Books:
Concordances of Great Books: http://www.concordance.com/
McMaster University Archive of Economic Thought: http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3LL3/
Rice University Galileo Project: http://es.rice.edu/ES/humsoc/Galileo/
Project Gutenberg: http://www.promo.net/pg/
Bibliomania: http://www.bibliomania.com/

University of California at Berkeley Alex: http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/alex/

Yale University Primary Legal Texts: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/avalon.htm

Writing Resources:

WCU Writing Center: http://www.wcu.edu/WritingCenter/

Sweet Briar College Academic Resource Center Writing Guides: http://www.arc.sbc.edu/writing.html

Clarkson University Writing Center: http://www.clarkson.edu/~wcenter/

Author Websites:

Maya Angelou: http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu./%7Emmaynard/Maya/maya5.html [University of Texas]

http://ucaswww.mcm.uc.edu/worldfest/about.html [University of Cincinnati]

http://www.pitt.edu/~amgst52/maya.html [University of Pittsburgh]

Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen): http://www.dis.dk/kultur/karenb/baggrund.e.html


David Linsay: http://www.montreat.edu/dking/lewis/AshleyEcklerLewispaper.htm [Montreat College]

Toni Morrison: http://beloved.hampshire.edu/tm.shtml [Hampshire College]



http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~mmaynard/Morrison/home.html [University of Texas]

Sigrid Undset: http://odin.dep.no/ud/nornytt/uda-443.html


Alice Walker: http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/purple.html [College of Staten Island]





Week Due
ECON 231 Micro Readings
ECON 232 Macro Readings
Week Two
Adam Smith (1723-1790), Wealth of Nations (1776),
Book 1, Chapters 1, 2, and 3
Ann-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), Reflections on the Formation of Wealth (1766, English edition 1793), Sections 1-50
Week Four
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Principles of Political Economy (1848, seventh ed. 1871), Book 3, Chapter 2
Ann-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), Reflections on the Formation of Wealth (1766, English edition 1793), Sections 51-101
Week Six
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Chapter 4, "Conspicuous Consumption"
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Principles of Political Economy (1848, seventh ed. 1871), Book 1, Chapter 7
Week Eight
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), "The Limits of Marginal Utility" (1909)
Karl Marx (1818-1883), Capital (1867), Book 1, Chapter 25, Section 3 
[note: Section 3 starts on approximately p. 10 of 73.]
Week Ten
Arnold Toynbee (1852-1883), Lectures on the Industrial Revolution in England (1884)
[1] Adam Smith (1723-1790), Wealth of Nations (1776), Book 1, Chapter 4
[2] Carl Menger (1841-1921), "On the Origin of Money" (1892)
Week Twelve
Karl Marx (1818-1883), Capital (1867), Book 1, Chapter 16
David Hume (1711-1776), "Of the Balance of Trade" (1777)
Week Fourteen
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Principles of Political Economy (1848, seventh ed. 1871), Book 2, Chapter 14
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), 
[1] "A Proposal to Pay off the Debt of the Nation" (1732), and [2] "On Lowering the Coins" (1736)
Week Sixteen
The Constitutions of Clarendon (1164)
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), 
[1] "Boehm-Bawerk's (1851-1914) Definition of Capital and the Source of Wages" (1892)
[2] "Review of John Maynard Keynes' (1883-1946) The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919)" (1920)
1."3ll3" = "3LL3" in the McMaster University website addresses.
2.Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations is also available at http://www.bibliomania.com/NonFiction/Smith/Wealth/index.html
3.Please complete the assigned readings prior to the week listed.