I’ve concluded that the goal of most college courses should not be knowledge but engaging in certain intellectual exercises. For the last few years I’ve had the privilege of teaching a seminar to first-year Honors students in which we read a wide range of wonderful texts, from Plato and Thucydides to Calvino and Nabokov. We have lively discussions that require a thorough knowledge of the text, and the students write excellent papers that give close readings of particular passages. But the half-life of their detailed knowledge is probably far less than a year. The goal of the course is simply that they have had close encounters with some great writing.
What’s the value of such encounters? They make students vividly aware of new possibilities for intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment—pleasure, to give its proper name. They may not enjoy every book we read, but they enjoy some of them and learn that—and how—this sort of thing (Greek philosophy, modernist literature) can be enjoyable. They may never again exploit the possibility, but it remains part of their lives, something that may start to bud again when they see a review of a new translation of Homer or a biography of T. S. Eliot, or when “Tartuffe” or “The Seagull” in playing at a local theater."