That seems to be a fairly frequently asked question, and it's one that I've wondered about myself. The stereotype is unfortunately one of Western books written by DWM ("dead white men"), and for the most part the traditional Great Books curriculum (if there even is such a thing) includes some 450 odd-works that whose authors fit that category.
I say this spurred by the interest of a book someone recently brought to my attention called A Great Idea At the Time: The Rise, Fall and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam. Now I haven't read it, yet, but I did read the reviews of it and it mentioned the two people who were instrumental in starting the Great Books program in the University of Chicago back in the 1950s: Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler. Both of those names are familiar to me because Shimer still follows a large part of the Hutchins plan in its curriculum (in fact, one of our classrooms is named after him) and Mortimer J. Adler (along with Charles Van Doren) wrote a book called How to Read a Book, which I very much enjoyed. (It is an odd sort of thing to read a book about reading books, but it bears reading more than once. Sometimes older, "classical" books are frustrating because we haven't the slightest clue how to approach them. How to Read a Book gives you all that and more.)
Hutchins and Adler put 443 books they named the canon of western literature into 54 volumes, which they then published and sold door-to-door, trying to spread knowledge to the greater population outside of academia. (An interesting connection I found: my calculus teacher, from IIT this past semester, sold these volumes as a door-to-door salesman when he was younger.) A Great Idea at the Time chronicles that history and its apparent demise. Reading the review brought to my mind a great deal of arguments that have been made against pursuing the Great Books education:
1) It's not practical in the least.
2) Everything's outdated. I mean, who reads Newton and Fourier nowadays? Their achievements are embedded into our scientific history, but no one needs their experiments anymore.
3) They don't promote the cultural diversity that's the vogue nowadays. As mentioned above, the authors are almost all of them DWM.
4) They are difficult to approach and sometimes near impossible to wade through. I dare you to read Kant without once ranting at him.
My defense of what has arguably become my life in the past year and a half:
1) Practical is admittedly one of the arguments most thrown against four years of reading books. But our definitions of practicality usually align with learning the skills and facts that will enable us to get a job. Reading the Great Books, by contrast, will not help one get a job. This is not true. If you want to fight facts with facts, I could say there's a lot of studies out there that have shown that employers in the scientific and medical fields are actually looking for applicants with prior degrees in the liberal arts (going on to specialized and graduate school afterward, of course) because they know that these people are better critical thinkers, better analyzers, open-minded and aware of what's going on in the world. Or I could say that the better the books that you read, the better your writing becomes: Great Books have launched the career of many a journalist, a writer, a reporter. Others have gone on to become lawyers, teachers, business owners; just about anything you can imagine. The Great Books education is not "practical" in the narrow definition because no, it does not teach you the latest in computer science, nor does it require you to memorize the periodic table or quantum formulas. But it teaches you to see the connections between things, the evolution of ideas across the ages, and knowing this you can more easily see how our world works today. It gives you the critical eye needed to cut through a lot of the information pills that our media force-feeds us today and pay attention to what's actually going on in the world, to make your own decisions based on primary sources rather than second- or third-hand sources. And, one thing that I feel is uniquely Shimer--and I freely admit my bias here, as well as lack of experience elsewhere--it helps you to discover what it is you really want to do. Many colleges that you enter are specialized to some degree or another, and you have to choose a degree about halfway through. Shimer's education is general all the way down the line, and you don't have to choose what you want to do so quickly. Reading what I have, both in and out of Shimer's curriculum, has pointed me down a lot of avenues I might not have otherwise explored. But that's for another post.
2) Outdated, yes. Useless? No. Much of science that I was taught throughout my public school years involved memorizing formulas, with little emphasis on how the ideas actually came about. Reading the really, really old scientists, even the ones that seem ridiculous (the pre-Socratics: the world is made out of earth, air, fire and water? Hah!), allows you to trace the evolution of ideas and really know why we are where we are today in science, politics, humanities and so many other areas. I think about it in the same way I think about math: if you know how to derive a million formulas from a single base, then you really only have to remember one thing.
3) Now, while this charge is true of some Great Books curricula, it is certainly not true of Shimer's. I'll name a few authors I've read here that are definitely not D, W, M or otherwise: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Mary Wollstonecraft, W.E.B. DuBois, Jane Goodall, Ruth Benedict, Carol Gilligan... and many others I have not yet had the chance to read. Shimer doesn't stick to the Great Books of the Western World canon outlined fifty years ago; it constantly challenges and updates itself. We read modern, female, minority authors that few, if any, other Great Books colleges include. The importance of that? The Great Books are not dead. The conversations and the writings continue still.
4) This is why we approach the books as a group. I admit, the first time I read through Jame Joyce's Ulysses I was hitting my head on the nearest wall. But when I came into class and we were all equally confused, we came out of our confusion together to some kind of understanding, and the effort it took to work through it made it seem even better: my mind was stretched, and my world expanded. I believe that the basic mentality towards many books written today is that they should be automatically intelligible to everyone, and books written a long time ago are only for smart people to read. Neither statement is true. It's the book that you struggle with before understanding that sticks with you the most, and I really think that almost anyone who puts their mind to it can, with aid, get through a lot of the classical books written centuries ago. It doesn't mean that you have to enjoy all of them (I certainly don't). But there is so much to be gotten from them that you can't simply not try.
Reading these is what brings the Shimer community together as a whole. Whatever other differences in views and opinion we might have, we've all read the same thing. That, to me, is one of the greatest aspects of Shimer's education.