Are Great Books Not The Answer?

Patrick Deneen of Georgetown University has an essay on Minding The Campus in which he argues that cultural and intellectual conservatives should be more cautious about championing Great Books type programs in colleges and universities as an antidote to the rootlessness and relativism of the modern curriculum, because the Great Books format itself is often essentially relativistic:

Most curricula in the Great Books offer the various philosophies as inherently coherent and valid systems, suggesting to each student that there is finally no basis on which to decide which philosophy to adopt other than mere preference. One must simply decide. This Nietzschean (or Schmittian) lesson is reinforced by the typical organization of such curricula (where they persist), which is typically chronological. Given that most students today have deeply ingrained progressive worldviews (that is, the view that history has been the slow but steady advance of enlightenment in all forms, culminating in equal rights for all races, all genders, and all sexual preferences), a curriculum that begins with the Bible and Greek philosophy and ends with Nietzsche subtly suggests that Nietzsche is the culmination of Enlightenment’s trajectory. The fact that his philosophy is reinforced by the message that an education in the Great Books consists in exposure to equally compelling philosophies between which there is no objective basis to prefer only serves to deepen the most fundamental lesson of a course in the Great Books, which is a basic form of relativism. The choice of a personal philosophy is relative, and the basis on which one makes any such choice is finally arbitrary, the result of personal preference or attraction.

I would certainly agree that Great Books programs can end up being run in an essentially relativistic way. I recall one of the things that turned me off St. John’s College in Santa Fe was when the student guide who was taking us around on our high school student tour exclaimed, “You spend, like, the first couple months reading Plato, and it’s like mind-blowing. By the time you finish reading Plato, you don’t believe in anything anymore.”

I wouldn’t claim for either my current or my 17-year-old self any kind of serious Plato scholarship, but at the time I had already read some of the basics (Crito, Apology, Phaedo, Symposium, and Allegory of the Cave) and one things I was pretty sure of was that this was not the result I had found from reading Plato, nor that which the Church and Western Culture in general had derived from him.

If a Great Books program is run by relativists, it will have a certain tendency to turn out relativists. So I would agree with Deneen that it is not enough for us to push for Great Books programs and simply leave it at that. However, I would tend to differ somewhat from his analysis here in that I retain a fair amount of faith in the fundamental power of the great works of Western Civilization to speak for themselves. While I don’t think that the mere creation of a Great Books program is the end of the road, with little weight given to how it’s run and by whom, it does at least seem to me that for those who believe an education rooted in Western Culture is important, reading the works themselves is a great start. Surely it is better to have someone with a well ordered understanding of their place in the western canon to guide the student through such a program — indeed, my experience in the Great Books core curriculum at Steubenville underlined for me how at sea a group of unprepared students can get reading the Ancient Greeks without proper preparation and guidance — but I have enough faith in the quality of the great books themselves to think that it is better to have read them under almost any circumstances than not to have read them at all.

31 Responses to Are Great Books Not The Answer?

  • Tito Edwards says:

    If a Great Books program is run by relativists,

    That’s the caveat.

    Orthodox College’s like Thomas Aquinas College should not fall into this unless of course they begin wanting “worldly” respect such as Georgetown or Notre Shame, then yes, I can see his point.

  • Robert,

    For the record, while I think it’s pretty uncontroversial that many of the works Wiker highlights in his book have serious moral and/or intellectual problems (when you’ve got targets like Mein Kampf and Communist Manifesto, it’s not exactly hard to point to major world problems that resulted from the works) I’ve got to say I’m not crazy about Wiker as a writer or thinker. A lot of what he writes is heavily influenced by his rejection of evolution. And he’s a fairly binary thinker overall.

    I was glad to see that he wasn’t entrusted with any of the sections of the Great Books honors program during my time at Steubie, though I don’t know if he since managed to make his way in to teaching some of those.

  • Pinky says:

    I was exposed to some pretty average books, and one or two of the Great Books, by average teachers in college. I would have rather had excellent teachers instruct me about all the classics. But long after the teachers are forgotten, two things stay with you: the knowledge from the books (however poorly transmitted and received), and the awareness that there are people who’ve wrestled with the imporant things and written out their conclusions. I think that Deneen underestimates the importance of that awareness.

    Like a lot of people, I read The Closing of the American Mind and recognized the educational problems Bloom was describing. I got frustrated with the book at times, because I wanted Bloom to point to a specific tree and say “that’s the one you want to bark up”. I realize now that he was offering an overview of the thinkers that an educated person should know.

    One side note: Deneen makes a big mistake in his chronology. The Great Books programs weren’t teaching a new canon to replace Scripture. They were a continuation of the classical education under a new name.

  • I seem to recall from reading Mortimer Adler’s biography that one of the problems the U Chicago great books program faced early on was that people suspected it of having some sort of cryptic agenda: a disproportionate number of students were going through the program and then converting to Catholicism.

    People can mess nearly anything up, but I do think there’s a validity to thinking that if you get students to sit down and really read Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas and then Marx and Nietze, most will come to the right set of conclusions.

  • Tito Edwards says:

    Darwin,

    A few years back a fine history professor at Kansas University was using the Socratic method I believe in teaching medieval history. An unusual amount of students began converting to Catholicism because of this and the university received numerous complaints from family members since many of these converts also joined monastic orders such as Clear Creek Monastery in Oklahoma.

    It’s interesting to see how many universities got away from this method of teaching. I wonder if there was some sort of reasoning for doing so?

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    “I seem to recall from reading Mortimer Adler’s biography that one of the problems the U Chicago great books program faced early on was that people suspected it of having some sort of cryptic agenda: a disproportionate number of students were going through the program and then converting to Catholicism.”

    That amused Adler to no end since he was a self-styled pagan at the time. He converted to the Episcopalian faith in 1984 and in 2000, just a year before his death, he became a Catholic at age 97. As long as there is breath there is hope!

  • WJ says:

    Chicago used to be described thus:

    A Baptist University where atheist professors teach Catholic philosophy to Jewish students.

    Also: The problem with a Great Books curriculum is partly, but not wholly, explicable by reference to the particular beliefs of the instructor. The whole notion of a Great Books curriculum is that there’s this “long conversation,” conducted across history, by vastly diverse thinkers, about some given set of issues. You are instructed to read these texts as responding to one another on some transcendental level, and not as deeply embedded within a particular historical set of problems to which they are trying to give a response. Consequently it encourages a kind of “abstract” view of the person, who him or herself sits outside of any particular tradition and is free to read and think about these Great Books from no vantage point whatsoever. Unfortunately this is not true.

    Also: Wiker is a hack.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    You know, maybe those books “screwed up the world”, maybe they didn’t – maybe they’re just expressions of the times and not causes of them. I’m of the mind that someone would have thought of most of these ideas regardless, so its not “books” that screw up the world, it’s people.

    As a student of political philosophy I never liked the idea behind Wiker’s book. And as much as I respect Thomas Woods these days, after I read his review of the book I couldn’t bring myself to read it. Woods said, and I paraphrase, that Wiker had read and analyzed these books “so you don’t have to.”

    In other words, this man did the reading and the critical thinking for you.

    I’ll be blunt: I HATE secondary and tertiary sources most of the time (there are some good ones) because they are almost always tainted. If you don’t want to read Plato and Aristotle, don’t even bother with some guys’ interpretation of them.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    WJ,

    “You are instructed to read these texts as responding to one another on some transcendental level, and not as deeply embedded within a particular historical set of problems to which they are trying to give a response. Consequently it encourages a kind of “abstract” view of the person, who him or herself sits outside of any particular tradition and is free to read and think about these Great Books from no vantage point whatsoever. Unfortunately this is not true.”

    I think it is true to some extent. We have to understand that even if the great philosophers or political thinkers were addressing contemporary problems, they were also almost always attempting to draw broad generalizations based on a commonly shared human experience.

    I think the Great Books approach is a healthy antidote to the sort of extreme historicism one still sees at universities, as well as the “post-modern” interpretations, which usually boil down to deliberately incomprehensible gibberish. This is where we get relativistic ideas from.

    If we have a curriculum that points to what is unchanging in man, and what is objectively true regardless of the historical epoch (like, for instance, rules of logical argument), then we combat both relativism and fatalism.

    As always a healthy balance is needed. Some historicism is good. Some abstraction is good. The best introductions to great works I’ve read are able to both a) establish the historical context and b) lay out the idea with as little taint as possible. Then it is up for the readers to decide how much of a work is an unconscious reflection of history, and how much of it is an original work of a unique mind. It’s up for them to decide how much of the book is nothing but a technical manual of inherent value only for the people of that generation, and how much of it contains a message that is timeless and re-applicable in almost any society.

    A book is hardly “great” if it does not offer BOTH.

  • And as much as I respect Thomas Woods these days, after I read his review of the book I couldn’t bring myself to read it. Woods said, and I paraphrase, that Wiker had read and analyzed these books “so you don’t have to.”

    Heh. Yeah, that kind of thing rubs me massively the wrong way.

    Needless to say, I’m glad that the Church got beyond the Index Of Forbidden Books phase.

  • WJ says:

    Well, I go back and forth on this, but to play devil’s advocate…

    The opposition you propose in your response to my comment is a false one. It is not that Plato’s Republic is partly “an unconscious reflection of history” and is partly “an original work of a unique mind.” It is clearly an original work, and Plato’s mind was clearly unique, but both its originality and uniqueness emerge as such only when they are understood in the context of the debates and upheavals of 5th and 4th century Athens. In other words, historicism properly understood is not *opposed* to the values you (rightly) identify, but is their precondition.

    Here I will put my cards on the table and say that much of my current skepticism regarding Great Books Curricula is heavily indebted to MacIntyre’s critique of the anthropology subtending this curricula, which he argues is a liberal, or Enlightenment, anthropology.

    Buying this argument from MacIntyre involves a bigger issue: whether there is in fact any neutral standpoint from which one can approach the Great Conversation. If there is one, then something like your account is plausible, if there is not, then it is not. But this is a big issue and, as I said, one that I’m unsure about myself.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    WJ,

    I don’t think I gave you a false opposition. In my view, “historicism properly understood” is the same as historicism in the right amount. Maybe its not a good use of language to try and quantify such a thing, I can grant that.

    Let me put it this way: I think historicism is misused. I think it is valid when you want to ask “why did thinker x hold the opinions he did”, and to be honest, the way I approach history, the “whys” are not that important. Historicism is also good for discovering why two works from two different epochs with similar premises and reasoning will differ in the details and the implementation. So its a good tool of comparative analysis.

    Its invalid if we want to ask, “is this a logically valid argument? Do the conclusions follow from the premises? Are any of these premises still valid today?” I believe in reading, studying, thinking and writing with a purpose. Historicism can help us sort out the inessential from the essential aspects of a philosophical argument but it cannot itself serve as any kind of guide for understanding those essential aspects.

    I’m writing a commentary on the Book of Wisdom right now, for instance, that answers these questions in the affirmative. The historical context of the author really is a secondary matter next to the perennial issues he was dealing with – atheism, existentialism, hedonism, injustice, and the persecution of Christ.

    I believe that the “wisdom of Wisdom”, in other words, is timeless, applicable to all human societies in its essence. I think wisdom is what we can gain from the untainted study of philosophy, and I think the further we get away from historicist scaffolding, however necessary it might be, as you say, as a “precondition”, the closer we come to wisdom.

    And that’s what I seek to get out of philosophy – wisdom. Not a history lesson or a biography, but wisdom that men and women can use to make their lives better, to better serve God and neighbor, to achieve better justice, etc.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    That said, let me address your last point as well:

    “Buying this argument from MacIntyre involves a bigger issue: whether there is in fact any neutral standpoint from which one can approach the Great Conversation. If there is one, then something like your account is plausible, if there is not, then it is not. But this is a big issue and, as I said, one that I’m unsure about myself.”

    The answer, strictly speaking, is no – no one is completely neutral. But then, consider the debates we have had here on this blog about the relationship between freedom and sin.

    We’ve said, many times, that although a life free of sin through the use of free will is possible in theory, it is almost impossible in practice – some say it is absolutely impossible, I will not go that far.

    But this limitation on our freedom is not an excuse not to strive to live a sinless life. We will stumble, fall, and rise many times on our path to righteousness and salvation.

    In the same way, our inability to become completely objective (which, as in the case of being completely sinless, would make us like God, or at least an angel) is no excuse for us not to try. I believe in a rational universe. There are objective truths in this universe, and that they are accessible, if not entirely comprehensible, to the human mind.

    Just as I have a moral duty to avoid sin even if I succumb to it now and then, I believe I also have a moral duty to come as close to objective truth as possible, even if I succumb to subjectivism now and then.

    So am I entirely neutral? No. But can I struggle against subjective limitations and strive for objective clarity? Yes. Will I reach total objective clarity? Most likely not. But can I move towards it? Yes.

    That’s how I see it, anyway.

  • I don’t recall hearing about UChicago’s propensity to make converts. KU’s program was run along more classical, with heavy Latin use. One of its graduates, a convert to Catholicism, is Bishop James Conley, auxiliary of Denver.

    “Great Books” are a poor substitute for mastering an ancient and modern language. It was once realistic for colleges to expect graduates to have near-fluency. Can that be the case any longer? I felt my language classes could have proceeded much more quickly.

    If you want to feel really inadequate, look up the multi-lingual Barrett’s Grammar, a bestseller in the 19th century.

    There are more comments on Deneen’s essay at http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2010/04/against-great-books/

  • Pinky says:

    Kevin, you’re right that the classics used to be taught in their original tongues. That ties in to my problem with Deneen’s argument. It wasn’t like the Great Books programs appeared out of nowhere and made a generation stupid. In reality, they were part of a long decline in the educational system. They were along the bottom half of the ladder, and they led to our current bottom rung. But the way up is with the next rung. Maybe we can get back to a liberal education over the next several decades; if we do, it’ll begin by reading the classics in English.

    Joe, I recognize the potential problems with secondary sources, but there can also be benefits. I always think of Malthus, who couldn’t write out a recipe for popcorn in under 100 pages. I also have some concern about the Great Books of math and science.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    ““Great Books” are a poor substitute for mastering an ancient and modern language. ”

    Really? I didn’t learn one and I think I’m doing alright.

    I think nothing at all is worse than something. And I think studying the canon of books that have shaped Western civilization and hence, the world, gives you access to all of the wisdom and knowledge you will ever need.

  • Pinky says:

    I’d love to read Kant in the original language. Better yet, I’d love to read Kant in the original without having to learn German. Or, the best case scenario would be that Kant never wrote anything.

  • Anthony says:

    Hey hey! I don’t know if I mentioned this but I left my advertising job to join the Great Books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis.

    I’m almost done with the Philosophy/Theology Segment and I’m loving it.

    YES it is relativistic, but thats to be expected given the age we live in and the structure of the program. If you’re looking for a program where all the books will be seen in terms of a ‘Catholic’ response then this program is not for you.

    BUT if you are a Catholic and you put your brain on it can be a TON OF FUN to enter into dialogue with all the atheists, agnostics, etc. Every Monday and Thursday night I end up having really wonderful conversations with people, and I’m glad I made the decision despite the financial hit. Its only four semesters, which is a small price to pay for a body of learning that will shift the course of your life.

    Right now we’re on Kant after just leaving behind guys like Aquinas and Hume. Today I’ve gotta work on a Hume paper and then the rest of the month its a major paper on Confessions I’ll be slaving on.

  • Anthony says:

    Darwin,

    Yeah for the graduate students here it essentially is a compressed version of what the undergrads here do. The program is intended for teachers, lawyers, retirees or people like myself who really needed a break from the corporate grind.

    Although my bachelors degree was in design my minor was in history, so I’ve had a hankering to return to that academic spirit. Plus, I’m completely convinced that the majority of Americans are completely clueless as to what is going on around them thanks to their mediocre education. We’re just not taught these guys anymore and we really should be. Trying to write and converse about the great questions that face mankind ought not to be something limited to an exclusive few.

    The program here is divided in to five ‘segments’ that focus on specific areas. You must complete four to earn the degree. Each segment is comprised of a tutorial, a seminar and a preceptorial. In the tutorial and precept you must do some substantive writing and in seminar there is an oral exam.

    The five segments are Philosophy/Theology, Natural Science/Mathematics, Literature, Politics/Society and History.

    Right now I’m in Philosophy/Theology and in the fall I’m probably going to take Natural Science/Mathematics. We only are using primary texts. There are no ‘textbooks’ or lectures or secondary sources. Its just you and Plato, you and Euclid, you and Augustine.

    So yeah, its fun. I have no idea what I’ll do with ‘the degree’ and I do want to get back to advertising (been looking for a job since January!), but hey— 4 semesters is a small price to pay for a lifetime’s worth of learning.

  • Donna V. says:

    That’s hilarious, Donald. Yes, I remember encountering Kant in a “History of Western Philosophy” course and nearly pounding my head against my desk in frustration.

    But in grad school, I was introduced to the trendy post-modernists and deconstructionists, who were even worse in my book. (And utterly cuckoo radical feminists, who are the worst of the worst.) Read a bit of Lacan and Derrida and you’ll feel nostalgic for Kant. Read more than a few pages of someone like Andrea (“all intercourse is rape”) Dworkin and you risk ending up in the asylum.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    The really sad thing Donna is when one considers the price one paid at college and grad school to read what one often considers in later life to be congealed nonsense.

  • Pinky says:

    I’ve got a question for the crowd: does anyone know of a Great Books blog? I love talking about this stuff, and learning from other people’s observations.

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