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.