I try to always read an article to the end, even if by the end I’m skimming very quickly, and this morning I was reminded why. I was reading yet another review of Alex Beam’s irreverent history of the Great Books project, A Great Idea at the Time. If I had known it was yet another review of that book, I might not have clicked on the link, but I did and the opening paragraph was engaging enough that I kept reading.
As I read the review I wasn’t liking it too much, since I have much more fondness and respect for the project than Alex Beam does, and it seemed that the reviewer was leaning towards Beam’s view. But then I came to the end, and read something that not only redeemed the reviewer in my eyes but made an important and novel point:
Only St. John’s College maintains a curriculum built exclusively around the Great Books. Every student takes at least two years of ancient Greek, two of French, four of math, and three of laboratory science, the last taught not through textbooks but through primary works like Copernicus’s On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres and Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry.
Beam sat in on a St. John’s laboratory seminar and found it “flat, flat, flat.” The same went for a seminar on portions of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (example: “Whether the proposition ‘God exists’ is self-evident?”). “Everyone had done the reading,” Beam laments, “but few could make heads or tails of it.” The problem, as Beam sees it, is that the students aren’t allowed to bring to the discussion anything outside the text. Beam imagines “a thousand interesting questions” that would have enlivened the proceedings: “Why did Aquinas feel the necessity of proving God’s existence? Who in the Middle Ages disagreed with him?” But all of these questions, which in one way or another would lead beyond the closed-off world of the Great Books, are out of order at St. John’s, silenced by the fetish of the Great. “You live by the Books, you die by the Books,” Beam writes. And St. John’s, he believes, is dying.
This is a deeply unfair and ungenerous way to end an otherwise entertaining book. Surely no partisan of the Great Books—those at St. John’s included—thinks that questions like Beam’s are entirely out of order. It’s rather that his questions make for bad places to begin. A seminar spent “not being able to make heads or tails” of Aquinas need not be time poorly spent. It might, in fact, form a necessary prologue to the conversation Beam craves. (Emphasis added.)
Exactly right, and very perceptive for someone who seems to not be especially familiar with the approach to reading (“shared inquiry,” they call it) advocated by the Great Books project. There were rules for a Great Books discussion group to follow, and one of them was that participants could only refer to the text when discussing the ideas it raised.
At first blush this sounds insanely restrictive, but in fact it worked wonders for a discussion. For one thing, it made it impossible for a participant to bully others with knowledge that wasn’t shared (“Well, I’ve also read quite a bit of Freud, and what Freud would say here …”). For another, it kept the discussion very tightly focused, covering only what the writer has presented and discouraging the pursuit of ideas which might be related but which the writer hadn’t written about. And maybe most important, it opened up enough space to put the reading under the microscope, working together to construct a clear understanding of the writer’s arguments, its strengths and weaknesses and internal inconsistencies.
I should also say that, in the group I attended we were not sticklers that the rules be followed at every point in the discussion. Instead, we used them as a defense against having a discussion degenerate; if one of us saw that things were drifting, an invocation of the rules was usually enough to get us focused again.
If that weren’t enough redemption for the reviewer, he finishes with what I think is an excellent point about a weakness of middlebrow culture that is rampant today: the desire to skip the preliminaries and cut to the chase:
Beam’s lament, moreover, reveals a deeply middlebrow fantasy shared by many. It goes like this: if only we knew more about the Middle Ages—had more information on Aquinas’s hometown, his antagonists, and his childhood—the Summa Theologica would give up its secrets. We might not even have to read it! It’s a fantasy no different in kind than the vision of mastering the Great Books in ten-minute intervals. And in a book that takes as one of its subjects the creation of middlebrow culture—and which doesn’t mind having a laugh at its expense along the way—Beam ought to have been on guard against his own susceptibility to the middlebrow. If he doesn’t watch out, he soon might find himself flipping through the Syntopicon’s entry for God, vainly hoping to make heads or tails of Aquinas.