Meeting the challenge of the Great Books

Recently I linked to a short essay by Patrick Deneen, called “Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer.” I’ve written before how one of the major turning points in my intellectual path came when I met every month for five years to discuss readings from the Great Books with friends. And for a long time I thought it would be a great way to spend four years attending St. Johns College, where the curriculum consists entirely of the Great Books. So it might be surprising that I find myself mostly in agreement with Deneen—at least taking his assumptions as given. But I do have a deeper quibble.

Deneen characterizes enthusiasm for a Great Books education as follows [emphasis added]:

The Great Books have long been recommended by figures ranging from Allan Bloom to William Bennett as the basic texts of a liberal education and for containing essential knowledge about the Western tradition. An education in the Great Books was seen as essential in the cultivation of the educated person, and as the source of ideas that gave rise to many of the treasured inheritances of the West – including constitutionalism, liberal democracy, separation of Church and State, individual rights, a free-market economy, and the dignity of the human person. Knowledge of the constitutive texts of the West was seen by many of its defenders as the prerequisite for the informed citizen, someone not only who would believe in the traditions of the West, but be able to muster an articulate defense of the same.

However, for anyone with even passing familiarity with those constitutive texts, it is readily evident that these texts provide nothing of the sort.

Now, this is not accurate. The Great Books are indeed the source of ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, and so on—that is why they were selected as Great Books. But given what he says next, I assume Deneen’s objection is that those aren’t the only ideas you will find there. You will also find each of those ideas strongly criticized, and just about every possible alternative explained and promoted.

These texts are hardly primers on liberal democracy or any other political, ethical or economic system, but rather contain a wide and ranging set of debates over the nature of the good and best life, the good and best polity, the good and best economic system, and so on. The texts typically listed in such a course of study are marked by severe and profound disagreements.

I agree with this, as far as it goes.  Each writer put forth multiple arguments and conjectures, some prevailed while others didn’t, and Western tradition is what remains after all the filtering. Thus, Western tradition is not contained even in a proper subset of the Great Books. Anyone reading one or more Great Books is likely to encounter ideas and criticisms that failed to win the day, making them useless as primers. But taken together they are excellent tools for conducting a critical study of the Western tradition, as well as being excellent tutors in how to conduct a critical study.

So why might this be a problem?

Any student confronting such a wide variety of texts will be driven to make some sense of them, to evaluate their strong and contradictory claims. It’s not enough to state that higher education should consist of an exposure to the Great Books and leave it at that: students will need some way of negotiating their way through the philosophical thicket into which they are being thrown.

Fair enough. But any student comes to the task with some means of negotiating the thicket, even if it is just helpless bewilderment. What are the alternatives? The writer that Deneen is criticizing offers one.

For Kronman [an advocate of Great Books education], this is exactly the point: exposure to this diversity of views encourages a probing examination of the best way to live, or "the meaning of life." Any student confronting these texts in even a remotely serious way cannot be left complacent -he must confront his own presuppositions and articulate a response to the many challenges to which he will be exposed.

A confrontation with the Great Books, according to Kronman, is to disrupt easy assumptions about the meaning of life and force students to more deeply articulate their beliefs. But Kronman is quite explicit that arriving at life’s meaning will be the result of an individual’s negotiation between these various texts. The "meaning of life" will be developed from each person’s own capacity to arrive at a personal response to the many challenges these books represent.

Apparently Kronman thinks the best way to approach the Great Books is cold, and in fact the Great Books will do you the favor of clearing away any assumptions you might bring to them. Deneen points out that this will likely lead one to a bad place.

Confrontation with these texts reveals the expansiveness of possible ways of life, beliefs, ethics, and economics: they teach us that "each of us can make, and wants to make, a life uniquely our own – a life that has no precise precedent in all the lives that have gone before and that can never be repeated exactly." These books reveal the "plasticity of human nature."

Thus, even as each student will be encouraged to arrive at a deeply informed and highly articulated "meaning of life," a deeper lesson is advanced by such a curriculum: the "meaning of life" is always highly personal and relative to each person.

Now, it may be that moderns tend to take the diversity of thought found in the Great Books as teaching that we can and ought to make our life uniquely our own—but I don’t think that its what the books themselves teach. Just the opposite, in fact; most of the writers are fierce advocates of following the One Right Way, they differ only in exactly what the nature of that Way is. The problem is the modern reader, who rather than evaluating the different candidate Ways and choosing based on rightness, would prefer to think that there is no One Right Way, or even that Ways can be ranked, but that personal preference is the only basis for choosing. Exposure to diverse thinking may exacerbate this mistaken belief, but diverse thinking is not responsible for it.

Deneen goes on to detail other ways that a Great Books education as currently envisioned tends to support a relativisitic worldview, and suggests an alternative which might mine the Great Books usefully while avoiding the temptation to relativism.

In my view, the reinstatement of the Great Books would accomplish little in the contemporary academic context. What is needed is a more serious and potentially contentious discussion of the underlying philosophy within which these books would be read and taught. Teaching as I do at a Catholic and Jesuit university, I would like to see these books taught explicitly within the context and in the light of the standards that the Catholic tradition would provide. […]

The Great Books would and should be taught, but not as if the faculty is indifferent to the ways that they should be received. Students should at least know that these books cannot be rightly approached from a basis of "neutrality," since that approach itself contains a teaching, and that teaching is one that reinforces the relativist orthodoxies of our age.

I agree with Deneen that the Great Books—as well as any other writing or thinking—should not be approached neutrally. But here he goes far beyond that, proposing an approach that I can’t really distinguish from indoctrination. Do we really need teachers to guard our hearts and minds so closely, carefully choosing the ideas we can risk being exposed to, being there at every step to counter unorthodox thinking with the party line?

I sympathize with Deneen’s worries. I do think that most students arrive at college with feeble, comfortable worldviews that have never been challenged, and that being exposed to such challenges without some sort of guidance can be a disorienting experience that can leave one subject to every wind of doctrine. But I don’t think it’s so difficult to prepare a child for such challenges, either from college or from life. In our own case, we’ve focused on teaching one simple strategy: evaluate what you hear against what you think you know, giving preference to what you think you know but being open to challenges. Our children will never need to construct a worldview from scratch, but only modify one in the face of legitimate challenges, a manageable task.

And from whence comes the worldview that they proceed to modify in the face of challenges? From their mother and father, of course. We’ve spent years teaching them how they ought to view things—just like us.

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3 thoughts on “Meeting the challenge of the Great Books

  1. “I do think that most students arrive at college with feeble, comfortable worldviews that have never been challenged, and that being exposed to such challenges without some sort of guidance can be a disorienting experience that can leave one subject to every wind of doctrine”.

    Very true Rick. I am not an educator, but have the privilege or worshiping with large numbers of young people from both a Christian college and a state university. The challenge to immature worldviews comes in different ways but can be very traumatic. Almost no churches prepare the young for this, by equipping either parents or youngsters.

  2. All education is, in the end, indoctrination, I think. Even a so-called neutral indoctrination is an indoctrination of its own sort.

    “Those who believe as I do that teaching students to reason well is not enough threaten, as Adler would argue, to turn education into indoctrination while placing a greater burden on the teacher and his lessons than either one can bear.
    yet it seems to me that the difference between indoctrination and education is more one of degree than kind, and my teaching experience has lead me to believe that unless my aims are more broadly defined than to make my students rational thinkers , I will surely fail to do even that. Education must address the whole student, his emotional and spiritual sides as well as his rational.
    The means of education, the teacher’s methods, the books and lessons, the traditions, and regulations of the school- all must express not just ideas, but norms, teding to make young people, not only rational, but noble.”
    Norms and Nobility, David Hicks.

  3. DHM,

    Whatever one calls the process, Debbie and I have taught our kids to live and think a certain way, and to value it above others. But we’ve also taught them—mostly through example—to regularly ask themselves why they do the things they do, and also how to avoid being paralyzed by such questioning.

    Because of that they’ve had an experience that is unusual these days—they’ve actually embraced a way of life and practiced it for many years. As a result, they have an uncommonly deep understanding of what it means to live a certain way. They know what it means to walk the talk. And I think that, even if they end up choosing a different sort of life, it will be a thoroughly informed choice.

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