Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, April 12, 2010

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.


Melanie Bettinelli said...

"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. "


Emily J. said...

Is "Great Gooks" intentional or a typo? Kind of funny, considering some of the characters included on the Great Books reading list. If nothing else, reading the great books introduces you to fascinating thinkers you'll never meet in this life. I heard somewhere anecdotally that St. Johns has one of the highest suicide rates of any college supposedly because students become so overwhelmed by contradictory options of how to live a good life that they decide no life is worth living. That route isn't as likely for students studying the great books at a Catholic college where faith is the answer to how to live.

Darwin said...


No, that was a true typo. (fixed)

That's interesting about suicide at St. John's. (Something else that might be driving that rate is that, at least of 12 years ago, their drug-use rates were insanely high, even by college standards.)

Kate said...

I did notice that when I was acquiring my liberal arts education (at "Mr. Megalomaniac's Catholic Brand College, first attempt"), I would go home over the summer and compare notes with my secular friend (attending "Prestigious Canadian Humanities College Program") and although we read a lot of the same things, they had a completely different impact on us.

They must have been taught very differently over there - I would start going on about the ideas in some influential thinker's writing, discussing the merits and flaws, and he would immediately give an intellectual biography and a label (oh, yes, he was very influenced by so-and-so, the *ist), and basically dismiss it. It was more like he'd memorized a catalogue than anything else, and in a way I think his education only served to inoculate him against the Great Books.

Tom Simon said...

It was more like he'd memorized a catalogue than anything else, and in a way I think his education only served to inoculate him against the Great Books.

This is S.O.P. in modern academia, and has been for a century or more. Screwtape describes it perfectly:

The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer's development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man's own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the "present state of the question". To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.

Anonymous said...

The Historical Point of View has variants that apply to all parts of the philosophical spectrum. I met more closed-off and untouchable people at the Christian college that I attended (for one year) than I did at the state school to which I later transferred. I never attended any Catholic school, but I will react with extreme scepticism if anyone tries to tell me that the problem doesn't exist in those parts as well.