U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Great Book and the Liberal Arts Tradition (Guest Post by Mark Edwards)

(Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Mark Edwards, Assistant Professor of History at Spring Arbor University and Co-Chair of the next Society for U.S. Intellectual History Conference, which will take place in the fall of 2014 in Indianapolis.  This essay is crossposted at the Religion in American History blog.)

A few months ago, Loyola’s Tim Lacy blogged here about Mortimer Adler, the subject of his new book, The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History, 2013), which is due to hit bookshelves—do we still have those?—in three days.  As his subtitle suggests, Lacy uses Adler to explore one of the most controversial subjects in twentieth-century American education, the “Great Books” movement.  I think, when most of us hear the words Great Books, we think Alan Bloom and conservative culture warriors.  One of Lacy’s central and most welcome contentions is that the Great Books idea has never been the sole possession of the American right or left.  Rather, both sides have, at different times, looked to such projects of cultural cohesion to save them from a variety of perceived existential threats (check out the conversation regarding Lacy’s 2011 blog post, “Great Books Liberalism,” for a nice introduction to the book).  Lacy is most concerned with, in his words, “those people, those mid-century intellectuals who promoted the great books idea, [who] shared an implicit, cosmopolitan dream of cultural democratization” (p. 6).  As he elaborates:

The meaning of this argument is revealed by examining the aspirations and actions of both promoters and reader-consumers. From the promoters’ viewpoint, democratization meant redistributing what Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital.” Through ideas and knowledge contained in great books, promoters hoped to enlighten the American polis and buttress Western democratic societies against malicious political systems, such as communism and fascism.  Moving from the social to the singular, supporters held that the steady accumulation of individual intellectual progress obtained by studying great books (not to exclude other means) would create empowered, cosmopolitan citizens comfortable with freedom in a century plagued with totalitarianism. Having sound philosophical foundations, each citizen would be a true free agent in the Western marketplace of ideas.  They would raise political discourse and cast the best votes possible.  And evidence exists that readers were enthusiastic about the great books’ potential to supplement their knowledge of the world—to help them process and act on the ambiguities of modern life. Stating the thesis another way, the dream of great books enthusiasts was that all Americans, all Westerners, and all those living in democratic societies would benefit from some connection to great books (p. 6).

As Lacy makes plain, the Great Books Idea was part of a larger ongoing conversation about the resiliency and relevance of the Western liberal arts tradition.  In that light, his book could not have come at a better time for me.

My school, Spring Arbor University (SAU) has long prided itself on teaching to the “liberal arts.”  Press most faculty and staff for a definition, however, and they retreat to the “well, the liberal arts mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”  I don’t think SAU is alone in tolerating the gap between what we say we are and what we actually do.  I recently joined a group of faculty who are concerned with articulating and instituting a more robust concept of the liberal arts.  This is no easy task given the present-day triumph of the “multiversity.”  In fact, there’s a lot of good reasons to avoid these curricular conversations.  One of the major forces driving the multiversity was the recognition of the oppression of the pre-WWII liberal arts university: that it had come to replicate rather than interrogate male WASP supremacy.  The fracturing of the old university culture was thus a necessary and just act.  Furthermore, several schools that pride themselves today on standing up for the liberal arts tradition are in fact invested in shoring up particular versions of Western exceptionalism.  Yet, when we consider other sources of the multiversity, such as staff and dean creep, the enrollment specialist’s quenchless thirst for new programs, and the unmooring of the “hard” sciences from the humanities, perhaps we have cause for concern.  Our institutions of higher education should be simultaneously places of accommodation and resistance.  Yes, we should prepare students for the world that is, no matter how segmented it is or how little it values our humanistic priorities.  But we should also be engaged with our students in imagining what their world should be like, and collectively developing culture-changing skills.

It is possible to avoid the curriculum question by defining instead the traits of a liberally educated person that our classes should produce.  Can we even agree on what those traits are, though?  Assuming we might identify such ends, can we simply ignore the possibility that some means might be better than others?  To speak more plainly, are our standard general education systems (including SAU’s), governed increasingly by cafeteria consumer principles, effective at producing the kinds of graduates we desire?  Or, is a more narrow core program, where most students would all take the same foundational classes, a better pathway to educational quality control?  Here again, we risk falling into the hands of a Leo Strauss, who once defined liberal education as (paraphrasing from memory) the attempt to found an aristocracy in the midst of modern mass democracy.  I’d rather picture something like C. S. Lewis’s “Tao” in The Abolition of Man or John Dewey’s “aristocracy made universal” as the goal of a truly liberal arts project.

So, how do you define the liberal arts at your school, or has your institution given up trying?  Do you find that the general education model is getting the job done, or do you and faculty long for a more structured and integrated network of classes?  Is it time for the academic left to take back the Great Books Idea from the right?  Finally, and more to Lacy’s point, could a new Great Books movement aid in the development of more vigorous democratic publics?

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Is it time for the academic left to take back the Great Books Idea from the right?

    At least we’re admitting the premise, that the left have taken over the ship. And I say, go for it–interrogate the great books, defeat them if you can or justify them.

    For of the modern Great Books themselves, why they are great is that they do indeed interrogate the classical and the medieval–the pre-modern–and if we are to reject the wisdom of the ancients, first we must understand it. Modernity is part of the Great Tradition as well, when it interrogates it and succeeds/fails at subsuming it.

    The problem today–what is a liberal arts miseducation–is when our budding eggheads acquire Sontag or Castro before Aquinas–if they ever acquire the latter atall.

    Of Leo Strauss, it should be noted that as a Platonist, his aristocracy is that of the best and brightest and most virtuous, one of merit and ability. Strauss would object to the democratization of truth and wisdom, of excellence–that all ideas are of equal worth.

    Indeed, to privilege ideas by their origin–by race, gender, nationality–is itself the crime, the establishment of an aristocracy of the ideas of a privileged class, in the modern [marxian?] sense usually some moral authority of victimhood.

    There’s a place for such anthropology in the liberal arts, of course, but it is usually the enemy of the study of excellence, which Strauss and Bloom believe is the purpose of education. When everything is special, nothing is. And while it’s fine to aspire to study “everything,” that’s unrealistic. Thus, to become an expert on Jerry Garcia but not know the first thing of Mozart is perverse. And to make the two interchangable–that it’s “judging” to put one above the other–is also the enemy of excellence, that a good book is on par with The Great Books.

    So I for one am very happy to see Mr. Lacy and Mr. Edwards claim The Great Books in any fashion, whether for right, left or center. For to claim them is to claim the concept of excellence, something essential to Strauss’s and Bloom’s projects.

    And let us not forget, it is The Great Books that in turn best interrogate modernity. It’s a fair fight and the one we most need to have.

    • TVD: There is so much ideology embedded in your long comment that I don’t know where to begin in terms of untangling it from the some the important elements of the great books idea.

      First, I don’t think that any left-leaning supporters of GBs, for instance, have any intention of defeating them. The books and the ideas in them are what they are. Left-leaning GBs supporters know that those ideas are there to be explored and understood, but only occasionally/rarely “defeated.” As for politics, the point is that the philosophies and ideologies in GBs can support the continuum of the political spectrum.

      As for the “Great Tradition,” many within the same talk past each other—i.e. many in Britannica’s set talk past one another. The point is to see the underlying ideas about which many of them are speaking. One doesn’t necessarily have to go through Aquinas to get at all of those deeper ideas. Rather, Aquinas made his own contributions, *some* of which were built on by others, and some of which have been bypassed afterward—or are relevant only to small corners of people within the “Great Tradition.”

      As for excellence, what is exactly is that? Is excellence obtained by knowing the details in the book, or the deeper ideas, or is excellence the critical skills obtained by the reader through the reading? In other words, it’s the process of reading—of challenging one’s self—that promotes present-day cultural and intellectual excellence.

      As for interrogating modernity, which part? Some GBs do that better than others. Some GBs are proof that modernity is in fact a better material state of being than in other times in which GBs were written. Who wants to be treated medically with the knowledge of Galen or Hippocrates only? – TL

      • Tim: I’m fine with modernity’s claims to have subsumed or surpassed the classics. I’m not sure they prove those claims, but that’s OK–that the great discussion takes place is enough.

        For instance, Leo Strauss rejected what he called “historicism,” that modernity is really any wiser than Socrates, that humanity “progresses”–and in fact proceeds on the conceit that it is and does. Indeed, that’s the whole DWEM rap, that dead white European males have no corner on the market of truth and wisdom.

        Which is true, but they may have simply got there first, and that makes them no less wise or truthful.

        As for my own ideology, ’twas you who brought up “the left” and I happen to agree insofar as the war on DWEMs is not a creature of the right [nor would it be for structural reasons alone]. Further, the marxian race/class/gender “theory” trip is also a creature of the left [structurally as well] and if there is opposition to Great Books education theory and DWMs, certainly it lies therein, if only because it competes for the air in the same room.

        As for excellence, what is exactly is that?

        Exactly: A fine starting point. What makes some books Great and others merely good? [Or bad!]

        As for your driveby on Galen and Hippocrites, as Searle notes, “I have not heard any complaints from physics departments that the ideas of Newton, Einstein, Rutherford, Bohr; Schrödinger, etc., were deficient because of the scientists’ origins or gender. ”

        More to the point, though, the dispute between ancient modernity begins with the latter’s making the material–the physical–the measure of all things, and its rejection of teleology and metaphysics. Damn right they talk past each other.

        As for friend Aquinas, I was acquainted with a full-fledged philosophy prof who’d never troubled with him. He’d “heard” that Thomas had been “disproven.” Oh, said I.

        There’s one “great conversation” that never took place, and there’s the pity.

        So if by Great Books you mean great books, I’m all for it. One advantage the classics hold is that they’ve survived Sturgeon’s Law, that 90% of everything is crap. What constitutes “present-day cultural and intellectual excellence” is hard to say–VERY hard to say–but it’s a question that should be asked, perhaps THE question. Afterall, just a few generations ago, Freud was a quite the font of modern wisdom, and now he’s seen as a fad that has passed. A century ago, it was Herbert Spencer. To invest too much education in contemporary intellectual fads should be reason alone to embrace Great Books and hold the great conversation with them.

        For whatever our own shortcomings, they never fail to hold up their end of the conversation.

  2. LATE ADD: Yes, it might indeed be one vs. the other.

    Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald shocked a New York City audience at the 2013 Wriston Lecture this month with some examples of what leftist academics have done to the American college curriculum.

    “Until 2011,” she noted, “students majoring in English at UCLA had been required to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton — the cornerstones of English literature.

    “Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the ‘Empire,’ UCLA junked these individual author requirements and replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.”

    As Mac Donald put it, “In other words, the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent as to whether an English major had ever read a word of Milton, Chaucer or Shakespeare, but was determined to expose students, according to the course catalogue, to ‘alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race and class.'”

    Read More At Investor’s Business Daily: http://news.investors.com/ibd-editorials/112713-680988-timeless-authors-becoming-casualties-to-college-ideology.htm#ixzz2m6DD4bmN
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