(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?