Canonical Diversity and Liberal Education

Hayden W. Ausland
Foreign Languages and Literatures (Classics)
University of Montana-Missoula

This study has its origins in some discussions of the early nineties when I was teaching in the introductory program in Humanities (now Liberal Studies) at The University of Montana. Now, at a time when fiscal constraints and administrative priorities seem to be threatening the very existence of this program, it seems worthwhile to consider anew the question, In what form would such an effort have legitimate claim to continued--or possibly even expanded--support? More recently, my thanks are due to [Montana Professor board member] Victoria Cech for some very helpful criticisms.--HWA

It is commonly assumed, but will also be stated outright, that the quarrel between those who propose to diversify general education curricula along the lines of racial, ethnic, and sexual identity and their opponents is little else than an application of the ongoing national political contest between the left and the right, between liberalism and conservatism. This assumption seems to be at most half-right. No doubt many who style themselves the defenders of traditional curricula understand themselves to be holding the line in some way against the assaults of the more vocal Progressives, who, in turn, nurse a complementary view of their relationship to the former. As far as the way this debate is being conducted in practice, then, the assumption mentioned seems pretty well justified. What is less certain is whether this characterization exhausts or even comes close to exhausting the theoretical problems underlying this debate. It can be useful to focus upon this aspect of the quarrel, and on the merits of the several positions put forward on the political plane, only insofar as these seem likely to illuminate problems occurring on the theoretical plane. This may appear disrespectful of the urgency many will wish to assign the ongoing debate and its ultimate decision. But the opposite would be true; any truly satisfactory solution to this difference must depend on a much closer consideration of the basic premises of debate than we are inclined to accord them when we yield to this sense of urgency. There is one other caveat. The problems mentioned are only one or two among many pervading an extensive and complicated network of difficulties. These in turn lead us into areas largely unfamiliar--areas in which few could claim to be specialists. Nevertheless, the basic question needing consideration has to do with the nature of liberal, which is to say unspecialized, education, a matter in relation to which we are in a certain sense all qualified.

In order to approach the underlying problems, we must first penetrate the surface of the popular debate. We are forced to begin with the terms of that debate, with the superficial slogans and buzzwords characterizing it, and perhaps even especially with these. The first part of the title of this paper is made up of two such terms. A "diverse canon" seems at first sight an oxymoron, and so it will be in direct proportion as the notions of diversity and canonicity are pushed to what might be called their ideological extremes. It is necessary to begin with some critical observations concerning these two extremes, after which we can try to get behind their apparent opposition, to the common core, so to speak, of what is styled liberal education.

The Great Books and Liberal Education

To construe the title of this paper fully ideally requires a knowledge of the Latinate expressions of which it is composed, their history since antiquity, and even the way in which at least two of them came into being, viz. as part of an attempt to grasp and articulate Greek ideas already developed and even traditional in Roman times. Much of the problem with arguing about something like canonical diversity or liberal education lies in coming to know what we are arguing about. In order to see this clearly we often have to go back to origins so as to have a measure or rule against which to judge the differences in the way we see things. A canon (Greek kanon) is in its most concrete sense just this: a rule or measure, by which is meant quite concretely a carpenter's rule or measure--something like our yardstick. With a canon, the carpenter has a way of measuring lengths and also of checking for straightness. So the idea of a canon originally implies the use of a standard that is fixed in some way, a standard against which we can form judgments about the magnitude or correctness of things we are doing or working on. While discussing equability in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle mentions an ingenious flexible canon made out of lead rather than wood, and used by Lesbian carpenters for the purpose of measuring irregular surfaces./1/ Of course such a canon would be useless for determining whether or not something was straight or crooked. The Greeks also used the image of a canon metaphorically, principally in reference to standards used similarly in other arts such as music and architecture. The classical understanding of such canons was basically mathematical and technical, i.e., canons were regarded as something learnable which could, if learned, enable one to produce a work of art of some kind or other. Thus Polykleitos' canon was a geometrical principle by which that sculptor was able to represent the entire human figure faithfully to nature, i.e., technical knowledge enabling the artist to begin with unshapen materials and end with something resembling a complete human being. In Hellenistic times, the Epicureans used the term "canonics" to refer generally to the study of principles by which men can know things to be true--what is now called "epistemology." But the use we make of the term we are considering today hearkens back to such ideas only distantly, and recalls much more distinctly the medieval usage of the term in reference to law of doctrine or discipline as established by ecclesiastical authority, or to scriptural literature or particular persons accounted of divine inspiration. The tone of much of the controversy over what is termed the educational canon can be traced to this circumstance.

For most practical purposes one need no longer tremble before the authority of Rome in this regard. The literary canon that lays claim to authority nowadays is what is called the canon of "great books," and virtually no one openly defends this canon on the grounds of church doctrine or a thesis of divine inspiration./2/ One may wish to be on the lookout for analogies, on the other hand. The canonical great books are defended principally on the ground of what is called the "tradition." This notion itself requires some explanation. The contention of proponents of the "great books" is not anything so simple-minded as that we must read certain books because we always have; it is rather that the great books represent a kind of paternity toward which we have certain filial obligations. More precisely, there are certain ideas, we are told, embodied in certain literary records that are part of every American's rightful inheritance--some people will say every Western citizen's inheritance or even every human being's inheritance--and that it is the duty of educators to preserve this inheritance and to pass it on intact, i.e., to act as trustees to their young charges pending such time as these reach the maturity required for them to manage it responsibly for themselves. About two decades ago considerable public feeling arose that we are on the point of losing our inheritance, and that educators must act decisively in order to save it. In the early 'eighties, E.D. Hirsh introduced the notion of "cultural literacy", the National Commission on Excellence in Education announced "a nation at risk", and William Bennett saw the task as to "reclaim a legacy."/3/ The operative image here is not one of ecclesiastical authority, but of inheritance and perhaps also the choice between filial piety and prodigality. This is a powerful image--one rooted in natural relations that we are accordingly apt to accept without question, and one which is consequently susceptible to certain kinds of abuse.

Rather than try to identify any of these, we may prefer to ask a question, "In what sense are the great books traditional?" By "the great books" is not here meant certain books classed as great books but the very idea of such a class. Put another way, the question reads, "Who has left us the institution called 'the great books', and whence has it ultimately been passed down to us?" The reason we ask this question should be clear. In matters of inheritance it is of the utmost importance to be sure that any property one receives is rightfully one's own--that it was not stolen by one's ancestors, for instance. Such an inquiry can sometimes lead one pretty far back in history./4/ This instance is not quite so, fortunately, since the institution styled the great books is traceable only to the time of the first world war in the U.S., and not so very earlier than that in the old world.

Insofar as the great books are understood as constituting the core curriculum for a liberal education, the educational institution most justifiably associated with them at present is St. John's College in Annapolis, MD (since the early 1960s also in Santa Fe, NM). St. John's College is the third oldest college in the US, going back to 1696 when it was chartered as King William's School. Its post-independence graduates include figures such as Francis Scott Key. But its trademark great books curriculum dates only from the "new program" inaugurated in 1937. This program represented a radical departure from what had by that time become customary, and thereby also a deliberate return to older principles in a form adapted to modern conditions:

In the autumn of 1937 St. John's college in Annapolis, Maryland, broke with contemporary educational practice in the United States and instituted a New Program in the liberal arts. Its aim was a modern equivalent of the traditional curriculum of the trivium and quadrivium, which had once so effectively developed the mental powers of a man. The content of this new curriculum was the thought of the Western World as embodied in a representative list of great books. Through continuing discussion in seminars, supplemented by four years of non-elective work in language, mathematics and the laboratory sciences, St John's College sought to develop in its students the intellectual skills that are in truth the liberal arts./5/

How did this change come about? St. John's was about to go belly-up--financially and otherwise--when two educational entrepreneurs named Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr arranged to re-design the curriculum from bottom up. These two men were seeking such an opportunity on account of the recent breakdown of the short-lived Committee on Liberal Arts at the University of Chicago, in which they had numbered among the hopeful participants. This committee was the only properly funded attempt of the various proponents of the great books approach--Hutchins, McKeon, Adler, and the rest--to pool their talents in a single location. Differences of approach as well as personality seem to have occasioned a swift explosion, and several parties involved dispersed to work independently at different institutions. But only Barr and Buchanan had the opportunity to re-draw an entire curriculum./6/ The curriculum of St. John's College remains in its essentials the same as it was when instituted in 1937: a basically non-elective program centering around seminar discussions of the books defined by the college list, beginning with Homer and ending with an author of the early 20th. century. Several other "Great Book" college programs have in the interim adopted St. John's College more or less faithfully as their model.

Certain uses of the great books had been made at other institutions of higher learning well before the abortive gathering in Chicago. Scott Buchanan, for instance, first encountered them at Columbia University. After graduating and spending some time in Europe, he, along with Stringfellow Barr and several others, developed their broader educational potential more or less in concert in New York City. Columbia figured in this picture to a certain extent, but the real proving ground for the great books as the means to a liberal education was not a university at all, it was The People's Institute, where Buchanan served as assistant director from 1925 to 1929. The People's Institute had during the mid-1890s been set up as a kind of community outreach program by a Columbia professor of Comparative Literature named Charles Sprague Smith who wanted his discipline made concrete in the life of the city of New York. To quote Buchanan,

In simple terms, he [Sc. Smith] wanted the immigrants of the lower east side to meet the intellectuals of the upper west side, to make the "melting pot" boil, to make one culture out of many under the aegis of an unused article in the Charter of Cooper Union. Peter Cooper's intention was that the training in the mechanical arts at Cooper Union should be in part balanced by lectures in the Great Hall on Social and political ethics.

This was the soil in which Buchanan and his New York colleagues sowed the great books--a fact recalled by the existence of a central "Great Hall" on both St. John's College campuses. The Carnegie Corporation underwrote the experiment as a way of exploring the possibilities of the great books for a new attempt at adult education for the nation as a whole. Buchanan had been trying to develop his teaching on the basis of his own theory of poetry and mathematics, and when Mortimer Adler and Richard McKeon (whom he knew from Columbia) joined him in leading discussions at the People's Institute, McKeon, who had just returned from France, where he had done some studies with Etienne Gilson, the noted medievalist, insisted that Buchanan had stumbled into a rediscovery of the seven liberal arts. There followed speculation about setting up a curriculum based on a modern version of these for a "People's University" composed of the New School for Social Research, the Labor Temple, and the People's Institute. This never occurred, as the financial crash of 1929 brought any hope of funding to an end. Nevertheless, these men, like their colleagues Mark Van Doren and Robert Hutchins, pursued their plans as best they could within the exigencies of their several institutional situations. Such entrepreneurship, and not any authoritative institutional tradition, is the route by which the great books became identified with the liberal arts and liberal education. There was not very much aristocratic or elitist about it./7/

But whence did the grouping of certain books denominated "great" come? What were they before they coalesced with a certain understanding of the traditional liberal arts? The answer to this question can be gotten by tracing the fortunes of several of the notorious lists that purport to define which books are great. When John Erskine, Mark Van Doren, and Raymond Weaver were teaching in the honors course at Columbia (during the early 'twenties, while Buchanan and Adler were still students) they acquired such a list from the Englishman Sir John Lubbock. Such lists were already in use among the British; one, for instance, had a few years earlier been drawn up for the military as a basis for quick, low-cost publication of basic texts needed for diversion by English troops after the armistice. It appears that the great books may have first come to the attention of the Columbia people over there; if so, then their use in American education literally began in the trenches. Lubbock himself had edited such a list rather earlier for use in the Workers' and Mechanics' Institutes of England during the 1880s./8/ It was also in England and in 1886 that Frederick Harrison published under the title "The Positivist Library of August Comte" an amended version of the list of books that Comte included as an appendix in volume IV of his System of Positive Polity. Comte had had it in mind to make modern science into a religion--complete with priests, calendars, temples, worship, and all the rest. He drew up a list of books of essential reading for the young positivist, a list that would comprehend all the basic thought of the past with an efficiency calculated to free the positivist to look to the future. Comte's list (which begins with Homer and ends with his own works) contains 150 entries, but it was his plan eventually to reduce it by a third. This seems to be the origin of the modern idea of a packaged set of 100 great books./9/

The motive underlying such an idea is rather older, however. Comte owed his idea, like so many, ultimately to the enlightenment. Such a definitive listing of texts is his version of the plan by which the French encyclopediasts sought to encapsulate all past knowledge within a single book so that one need no longer take the trouble of consulting all the works of the past in which such knowledge was dispersed./10/ The general idea was to free up energies for the present and the future, where real knowledge was to be found. Comte varied the procedure by gathering representative works of the past rather than troubling to isolate their worthwhile contents. Now, while the intention of Comte and the earlier French encyclopediasts was thoroughly secular, their basic framework was borrowed from the Christian Church Fathers. The model for the modern encyclopedia, understood as the examination of the thought of the past designed to assist us in finally laying that thought to rest, was the "preparation for the good news," the systematic critique of the works of pagan antiquity designed to expose them as either false or else, where true, mere borrowings from, or anticipations of, the truth of the gospel. It is important to realize that the intent of this kind of literary project is not to engage the works of the past in order to come to an understanding of them, and that it is rather to dispose of them either as mistaken or as derivative. The relation that a Church Father like Eusebius of Caesarea has to Plato is like the relation August Comte has to Eusebius himself; and both relations are like the relation of many great books courses to the authors whose books are read in them./11/ Consider for a moment the almost universal tendency to read the great books of the past from the standpoint of what we think that "we now know"; to view what an ancient author has to say in terms of the thought of our own day; or to acknowledge his "contribution." Contribution to what? This attitude would seem to be inimical to understanding an ancient author seriously./12/ The great books are apparently an institution rooted in a modern encyclopeadist tradition set in this attitude. On the other hand, where they diverge from other institutions of this tradition is in the way their use still allows us to see and read for ourselves the works of the authors themselves, as opposed to a multivolume secondary digest like those until recently sold door to door. This is not a small divergence. It might make all the difference in the world.

One consequence of it can be seen in the differences within the Great Books community itself concerning the way in which they are to be read and discussed. Mortimer Adler in the late 'eighties exposed one of these nicely in a new prologue to a collection of his earlier essays on educational reform. In the prologue, entitled "Great Books, Democracy, and Truth," Adler complains about Allan Bloom's failure, in his then still recent general indictment of American education, to acknowledge the work of John Erskine et al. in the old days. Adler tries to make it clear that the great books are not supposed to be a tool of elitist oligarchs like Bloom, and that their use is well in keeping with democracy as it is understood in America today. Under the rubric "Truth," Adler discusses how the great books are to be read. He claims that the task of the reader is to separate the truth from what is false in his readings. That there must be both he thinks evident from all the contradictions both between and within various great books. Readings and discussions of the books should be pursued with an eye out for the basic truths and the basic errors in them; and therein lies a liberal and humanistic education. In order to highlight exactly what he means, Adler contrasts his own view with the method of Bloom's teacher, Leo Strauss:

The difference between Strauss's method of reading and teaching the great books and the method that Hutchins and I had adopted [at Chicago]...lies in the distinction between a doctrinal and a dialectical approach. The doctrinal method is an attempt to read as much truth as possible (and no errors) into the work of a particular author, usually devising a special interpretation, or by discovering the special secret of an author's intentions. This method may have some merit in the graduate school where students aim to acquire narrowly specialized scholarship about a particular author. But it is the opposite of the right method to be used in conducting great books seminars in schools and colleges where the aim is learning to think and the pursuit of truth.

...Strauss read [Plato and Aristotle] as if they were devoid of any serious errors, in spite of the fact that on many points they appeared to contradict one another.... Also...for Strauss the radical changes in our social and political institutions that have occurred since antiquity had no bearing on the likelihood that Aristotle made grave errors about natural slavery and about the natural inferiority of women. In his view, these were not errors.... The word "disciple" stresses the difference between the doctrinal and the dialectical teaching of the great books. Leo Strauss was preeminently the kind of doctrinal teacher who made disciples out of his students, disciples who followed in his footsteps and repeated again and again what they learned from him. The doctrinal teaching of disciples enables them to learn what the master thinks. The dialectical teaching of students enables them to think for themselves. I would go further and say that the doctrinal method indoctrinates, and only the dialectical method teaches. Those of us who teach the great books dialectically exert an influence on our students, but only so far as a good use of their minds is concerned. We never make disciples of them. Strauss's use of the doctrinal method resulted in students learning what the master thought about the work under consideration. I would go so far as to say that the doctrinal method is most appropriate in reading a sacred book. It is like the orthodox Hassidic approach to reading the Talmud. But it is totally inappropriate in liberal education at the college level or in our public schools./13/

Since Leo Strauss's students can, in Adler's view, speak for Strauss, it is instructive to read one of these, Thomas Pangle, on the great books and their manner of treatment:

When my students walk into the first lecture in an introductory course, or when they sit down to the first meeting, of a graduate or undergraduate seminar, I expect the brightest and most sophisticated to react to the syllabus with a set of doubts and questions. And to insure that all the students share those doubts and questions, I insist on making them the theme not only of the opening class, but, in some sense, of every class. How can one devote a course meant to be the introduction to political theory exclusively or mainly to the study of very old books? How can one justify a syllabus for a beginning or advanced course in political theory on which hardly any required reading less than a century old appears, and on which most texts are written by authors who lived in remote, long-dead political cultures? Does not the study of politics mean, naturally and necessarily, the examination of the urgent and overwhelming issues of our day? My response, though necessarily provisional, is simple, for "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." The issues with which we are going to deal, by way of the great books, are more important and fundamental than the burning questions of the day, which will not be forgotten, but rather will be seen in the light of deeper, enduring concerns which these burning issues presuppose, but for that reason tend to cover over and bury. Indeed, one of the major reasons for studying the great books is to discover the necessarily superficial, transient, and incomplete character of the burning issues of the day.

The conception of great books education that I am here propounding does not have as its focus the cultivation of some sort of aesthetic appreciation for the books as cultural icons. The classes I have in mind on the great books do not resemble trips to a museum. The point is not to learn about the books; the point is to learn from them. [Here Pangle does reproduce Strauss closely.] But neither am I speaking of a treatment of the great books as comprising a sacred canon that presents some kind of unified doctrinal teaching; my envisioned courses do not resemble religious observances or indoctrination. What unifies the great tradition spanning from Socrates to Nietzsche is not a set of doctrines but a series of great debates around a small core of eternal questions; agreement centers on the questions and their permanently paramount significance for man as man, everywhere and for all time. What qualifies a book as "great" is whether and to what extent it joins in this debate: that is, to what degree it transcends its time and place, stretching from its roots in a particular culture or historical situation to touch the awareness and discussion of the universal dimensions of the sorts of issues and debates previously mentioned./14/

Both Pangle and Adler clearly think that the great books are the main means to a liberal education. Both apparently think of their treatments as dialectical. The difference seems to be in what they think there is to be gotten out of the great books. Adler looks for truth and falsity in them; Pangle sees debates and issues. Adler is very much in the encyclopaedist tradition. He arranged with the Encyclopedia Britannica to have the great books published in 1952 as a set. As an appendix to this collection he and some colleagues compiled the Syntopicon (sic), a synoptic index by which the reader can find his way to the treatments of 102 topical "great ideas" supposedly traceable in the various authors represented. Thus one can look up a theme like "free will," and be directed not only to Augustine, but also to Plato or even Homer. The uses to which the English put the great books in the wake of the industrial revolution--viz. as a quick-fix liberal education for persons disadvantaged by the illiberality of their vocations or temporary service in the military--might be seen as living on in Adler's programs for Chicago civic leaders as well as in his "executive seminars" in Aspen./15/

St. John's College was between 1949 and 1958 under the Deanship of Jacob Klein, who had come to the faculty in 1939. His friend and associate Leo Strauss spent his own last years there, passing away in 1973 (Klein died in 1978). While it has not gone without its own conflicts over the proper treatment of the readings, St. John's has, on the whole, successfully resisted institutionalizing the great books in Adler's sense./16/ There is a saying there that is regularly used during freshman orientation, "If you have the answer," they promise their new students, "we have the questions." Where there has been internal disagreement has most significantly concerned the method and significance of supplemental studies in such things as laboratory science. Buchanan was a strong proponent of modem science as integral to the liberal arts as he would reconstitute these for modern conditions, which he regarded in increasingly revolutionary terms./17/ Klein was originally welcomed to St. John's on account of his work in the history of mathematics, but as Dean became the moving force behind focusing the readings so heavily upon humanistic authors like Plato. Tension during the 'fifties between his and Buchanan's more scientifically progressive approach dating from the 'thirties resulted in, among other things, the establishment of a second campus in Santa Fe, NM, in 1964 and a new Statement of Educational Policy and Program in 1967. The fundamental tension has continued in a way leaving it tolerably clear that the underlying issue derives from the "Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns" of the late 17th century./18/ To this quarrel can be traced, among other things, the notion that, if the ancients have produced some enduringly pleasing art and literature, modern thought is at any rate clearly superior to ancient in respect of disciplines dependent upon mathematical science./19/ The roots of our present question in the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns constitute material deserving of a separate future study. But the above considerations are perhaps sufficient to show that the "canon" that is either championed or disparaged in today's academic debates is not particularly conservative.

Diversifying the Curriculum

It will be useful to make a new beginning. The continuing academic debate over the merits of diversifying collegiate liberal education and its required reading may be usefully compared with the broader but related debate over the rationale for, and merits of, what is called affirmative action. This resemblance extends to certain ambiguities bedeviling both issues and clouding the premises of either debate. Originally, affirmative action was regularly justified as compensating parties who had suffered discriminatory deprivation (one form of injustice) in the past by awarding inversely proportionate future advantages. Critics of this rationale have pointed to what they see as the fallacious assumption that injustice arising out of recognizing group characteristics but practiced on concrete individuals possessing those characteristics ought by right to be redressed by compensating other individuals characterized by membership in the group in question. The critics just mentioned make the good point that it is at bottom concrete human beings who commit and suffer injustice, and indeed that the injustice of discrimination has its roots in a regrettable human tendency to lose sight of precisely this fact. They go so far as to allege that affirmative action institutionalizes injustice of the very kind it professes to correct./20/

The effectiveness of this allegation may, along with other factors, account for a shift in focus on the part of later arguments on behalf of the policy. For some time now it has been defended less often for its compensatory possibilities than postulated as a means to needed social progress, i.e., as desirable in order to promote what is called "diversity". By making this move, proponents have done more than simply play down the question of justification; they have partially succeeded in redefining the terms of this question itself in a way tending to undercut the criticism just sketched. Moreover, this newer argumentation based upon a principle of social utility has come to supplant the older defense offered on the grounds of compensatory justice even within courts of justice./21/ Assuming the best of intentions on everyone's part, one sees that this development could still mean any of several things. Viewed in one way, it could appear to signal the advent of a modified formulation of justice as it touches on the relationship between individual men and their communities. Viewed in another, it might instead be taken to represent an increase in confusion of the claims of justice with certain reformers' social agenda. The issue certainly has evidently developed into one of those highly polarized political issues characteristic of the times. It is perhaps in consequence of this that the more prudent public figures have lately shied away from trying to articulate seriously any kind of ground for compromise, for fear of being branded collaborators by either side to the conflict. This has tended to leave the field to extremists who busy themselves fortifying their respective positions. For others, such a standoff may by now be in the course of resolving itself happily through a certain exhaustion, but in the meanwhile the effect it has on public discourse and the public spirit has arguably been destructive. Many become disgruntled with the unrealistic terms in which they see the issues stated. Calls for more dialogue seem hollow to all concerned, and the overly-stylized characterizations of the more militant interests involved leave most people colder and colder, so that they can eventually withdraw their sympathies from the problem even at its real human level./22/ A consequent inertia then serves as something on which the extremists can capitalize even further, and there develops a vicious circle.

The issue facing the academy about diversifying the curriculum in general, and required humanities reading-lists in particular, can be viewed in analogous terms. Thus, while the social urgency of providing today's students with culturally diverse perspectives is a dominant theme, we also hear arguments to the effect that the traditional texts have had exclusive rights for long enough and it is time to grant other voices the hearing that is their due. This seems to be meant more than metaphorically. Note the tacit assumption: even dead authors can and do have rights to be heard and liabilities for infringement, and this is so quite aside from the question what we may decide once we hear them out. But again, by assimilation to our model case, the demand for access to the microphone is made on behalf of authors qua members of groups pre-supposed as having interests opposed to the interests of other authors regarded as members of different groups. An author hoping to have her sales boosted by a progressive general-education requirement had better be prepared both to be, as well as to sound like, a member of an aggrieved minority.--Or so runs the complaint of the critics, who propose the concept of "tradition" as the antidote for such radical activism./23/

As mentioned earlier, this is a powerful image that we are apt to accept without question, and one which is consequently susceptible to abuse. One such abuse is the practice of expropriating classical writings for the purpose of conferring canonical authority on an unduly partisan understanding of the Western European or the U.S. political tradition. Another is the rejoinder on the part of the opposition that asks, If the reason why we read the great books is to learn about our heritage, then why are we not reading books illustrative of, say, the Asian or African components in this heritage? Both rest on misapprehensions of the nature of a humanistic tradition: the first mistakes a part for the whole, the second mistakes the whole for its parts. But what is more to the point, both mistake surveying a field of literature defined in sociological terms for a truly liberal engagement with the thoughts that the greatest minds have left behind for us in the form of books. The mistake is in a sense today's version of the confusion of modern experimental method with the traditional liberal arts mentioned in the first part of this study. The point is important, because much of the confusion that right now besets curricular discussions in the academy can be traced to an inappropriate influence of social science over the study of the humanities./24/ This fundamental error conduces to what is perhaps the most noticeable abuse made of great books in today's academy.

The very notions of the humanities and the liberal arts are based on certain working assumptions, including a reliance upon the permanence of human nature as well as the acknowledgment of the crucial difference between men who are, and men who are not, properly speaking, free./25/ All educational enterprises aiming to impart humanity and liberal education therefore must share several corresponding features. For over a decade, however, many humanities programs have shown clear signs of having become such programs only in name. Under such circumstances, it is all-important to recognize certain ramifications of the new approach to teaching humanities. This approach no longer takes its bearings from the Renaissance (indeed ancient) estimation of the classics as fixed standards of educated culture. It occupies a hostile stance more or less openly subversive of this institution, and uses as its main conceptual tool one variant or another of the 19th-century Marxian reduction of history into a series of struggles between oppressors and oppressed. The new approach has stacked the deck in a palpably materialistic and nihilistic way. It therefore begs all the big questions. Most pertinent here, however, is to note that it in effect does away with the understanding of human nature and liberty fundamental to the basic ideas of humanities and of liberal education.

This general innovation has some particular consequences for teachers who have a more basic interest in teaching the humanities. Obvious among these is the widespread tendency to drop or play down as required readings what are called great books in favor of less traditionally acknowledged but somehow importantly representative "other voices." One practical result is that a Classicist, for instance, working in a humanities program will find himself teaching materials increasingly distant from the areas of his expertise. Of course, within real limits, this is a necessary (perhaps even desirable,) compromise in an inter-disciplinary course. This is why the superficial view that sees no more to the issue than the makeup of reading lists is so dangerously mistaken. In itself this feature is only slightly more important than the tip of an iceberg. More obnoxious is the rationale on which the alternative books are usually selected (insofar as this may not be just a matter of the staff's coincidentally intersecting research interests). These are expected not only to be representative of the experiences of groups of people physically distinct from those who authored the classics, but to reveal these experiences under some such pseudo-technical aspect as "diverse voices of the traditionally excluded 'other.'"/26/ The "tradition" is then itself held guilty of all corresponding oppression. The practical model for this and the previously mentioned tendencies derives ultimately from 'sixties style social engineering (traditional reading lists are seen to be like all-white neighborhoods in need of forced integration), but the newer jargon of discourse, privilege, marginalization, subversion, etc. has given the movement a more contemporary "critical" edge; if development in the area of reading lists most of the time looks like just one more corrupt form of domestic affirmative action, the determining assumption is that the purpose of a humanities curriculum is "historical" in the revolutionary sense of the term. The new style might therefore well be denominated a kind of "liberation pedagogy."

Such a syllabus and atmosphere alone are by now notoriously sufficient to impede severely students' ability to appreciate classical works, whether or not these are dropped from a reading list. But the new approaches do not leave it at this. Certain classics are as a rule purposely retained and assigned, but no longer with a view to bringing students to appreciate them as such. Instead, we discover that the innovative thing to do is to "teach against the text," or (more bluntly stated) to encourage students to develop hatred for classical works as really symbolizing or promoting group oppression ("patriarchy," "hegemony," "colonialism," etc.) in stark contrast with the individual liberal education with which they have been traditionally associated. An ambitious goal--of course, in practice, the method comes down to amateurishly tearing select features of these works from their literary and historical contexts and comparing them with heated prejudices implicated in current political issues--normally with no attempt at careful reading or critical sifting for anachronism. This instruction will then perhaps be backed up with a general lecture series in which (to select some random instances) the maltreatment of slaves somehow becomes thematic in Plato's Euthyphro, the odd silence of feminine voices "problematic" in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, and St. Paul's disparagement of homosexuality the crux for a charitable understanding of the New Testament. The Bible, honoris causa, is, as a rule, singled out for special treatment with special methods. And the general method, if essentially crude, remains subtle enough to be effective with many students, who now usually already suffer under the influence of some watered-down version of the same outlook as inculcated at the high school level or earlier. As always, of course, the very strongest students are quite ready to challenge it critically. But some would say that the others deserve a better chance as well.

A writer of a more adversarial bent might have said that such humanities programs are well on the way to becoming an exclusively "politically correct" institution. But it is unnecessary to point out the unprofessional nature of the political biases underlying such an approach (or the unethical character of the approach itself) in order to show that it is inherently at odds with at least the discipline of the Humanities as it is properly understood. Whether humanistic educators be correct or mistaken, their professed vocation includes forming students' character though the appreciation of classical works as such (i.e., as works of wise men). All the more or less "scholarly" overlays have failed to bury the fundamentally pedagogical nature of this discipline. That general appreciation may have fallen on hard times is no new experience for the guild, nor is it likely to be the last time that the more enduring things will have had to spend some time in relative obscurity. The present crisis is doubtless at least as survivable as was the ignorance of ninth century, A.D. The question for now is, How can a teacher committed to the classics best pursue his goal under such circumstances? How, for instance, can a classicist?

The discipline of Classics is inherently unspecialized. Classicists are often experienced in interdisciplinary programs, and usually welcome the chance to teach in the humanities. They should be willing to try to teach worthily worthy books of any period, locale, and author. But they can hardly, as classicists, honestly participate in subversion of the kind sketched above./27/ They have (through an acquaintance with the broader tradition--something quite inclusive in a truly humanistic sense) more expertise than they might like in what such transformations of curricula intend. Thus they will naturally recognize that people who do think that all human relationships come down to "power" may tend to be found practicing their theory faithfully. But they know from their primary sources that human relationships come in different kinds, of which this is only the basest; that human relationships also can be founded on agreement or even on friendship and love, which are better (and thus more powerful) than "power" is. This is something we have practically forgotten thanks to materialism. But we can remember it, among other things, when we read the Classics respectfully and seriously instead of distorting them for pseudo-critical purposes. Promoting and preserving this respect toward the classics is the first task of a classicist.

Something analogous holds for any true teacher of the humanities. And the corresponding effort is not likely to be in vain. Numerous students would welcome a class in which they hear about something other than the evils of oppression. Nor is it as if courses in classical writers that still fail to worship the trinity of race, class, and sex/28/ are not sought after.

How to Read a Great Book

We may begin to end by drawing inspiration from Xenophon, a "different voice" we hear about Socrates. Xenophon on one occasion quotes Socrates as follows:

Just as others are pleased by a good horse or dog or bird, I myself am pleased to an even higher degree by friends.... And the treasures of the wise men of old, which they have left written in books, these I open and go through together with my friends; and if we see anything good, we remark it, and think it a great gain if we benefit each other in this way./29/

If we abstract from the problem what Socrates did with those elements of the books of the wise men of old that he did not see as being good, we can see something interesting in the way he approaches such books. He does not represent himself as reading them by himself and straightforwardly assimilating their contents. On the contrary, he describes an enterprise pursued among friends via a selective or critical method of some kind, aimed at cementing or enhancing the community among the friends engaged in the pursuit.

The principle enemies of liberal education today are not conservatives who insist that the canonical great books be regarded as the tools indispensable for passing on the appreciation for greatness that forms the backbone of our educational tradition. Nor is it those who would liberalize the very notion of a canon with a view to re-tooling for the sake of a less parochial generation capable of appreciating greatness in forms peculiar to other traditions. The principle enemy of liberal education today is to be found in an area regarding which these adversaries are in fundamental agreement. This area may best be approached by examining the notion of instrumentality governing both parties' views of the great books. This notion operates destructively on at least two levels. The first has to do with the relationship between text and reader; the other has to do with that between author and text. Put crudely, the first involves the fallacious assumption that the books we ask students to read will more or less straightforwardly determine their thinking. "The reason why we must diversify reading lists," we are told, "is that the students must be allowed to consider other sides of various questions, too" (Cultural Diversity). Or, if you prefer, "The reason why we must keep to the traditional lists is that students must be equipped with certain essential information about their tradition" (Cultural Literacy). Either position assumes a lack of critical ability on the part of the student, which is to say that both positions represented view education as a procedure in which definite facts or opinions are deposited in the mind of the student, and not as an experience causing the student to redirect his attention in a certain way. Both camps would likely protest this characterization, and both could plausibly claim that it is precisely their intention to open the student to possibilities that their opponents want to leave closed to him. But one might argue in response that they are denying critical ability to the student in precisely that measure that they seek to institutionalize it through the organization of his required readings. The effect of such a conception of education is to turn Socrates' image inside out: instead of several friends gathering around one book to talk about it, we now see a plurality of quarrelsome volumes crowding around a lone student and all trying to address him at once, some quietly and others with megaphones. And where is the teacher in this picture? No doubt surveying the action from somewhere outside of it. Which brings us to the second manifestation of the false view of books' instrumentality just mentioned. As the first had to do with the relation between text and reader, so this one has to do with that between author and text. The assumption that this involves is rather more sophisticated than the first. According to this assumption, what is important about a text is not necessarily what its author intended to say with it. Indeed, for purposes of a liberal education even as this is "conservatively" understood, what is most important about a text is as a rule something that must have been rather far from most authors' minds when they wrote the books that now find themselves on our reading lists. To take the prime example of the ancient Greeks, how many of the relatively few whose writings we still have are we to suppose consciously undertook to write "works essential to an appreciation of western civilization"?/30/ Or, if you prefer, how many ancient Greek authors may we suppose intended to put forward representative Greek, or paternalistic, or imperialistic viewpoints suitable for comparative juxtaposition with competitive viewpoints? Ancient Greek authors were by no means afraid of controversy. Nor did several shy from aspiring to a certain universality. But these are different things from writing ideologically or constituting a tradition.

There is a complex of reasons why we find it so natural to assign value to canonical texts in accordance with their classification as cultural documents rather than their appreciation as communications of their authors' ideas. But one need not explore or even name these reasons in order to point out that the practice they have given rise to is inimical to the notion of a liberal education. Everytime we think of Iliad, for instance, as a Greek cultural relic rather than as a wonderful work of literature, we refuse the communication it has to offer us if we can only refer it to our own experiences. Every time we think of Herodotus, not as a gifted man from whom we have something to learn, but instead as a representative of an abstraction we call western civilization, we deny him the simple courtesy that we regularly accord far lesser persons. Imagine for a moment what it would be like if our own teacher-student relations observed the same pattern. During enrollment a student would be looking into my personal history in order to be able to evaluate what I was going to say. "Ausland comes out of Berkeley, I see, his bias must be radically left wing." Everything I said for the rest of the term (whether the student actually heard it or not) would go into a notebook section marked "Bay Area Culture." I could respond in kind, I suppose: "I see that Jones here comes from Indiana; he's probably a bit dull." Then every time I see "Jones" written at the top of a paper, I write a C on it. Outrageous? Yes indeed, but it is precisely how both Jones and I have been conditioned to treat our literary materials, i.e., as data for pseudo-scientific classification or treatment--anything rather than communication challenging us to make an honest effort to understand them. What is really illiberal about our education, then, is the relentless insistence that we trivialize both the author's and the reader's claims to individual personality as we transform the one into a museum piece and the other into a vulgar, rather than Odyssean, tourist.

The properly liberal relationship between a reader and a great work of writing, on the other hand, resembles the best kind of teacher-student relationship. It is governed by a mutual sense of respect, and animated by a certain unresolvable tension. The two assumptions criticized above may be seen as a systematic attempt to evade the responsibilities implicit in such a relationship. Once we acknowledge this--and this is not an easy task--the way lies open for us to see the great books in a different light. We can begin to appreciate the amazing diversity exhibited by works supposedly exemplary for their bias, and the firm yet impartial grasp of the universal human things discernible within that diversity. But unless we can adopt a properly liberal relation to our readings, this and much else will remain a closed book to us, no matter what we read./31/

We can illustrate these last few claims. Herodotus, perhaps more than any other ancient author, can claim to have considered diverse points of view, to have listened to diverse voices. But what attitude did he adopt toward these? We might be tempted to assume a priori that, as a Greek, he had an anti-barbarian bias, and we could easily subject his account of the war between Greece and Persia to a facile reading that seemed to bear out such an assumption. But what, then, is the point of the several books worth of "cultural" materials that make up the bulk of his Histories? (This is in a way the "Herodotean Question.") Why does Herodotus bother to compare so minutely, for instance, Greek customs with the strangely opposite customs of the Egyptians and other ethnic groups? He never answers this question in so many words. But he does tell us a story about the Persian King Darius comparing customs. It seems Darius on one occasion confronted some Greeks with some Indians and proceeded to amuse himself at the expense of both. He first asked the Greeks what he would have to pay them to get them to eat the bodies of their ancestors; they responded that no amount would be high enough to tempt them to commit such an impiety. Then he asked the Indians what they would take to agree to have their ancestors' bodies cremated; these replied that they found abominable the very suggestion that they do anything other than eat them./32/ There are at least three ways of taking this tale. The first is the least satisfactory, since the neat symmetry of the problem argues against Herodotus having wished to praise Greek customs at the expense of Indian ones or vice-versa. If, then, he is not arguing for the superiority of any particular cultural tradition, then perhaps he means to point to the cultural relativity of all customs and to deny each of them any natural authority. But this is also too easy a conclusion, as we see once we reflect on what remains constant in the bizarre contrast he presents us with. It is not that only one group seeks to treat its ancestors with due respect, nor is it that neither group seeks to treat its ancestors with due respect; their two practices are different--nay, contrary--to be sure, but on a deeper level both are seeking to do what comes naturally to all human beings, which is to treat one's ancestors with due respect.

To repeat: unless we can adopt a really liberal relation to our readings, their proper appreciation and much else will remain a closed book to us, no matter what we read. What is this "much else"? Once we come to regard our books in the sense in which it is natural to regard them, namely as real communications directed toward us by their authors, we are already on the way to culture in the original sense, the sense we preserve when we allow ourselves to use it unarticulated and in the singular number only. It is by studying the writings of the greatest minds in the spirit specified that one may begin to become a cultured human being, here and now./33/ A review of the dynamics of a liberal education should make this point clear. As we progress in our education, we find ourselves increasingly free to question our instructors, who as a result either pass out of our lives or come to be our more experienced fellow-pupils in the classroom of more authoritative teachers. Eventually this process should bring us into contact with teachers of whom all may be counted the pupils. These teachers, the greatest minds, are due to their rarity accessible mainly through literary works that writers long since gone have left behind them. Their writings have been termed "classical" because they live on as a kind of standard for later generations. For this reason, among others, it seems a paradox that these ultimate teachers do not present themselves to us as autocratic schoolmasters but rather as other investigators into questions of common concern raised by their writings. But the classics themselves are far less dogmatic than most claims made about them are. This is one reason why they have exhibited such "lasting-power."/34/ It is also why there exists no substitute for reading the classical writings themselves, preferably with a knowledge of the languages in which they were originally written, or at the very least in close translations./35/ The history of western thought, of which our own collective or individual thought is by now a part, is little else than a record of the conversation carried on by men of letters either in response to the classics, or else among one another with reference to the classics. For this reason, we only come to understand our own past or present insofar as we have some familiarity with the classics. But their works, properly read, more importantly offer us the most fruitful occasion for living dialogue, which is why they exhibit that rare quality of writings to which one may return again and again with ever-increasing benefit. In this way, they have a lasting formative value, helping us to understand and therefore become what we are to be in the future. Their study represents the aspect of a liberal education that lays the groundwork for a lifelong community and conversation with the greatest minds.


  1. E.N. v.10, 1137b29-32.[Back]

  2. Indeed, there exists an inherent tension between reading great books and observing scriptural authority. This is not to deny that some writers who have come to grips with this tension may themselves have produced a great book in the process.[Back]

  3. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., "Cultural Literacy," The American Scholar 52.2 (Spring 1983): 159-169. Hirsch expanded on the theme in id., Cultural Literacy. What Every American Needs to Know, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987 (where see ix-xi for his account of the development of the idea). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform: A Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, Washington DC: National Council on Excellence in Education, 1983. William J. Bennett, To Reclaim A Legacy. A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education, Washington D.C.: National Endowment for the Humanities, 1984. During the 'eighties, Bennett served first as Ronald Reagan's Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then as his Secretary of Education. After these years, during which he encountered no little resistance to reform, he saw the problem in somewhat more militant terms; see the account of his experiences in id., The De-Valuing of America. The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children, New York: Summit Books, 1992. For the level of disagreement specifically within higher academia by the beginning of the 'nineties, see Partisan Review 58.2, 1991 (Special Issue on "The Changing Culture of the University"). Concern over general educational crises was not new in the 'eighties. Cf. Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect (How intellect, the prime force in Western civilization, is being destroyed by our culture in the name of art, science, and philanthropy.), New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959. Barzun himself notes such precedents as William James and Woodrow Wilson. For a less secular point of view, see Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1961 (reprinted by the Franciscan University Press, Steubenville, OH, 1989).[Back]

  4. See, e.g., John Locke, First Treatise on Civil Government.[Back]

  5. The St. John's College Program. A Report, Annapolis: St. John's College Press, 1955, v. The quotation comes from the opening of an Introduction written by President Richard D. Weigle (cf. id., St. John's College, Annapolis, Pilot College in Liberal Arts Education, New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1953).[Back]

  6. By 1937, less comprehensive but analogous efforts had been made by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago, John Erskine and Mark Van Doren at Columbia, Barr and Buchanan themselves at the University of Virginia, and Alexander Meiklejohn at the University of Wisconsin. For an account of the failure of the group at Chicago as well as of the background of their common effort, see Scott Buchanan, "A Crisis in Liberal Education", Amherst Graduate's Quarterly, February 1938 and also id., Poetry and Mathematics with a New Introduction, 2nd edition, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1962, 11-25. In the 1938 account Buchanan blames "the University of Chicago"; in the latter, written in 1961, he says that McKeon, Adler, and he "had constructed and complicated quite different universes of discourse which reached into deep matters of method and metaphysics" and that after some heated exchanges, they "agreed to disagree and pursue [their] separate courses." For McKeon's and Adler's differences, e.g., on reading Aristotle, see George Kimball Plochmann, Richard McKeon. A Study, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 10.[Back]

  7. See Buchanan, Poetry and Mathematics, 2nd ed., 11-23 (quoted text from 11-12). Cf. Mortimer J. Adler, "Invitation to the Pain of Learning" (originally in The Journal of Educational Sociology, February 1941), in id., Reforming American Education. The Opening of the American Mind, New York: Macmillan, 1988, 232-236, at 235. Also J. Winfee Smith, A Search for the Liberal College: The Beginning of the St. John's Program, Annapolis: St. John's College Press, 1983.[Back]

  8. See Sir John Lubbock, Bart., M.P., The Pleasures of Life, New York: John B. Alden, 1887, Chapters 3 ("The Song of Books") and 4 ("The Choice of Books"). These derive from a lecture delivered at the London Workingmen's College in 1886 under the title "Books and Reading" and conclude with a "List of 100 Books" (49-52). Works by living authors are omitted, but--if only "in deference to the judgement of others"--such diverse items as the Analects of Confucius, the Koran, and the Shahnameh are included. Lubbock subsequently anticipated Adler by some half-century in editing a corresponding series of texts (Sir John Lubbock's Hundred Books); see, e.g., volume 34, Dialogues of Plato, tr. Henry Cary, London: Routledge & Sons, 1892, where Lubbock explains the genesis of the series in a brief Introduction (5-6). For Lubbock as John Erskine's source, see Buchanan, Poetry and Mathematics, 2nd ed., 21. For Adler's subsequent version, see Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book. The Art of Getting a Liberal Education, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940, 322-353 (Chapter 16: "The Great Books").[Back]

  9. For Comte's list, see August Comte, System of Positive Polity, vol. 4, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1877, "The Worship," 477-480 (Appendix "Positivist Library in the Nineteenth Century. One Hundred and Fifty Volumes"). For the later modification, see The Positivist Library of August Comte, tr. and ed. by Frederic Harrison, London: Reeves & Turner, 1886. The 12th item in Lubbock's list of 1887 is "Comte's Catechism of Positive Philosophy" (see also his mention of Comte's longer list at "The Choice of Books," 43, n1). For an account of Comte's seminal influence as well as the encyclopaedist background sketched in the next paragraph, see Eric Voegelin, From Enlightenment to Revolution, ed. John H. Hallowell, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1975, especially chapter 7 ("The Religion of Humanity and the French Revolution"), with 161, n3.[Back]

  10. The term was admittedly adapted from the ancient Greek word enkyklios paideia 'circular education' which referred to primary education in the liberal arts, as distinct from preparations in mechanical or technical crafts. For the meaning of the term in antiquity and its relation to the later seven liberal arts, see Friedmar Kuehnert, Allgemeinbildung und Fachbildung in der Antike, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1969, 3-42.[Back]

  11. In his Preparatio Evangelica, Eusebius goes systematically through the literature and philosophical thought of the Greeks, showing it to be either (a) confused, contradictory, and mistaken, or else, where accurate, (b) indebted to the earlier teachings of Moses. The underlying premise involves an analogy to the effect that, as the liberal arts stand as handmaidens to secular philosophy, so does secular philosophy to wisdom as revealed in scripture. See, e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Stromata i.5 (8.721A-724A Migne). The general approach is pre-Christian, having been pioneered by Philo of Alexandria; see, e.g., De Cher. 101f, De Agr. 18, Quis Rer. 272, al. The method greatly influenced the medieval Latin scholastic tradition, and accordingly lives on in some great books programs.

    Illustrative in a regard mentioned earlier (see note 2 supra) is the great books program of St. Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. In a programmatic 1969 pamphlet entitled A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education, the authors recommend the way a Catholic reader should "escape the perplexity which Socrates' arguments arouse in him" in Plato's Protagoras by adducing revealed truths stated in Ezekiel and Galations, so that "he will believe that Socrates must be wrong, whether he himself [sc. the reader] can see the error or not." In a preface to a 1981 reprint, Thomas E. Dillon, Dean of the College, explains that "genuine academic freedom, to which liberal education is so ordered, lies in knowledge of the truth." Compare the statement of the St. John's College program: "...St. John's has never been guilty, as has sometimes been suggested, of regarding these books as sacred classics, their number limited or their names determined once and for all. On the contrary, the point of using them within a contemporary college curriculum is to emphasize not their "classic" qualities, but their contemporary qualities. Students come to treat the great authors of antiquity as they do contemporary writers, and sometimes even show marked disrespect for them rather than the veneration discovered by some critics of the College" (The St. John's College Program. A Report, 24-25). So much, in any case, for the great books as a quasi-ecclesiastical "canon."[Back]

  12. See Voegelin's remarks on "The idea of progress and the 'authoritative present'" and "Security against the past" in id., From Enlightenment to Revolution, 83-86. See further Leo Strauss, "How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy", in id., The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed. Thomas L. Pangle, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989, 207-226.[Back]

  13. Reforming Education, xix-xxxiii, at xxvii-xxviii. The work Adler has in his sights is Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. Bloom's book is in the same general vein as the works of Hirsch and Bennett, with the difference that it experienced a remarkably high degree of popularity--an arguably paradoxical result for a work by a "Straussian" writer.[Back]

  14. Thomas L. Pangle, "Entering the Great Debate", Academic Questions 2.2 (Spring 1989): 22-29, at 25-26. Pangle's contribution forms part of a larger symposium: "Why teach the Great Books?" (13-47). Academic Questions is the journal published by the National Association of Scholars, a group formed in the context of the intra-academic battles that developed during the 'eighties. For arguments that reading the great books holds some benefit for those "traditionally excluded," see further Daniel A. Kaufman. "Why Minority Kids Should get the Classics Too (and how to do it)," Academic Questions 11.2 (Spring 1998): 53-62. Cf. Daniel E. Ritchie, "Want a More inclusive Curriculum? Try Reading 'the Canon,'" Academic Questions 8.1 (Winter 1994-95): 67-73. A recent case is made for the more traditional use in connection with adult education in David Denby, Great Books. My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.[Back]

  15. The Great Ideas. A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, ed. Mortimer J. Adler and William Gorman, 2 vols., Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952. Through the Institute of Philosophic Research, founded the same year, Adler arranged, as general editor of another series, to publish monograph studies of some of these ideas; thus there appeared a book on the idea of justice by Otto A. Bird, another on the idea of love by Robert G. Hazo, another on the idea of Happiness by V. J. McGill, and one on the idea of progress by Charles Van Doren, etc. Adler himself published a study of the idea of freedom. See also id., Six Great Ideas. Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Liberty, Equality, Justice : Ideas We Judge By, Ideas We Act On, New York: MacMillan, 1981, and A Guidebook to Learning For the Lifelong Pursuit of Wisdom, New York: MacMillan, 1986, 96-104.

    Adler's "non-doctrinal" approach to the great books is illustrated in an earlier book that he wrote in an effort to popularize his approach (Dr. Mortimer J. Adler, Great Ideas from the Great Books, New Revised and Enlarged Edition, New York: Washington Square Press, 1963). This pocket book consists of treatments of questions organized into ten parts, with titles ranging from "What is Truth?" and "The Meaning of History" to "What about Communism?" and "The Position of Women in Society." The dialectical approach is scholastic in its inspiration: a correspondent addresses a question to Dr. Adler, and the doctor answers the question by referring to its treatment in the great books. See, e.g., 129-131 (question #51), where Adler is asked what are the "great ideas" one correspondent has heard associated with his name, and then replies by explaining the work he has done and listing some representative cases from the Syntopicon. At the end of each of the ten sections, there is a list of suggested readings, divided between works represented in the Britannica set and other works. For Adler's heavily scholastic reading of Aristotle, see the passage from Plochmann cited in note 6 supra.[Back]

  16. The St. John's program features three kinds of classes: the seminar, the tutorial, and the preceptorial. The first forms the dialectical nucleus, the second a more accountable backup, and the third a relatively focused but programmatically indeterminate appendage traceable to Woodrow Wilson's innovations at Princeton. See Jacques Barzun, The American University. How It Runs, Where It Is Going, Second Edition, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993, 66-67.[Back]

  17. Buchanan died in 1968. For his general estimate of the educational value of modern science, see his posthumously published Truth in the Sciences, Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1972--a work originally written in 1950. According to former St. John's College Dean Curtis Wilson, Buchanan intended it "for the use of the common reader of the classics of the western tradition--an addressee to whom Buchanan, with Democratic leanings and in pointed revolt against some of the vanity and pedantry and narrowness of academe, had directed one large measure of his life's thought and concern" (Forward, vii). Buchanan even welcomed disciplines traditionally considered as scientifically "curious" and thereby illiberal; see id., "Chemistry as a Liberal Art", Journal of Liberal Education 28 (1951): 318-321. Cf. Embers of the World. Conversations With Scott Buchanan, ed. Harris Wofford, Jr., Santa Barbara, CA: The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, 1971, 1: "Have you recognized that you are and always have been your own teacher? Liberal education has as its end the free mind, and the free mind must be its own teacher" ("A Talk With Friends," from 1958). Buchanan himself had founded this center.[Back]

  18. On some initial tensions, see Weigle's account of developments in The St. John's College Program. A Report, viii-xvi; also the "Self-Study Conference" on pages 110-128 (where pages 114-123 feature a particularly illuminating dialogue between Klein and Buchanan) and "The Deans' Statement of Educational Policy and Program, 1954" on 129-139. For further developments toward and into the 'sixties, see On The St. John's Program. Two Essays by John S. Kieffer, ed. Curtis Wilson, Annapolis: St. John's College Press, 1976. For Klein's approach, see "History and the Liberal Arts" and "The Idea of Liberal Education." The first was a lecture given at the College in 1953; the second was published in The Goals of Higher Education, ed. E.D. Weatherford, Jr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960. (Both are reprinted in Jacob Klein, Lectures and Essays, ed. Robert B. Williamson and Elliott Zuckerman, Annapolis: St. John's College Press, 1985, 127-138 and 157-170.) In 1965 a colloquium devoted to the principles and problems of the program was held at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA; Klein's contribution is likewise reprinted as "On Liberal Education" in his Lectures and Essays, 261-268. A palpably fragmented state of reflection on the Santa Fe campus as of 1977 pervades Three Dialogues on Liberal Education, ed. William A. Darkey, Annapolis: St. John's College Press, 1979. Eva T. H. Brann, a student of Klein, seeks to resolve what has seemingly emerged as a "paradox of tradition" in Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979; see 64-119 on tradition, especially 79-88 ("On Classical and Modern Learning"). Cf. Richard D. Weigle, The Colonization of a College: The Beginnings and Early History of St. John's College in Santa Fe, Annapolis: St. John's College Press [1985].[Back]

  19. See William Wotton, Reflections Upon Ancient and Modern Learning, London: J. Leake, 1694, 18-19. On the revolutionary character of modern mathematical science, see Jacob Klein, "The World of Physics and the 'Natural' World" and "Modern Rationalism," in id., Lectures and Essays, 1-34 and 53-64.[Back]

  20. See Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, New York: William Morrow, 198-201. For the legal history of the problem, see Herman Belzer, Equality Transformed: A Quarter-Century of Affirmative Action, New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers. For one recent substantive indictment, see Jim Sleeper, Liberal Racism, New York: Viking, 1997.[Back]

  21. The idea is seminally present in Justice Powell's opinion in Regents of California vs. Bakke (1978); see Belzer, Equality Transformed, 148-52.[Back]

  22. For this level of the problem, see Shelby Steele, The Content of Our Character, New York: St. Martin's, 1990, 111-125.[Back]

  23. See, e.g., Dinesh D'Souza, Illiberal Education. The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, New York: The Free Press, 1961. Chapter 3 ("Travels with Rigoberta").[Back]

  24. See Leo Strauss, "Social Science and Humanism", in id., Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, 312. Strauss cites two main consequences deriving from the attitude of the social sciences: (a) an aimlessness born of over-specialization and (b) an ethical relativism. Both tendencies are disturbingly all too evident in some recent modifications to The University of Montana's distribution requirement in Ethics, which students may soon be able to satisfy by enrolling in courses on, e.g., animal interactions. So much for a humanistic ethics at the humanities flagship of the MUS, perhaps--although it is at present hard to determine whether this initiative, formulated by theorists in trendier areas of research and shepherded through an Academic Standards Committee and a Faculty Senate under the leadership of specialists in such disciplines as Computer Science and Sociology, is ultimately directed at eliminating or only trivializing The University's mission of forming the character of its students.[Back]

  25. See Leo Strauss, "What is Liberal Education" in id., Liberalism Ancient and Modern, New York: Basic Books, 1968, 3-8.[Back]

  26. For the "Other," see Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, Fifth Meditation, #43. But such jargon has, in the hands of trendier "theory," become what Husserl himself called "sedimented," viz. it is generally now used mechanically without any idea where it comes from or what it might really mean.[Back]

  27. Conversely, those who do have to question the coherence of their enterprise; cf. a recent convention-panel organized by the Committee on the Status of Women and Minority Groups of the American Philological Association under the style, "Is Teaching Classics Inherently Colonialist?" The APA is the national Organization for Classicists.[Back]

  28. Now commonly called "gender," although this is properly an exclusively grammatical term.[Back]

  29. Xenophon, Memorabilia,[Back]

  30. "Western Civilization" as an educational slogan originates in Allied propaganda during World War I, having been developed in opposition to a politicized notion of "Culture" put forward by the Germans. See John Burnet, "Kultur," in id., Higher Education and the War, London: MacMillan, 1918, 1-37 (reprinted in id., Essays and Addresses, London: Chatto & Windus 1929, 169-193), esp. 172 : " the German Kultur is in the first place something national, while to the Frenchman or Englishman Civilization is primarily something human. It adds considerably to the difficulty of understanding these things that the Germans now use the word Zivilisation in the sense of material and technical progress (telephones, motorcars, aeroplanes, etc.) to the exclusion of the moral and spiritual elements included in Kultur. That is what they mean when they say that in this country we have Zivilisation but no Kultur. It is no use telling the German that we are fighting for civilization. He understands that to mean that we are fighting for material comfort, which is exactly what he believes about us already." For a somewhat modified version prevalent in Britain on the eve of World War II, see Gilbert Murray, Liberality and Civilization, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1938. It should perhaps come as no surprise, therefore, that Allan Bloom during the eighties championed "Western Civilization" while holding German thinkers largely responsible for the "Closing" of the American mind. Cf. id., "Western Civ.--and Me", Commentary 90.2 (August 1990): 15-21.[Back]

  31. Some of the announced attempts to mediate this opposition in fact merely seek persuasively to reform the tradition rather than attack it, i.e., they come as wolves in sheep's clothing. See, e.g., David Bromwich, Politics by Other Means. Higher Education and Group Thinking, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992, or Benjamin Barber, An Aristocracy of Everyone. The Politics of Education and the Future of America, New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.[Back]

  32. Herodotus, History, III.38.3-4. Herodotus inserts this anecdote in a context where he is disparaging Cambyses' radical disrespect for established custom.[Back]

  33. See Italo Calvino, "Why Read the Classics?" New York Review of Books, 9 October 1986, 19-20 (recently reprinted by Knopf as the opening item in a collection likewise styled).[Back]

  34. It is sometimes objected that certain books are classics merely because they always have been, i.e., that what constitutes a classic in the mind of a traditionalist is without a rational basis--he "knows one when he sees one." To this may be partly replied that a classic is indeed more analogous to art than to pornography, in that it characteristically lacks the starker, simplistic focus found in our more ideologically tinged writings.[Back]

  35. See Bernard Knox, The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics, New York and London: Norton, 1993; also, more recently, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, New York: The Free Press, 1998. A case for study in the original languages is made in E. Christian Kopff, The Devil Knows Latin. Why America Needs the Classical Tradition, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1999. Like the repeated references to a "crisis" in American education (cf. note 3 supra), grim assessments of the state of classical language studies are themselves traditional. See, e.g., W. H. Alexander, "Peregrinus Sicut Omnes Patres Mei," Phoenix 4 (1950): 31-46.[Back]

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