Are Great Books the Answer to the Crisis in Education?

Patrick J. Deenen, Professsor of Government at Georgetown University and Founding Director of The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, argues: “It’s not enough to state that higher education should consist of an exposure to the Great Books and leave it at that: students will need some way of negotiating their way through the philosophical thicket into which they are being thrown.” He expresses concern about the underlying relativism in a Great Books curriculum that offers “no basis on which to decide which philosophy to adopt other than mere preference. One must simply decide.” In his engagement with Anthony Kronman’s book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, he writes:

. . . in one form or another, the religiously-affiliated university has dominated the scene in the West since the Middle Ages, persisting roughly for a millennium or more. By contrast, the age of “secular humanism” lasted not even for a century, a scant blink of an eye compared to the longer tradition of the religious university. Seen in this light, we need to ask why the very ideal recommended by Kronman was so fleeting and unstable in the light of the longer history of the Western religious university.

The irresistible conclusion is that the age of “secular humanism” was a brief period of transition between the decline of the age of the religious university to rise of the age of the scientific and “politically correct” university. Secular humanism sought briefly to provide a different kind of “scripture” to that which had been displaced – now the Great Books – but lacking any kind of philosophical or theological principle by which to assess the competing claims advanced by those texts, this period was destined to usher in a period of philosophical relativism and the rise of the science as the only form of knowledge that could provide certainty and true knowledge.

Many conservatives have long argued for the reinstitution of the Great Books without acknowledging that this is to serve as a kind of “replacement scripture,” in the main satisfied that some common knowledge of the great texts of the West could constitute a common culture and supply the appearance of agreement in the absence of a deeper set of religious and cultural commitments. But, by the time this became a “conservative” argument, the more traditional defense of a more constitutive system of belief by which competing philosophic claims could be judged had long been displaced from the heart of the university . . . . 

Where they exist, contemporary arguments on behalf of the Great Books are often as pernicious, and even indistinguishable from, the forms of value relativism that they purport to combat. Many conservative academics have become lazy in the defense of the Great Books, content to let the phrase stand in for a deeper and potentially more contentious examination of the various arguments within those books and the West itself, and of the need for university faculties to provide some kind of organized and well-formed guidance to students on how best to approach these texts.

In my view, the reinstatement of the Great Books would accomplish little in the contemporary academic context. What is needed is a more serious and potentially contentious discussion of the underlying philosophy within which these books would be read and taught. Teaching as I do at a Catholic and Jesuit university, I would like to see these books taught explicitly within the context and in the light of the standards that the Catholic tradition would provide (I would be satisfied if this were done solely within the context of my own institution, leaving aside for the moment the sticky issue that I may merely propose a set of internally coherent institutions between which students would have to choose. This is merely to push relativism from the individual to the institutional level, but I would regard this as “progress”). If this would mean that the arguments of Marx and Nietzsche would be subject to severe critique, it would mean also that the writings of Locke and even the Founding Fathers would not escape criticism for their highly individualistic and Enlightenment basis. It would mean, too, that the work of Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas would receive special pride of place. The Great Books would and should be taught, but not as if the faculty is indifferent to the ways that they should be received. Students should at least know that these books cannot be rightly approached from a basis of “neutrality,” since that approach itself contains a teaching, and that teaching is one that reinforces the relativist orthodoxies of our age. Better to rub against the grain than – in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson – go with the flow.

– “Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer” (Minding the Campus)

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One thought on “Are Great Books the Answer to the Crisis in Education?

  1. Mr. Benson,
    Mr. Kronman will find the program he pines for at Thomas Aquinas College, a resolutely Catholic institution employing a program remarkably similar to what we experienced at St. John’s. The issues he presents are sticky, indeed. An orienting schema would certainly have provided an at times much needed sense of orientation while working through the great books, but if that experience in any way resembles Aquinas’ adoration, appropriation, and alteration of Aristotle, I’d pass.

    I’m sure my answer will not satisfy you, if not for its distinct insightlesness, then for its utter lack of clarity, but these complaints I consider virtues. They were hard fought and acquired at the feet of the masters.

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