Great Books? Great Scott!

On a second reading of Dr. Patrick Deneen’s criticism of conservatives’ Great Books love affair, I think I hear what he is thinking.

“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. …What is needed is a more serious and potentially contentious discussion of the underlying philosophy within which these books would be read and taught.”

We would need, for example, “books taught explicitly within the context and in the light of the standards that the Catholic tradition would provide.” A Great Books education would not be enough in itself, because what is needed is not mere “conversation” about ideas and books that conservatives are skeptical of, but a moral rubric with which to assess these ideas. In other words, professors need to profess, while they teach.

So, pedagogically, Deneen is not saying that there should not be a Western Canon – just that the Western Canon alone is going to create an implicit pedagogical problem. That is, the biases of equal weight being given to each book, and of chronological progess, with the last books seeming to be the most advanced arguments. Dr. Peter Lawler adds a further dimension to this problem: “But said student also learns that he or she is much dumber than Plato, Thomas Aquinas, and Nietzsche. So how to judge? What right does insignificant me have to judge? This promiscuous appreciation for greatness, to say the least, is not an obvious cure for the moral impotence and confusion of our time.” In other words, Deneen and Lawler both have a problem with how Allan Bloom handled the issue.

Pedagogy as Enculturation

One argument for the Great Books – which I think both Lawler and Deneen accept, notwithstanding their criticisms – is that the pedagogy is an enculturation. That is, students are drawn into a conversation. They are drawn into a conversation in which their mere quibbling of arguments about, say, God, are drawn up into the higher, more profound, better articulated arguments by Aquinas, Descartes, Pascal, Kant. Presumably, we should not waste our time and society’s time on ideas that have been effectively buried. We can move forward and think the best things if we move from the highest peaks yet attained.

No doubt. But Deneen’s uncertainty seems to stem from a similar sentiment as C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity: “… progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.”

Choosing Between Choices

Historically, some arguments seem to have decisive endings. What was the intellectual justification for paganism after The City of God? But some are just bypassed, historically. Machiavelli’s redefinition of virtu had nothing to do with a rational obliteration of the old definition – his morality, of civic glory and the individual’s domination of Fortune, was a preference in what appeared to be a distaste for the old Christian civic morality. To prefer the Machiavellian is not such a clear rational path. It is a rejection of the old Augustinian morality, which itself rejected the Roman civic morality. But the changes are much more along the lines of “worldview changes.”

As Deneen rightly points out, in an age of moral confusion, moral pedagogy is necessary to make sense of the gigantic worldview Battle Royal that is the Great Books. What could be left but a poorly informed “decisionism,” when 20 year olds see before them an extract from the Summa Theologica, and Heidegger? Do we really need more pompous pseudo-intellectuals who can throw around names because they have read one, or part of one, book by each of a variety of authors?

Western Civilization, And the University as an Island

Honestly, part of the implicit structure of the Great Books is exactly what the Canon’s rejectors have said – a preference for Western culture. But Western culture is not unitary. And it is not all good. The professors are the intermediaries between the ignorant students and the highly articulated (and historically situated) arguments going on among those Great Books. Thus, we can see why Deneen scoffs at a “neutral” faculty, where the books themselves do the teaching.

Finally, if the Western Canon is an enculturation, then college seems like exactly the wrong time to encounter it. Living on a campus-island without any social connections, without any experience of civitas, with the continuing problem of social development that comes primarily from one’s own age cohort – what sense is really to be made of religion or philosophy? What sense is there in learning civilization when there is no understanding of life as it is actually lived out? Some might say that these students are the ultimate philosophers, separated from the man-made culture that distracts from some type of pure, existential Being. Whether or not this is true, it certainly provides no context to read people who talked little of such a concept. Here, the Great Books are less an enculturation than an education in experiences not yet experienced.

I’ll close with Deneen’s conclusion, where he makes the case for a moral perspective being taught on the Great Books. With it, the problem of some neutral Great Books “education for culture” is at last highlighted merely for its arrogance.

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.”

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