For several decades, conservative critics of higher education have argued against trends toward the elimination of “core” curricula and with equal ferocity against their replacement by “distribution requirements” or even open curricula. They have, in particular, defended a curriculum in “Great Books,” those widely-recognized texts in the Western tradition authored by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Mill, and Nietzsche, among others. This curriculum – preserved still in some of the nation’s leading universities such as the University of Chicago and Columbia University – as well as at the heart of the longstanding Great Books approach of St. John’s College – is seen as a bulwark against contemporary tendencies toward relativism, post-modernism, and political correctness.
More recently, even some faculty who would eschew the “conservative” label have sought to restore sustained study of the Great Books to some place of pride in the curriculum. Some twenty years after the height of the “culture wars” over the Western canon – during which the phrase “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go” was chanted on the Stanford campus – there seems to be a growing sense among some moderate faculty that the curriculum has become too fragmented, and that something valuable was lost in the politically-motivated elimination of a common core. Notably, at Harvard an ad hoc effort by some faculty to establish a Great Books track in the “Gen Ed” requirement was advanced before crashing on the shoals of Harvard’s new fiscal reality (as well as the opposition of some faculty).
This reassessment has been most articulately argued by Anthony Kronman – a moderate liberal – in his recent book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Kronman, a professor and former Dean at the Yale Law School, laments the abandonment of a serious engagement with the Great Books. Their neglect has led to the decline of an examination of “the meaning of life,” an activity that he argues should be at the heart of the university experience. He praises a period in the history of American universities which was dominated by what he calls a worldview of “secular humanism.” This period of “secular humanism” followed the widespread disaffiliation of traditionally religious institutions and preceded the rise of the modern research university and the concomitant rise of political correctness in the humanities. He urges modern institutions of higher education to adopt something like the Yale program in “Directed Studies” – in which he teaches – which requires students to engage in a concentrated study of the Great books ranging from Homer to Luther, from Machiavelli to Kant, from Plato to Nietzsche – over a two year span.
While there is much to admire in Kronman’s arguments – especially, in my view, his penetrating critique of the scientific basis of the university and his critique of “political correctness” – his defense of the “Great Books,” and its basis in the worldview of “Secular Humanism,” is deeply problematic and reveals the deep flaw of this longstanding tack by conservatives. Indeed, his argument suggests not that study of the Great Books is a true alternative to the relativism among professors of humanities on today’s college campuses, but in fact was the breeding ground of the very relativism that a curriculum in the Great Books purports to combat.
The Great Books have long been recommended by figures ranging from Allan Bloom to William Bennett as the basic texts of a liberal education and for containing essential knowledge about the Western tradition. An education in the Great Books was seen as essential in the cultivation of the educated person, and as the source of ideas that gave rise to many of the treasured inheritances of the West – including constitutionalism, liberal democracy, separation of Church and State, individual rights, a free-market economy, and the dignity of the human person. Knowledge of the constitutive texts of the West was seen by many of its defenders as the prerequisite for the informed citizen, someone not only who would believe in the traditions of the West, but be able to muster an articulate defense of the same.
However, for anyone with even passing familiarity with those constitutive texts, it is readily evident that these texts provide nothing of the sort. These texts are hardly primers on liberal democracy or any other political, ethical or economic system, but rather contain a wide and ranging set of debates over the nature of the good and best life, the good and best polity, the good and best economic system, and so on. The texts typically listed in such a course of study are marked by severe and profound disagreements. For example, on the list of books provided by Kronman that have been recently assigned in the Yale Directed Studies Program, they have included such radically distinct books as The Hebrew Bible, The New Testament, Aristotle’s Politics, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Machiavelli’s Prince, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, the Federalist Papers, Mill’s On Liberty, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals, and Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. Thus (to be somewhat reductionist), students are exposed to arguments on behalf of Judaism, Christianity, Teleology, Pessimism, Classical Liberalism, Conservatism, Utilitarianism, Progressive Liberalism, Communism, Deontology, and Nihilism (among many other alternatives). On point after point and issue after issue, basic elements of each theology or philosophy contradict some fundamental aspect of all the other philosophies listed here (and others that go unlisted). An education in the Great Books is a potpourri of conflicting views, a set of strongly articulated arguments that continuously strive to refute other views that purportedly comprise a single “tradition.” The “Western tradition” is a ferocious and ongoing set of disagreements about the most basic human beliefs.
What Does it All Mean?
Any student confronting such a wide variety of texts will be driven to make some sense of them, to evaluate their strong and contradictory claims. 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. For Kronman, this is exactly the point: exposure to this diversity of views encourages a probing examination of the best way to live, or “the meaning of life.” Any student confronting these texts in even a remotely serious way cannot be left complacent -he must confront his own presuppositions and articulate a response to the many challenges to which he will be exposed.
A confrontation with the Great Books, according to Kronman, is to disrupt easy assumptions about the meaning of life and force students to more deeply articulate their beliefs. But Kronman is quite explicit that arriving at life’s meaning will be the result of an individual’s negotiation between these various texts. The “meaning of life” will be developed from each person’s own capacity to arrive at a personal response to the many challenges these books represent. Confrontation with these texts reveals the expansiveness of possible ways of life, beliefs, ethics, and economics: they teach us that “each of us can make, and wants to make, a life uniquely our own – a life that as no precise precedent in all the lives that have gone before and that can never be repeated exactly.” These books reveal the “plasticity of human nature.”
Thus, even as each student will be encouraged to arrive at a deeply informed and highly articulated “meaning of life,” a deeper lesson is advanced by such a curriculum: the “meaning of life” is always highly personal and relative to each person. A person may arrive at a “philosophy of life” that is not itself relativistic – for instance, finding in the Biblical texts a religious basis for their beliefs – but overall, such a conclusion will take place within the context of a curriculum that is itself fundamentally relativistic, in which each student is encouraged to come to their own conclusion about the meaning of life, and thus to arrive at a personal set of criteria by which to evaluate all the respective arguments.
Indeed, such an approach in fact suggests that there is a single “meaning to life,” and that meaning is fundamentally “decisionist.” Most curricula in the Great Books offer the various philosophies as inherently coherent and valid systems, suggesting to each student that there is finally no basis on which to decide which philosophy to adopt other than mere preference. One must simply decide. This Nietzschean (or Schmittian) lesson is reinforced by the typical organization of such curricula (where they persist), which is typically chronological. Given that most students today have deeply ingrained progressive worldviews (that is, the view that history has been the slow but steady advance of enlightenment in all forms, culminating in equal rights for all races, all genders, and all sexual preferences), a curriculum that begins with the Bible and Greek philosophy and ends with Nietzsche subtly suggests that Nietzsche is the culmination of Enlightenment’s trajectory. The fact that his philosophy is reinforced by the message that an education in the Great Books consists in exposure to equally compelling philosophies between which there is no objective basis to prefer only serves to deepen the most fundamental lesson of a course in the Great Books, which is a basic form of relativism. The choice of a personal philosophy is relative, and the basis on which one makes any such choice is finally arbitrary, the result of personal preference or attraction. De gustibus non est disputandam.
A Brief History
This basic feature of Great Books draws attention to the curious feature of Kronman’s chronology that goes unremarked upon. According to Kronman, religiously-affiliated institutions with a longstanding emphasis on a classical education (particularly Classics and Biblical studies) dominated the American landscape until the late 19th and early 20th-centuries. Then, he argues, there was a brief flourishing of “secular humanism,” during which the study of the Great Books was a central component of the curriculum. This period marked the rise of a view that life’s meaning was not regarded to be unified in a religious creed, but rather that meaning was to be increasingly fashioned by individuals in an age of “pluralistic” belief. This phase lasted less than a century, followed in the mid- to late-twentieth century by the rise of the science-dominated and politically correct research university.
If we extend Kronman’s analysis chronologically into the past, however, we would need to acknowledge that 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. By the time Allan Bloom wrote of the thirty elite universities in the United States in the mid-1980s, he was writing of long-since religiously disaffiliated institutions that were already well on their way to complete relativism. Bloom argued not for belief in something, but on behalf of “the Socratic knowledge of ignorance,” a kind of middle-point between skepticism and certitude. For Bloom, an education in the Great Books was to be at best a perpetual kind of suspension of belief, an eternal kind of play of ideas by philosophers. If Bloom resisted the “decisionism” that one sees in Kronman, at the same time he rejected the idea that there could be, or ought to be, any criteria by which one ought to judge between various philosophies. In the end, his peculiar understanding of Plato was to be recommended – the knowledge that we do not know.
This might be an appropriate goal for philosophers (though I doubt it), but it cannot exist as a reasonable curriculum for students who will enter the world wondering how they should live. 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.