Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer

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.


15 thoughts on “Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer

  1. ” 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 hope you are aware of Thomas Aquinas College, Mr. Deneen.

  2. Generally I don’t read post on blogs, but I want to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, quite nice post.

  3. The professor wants the Great Books to be taught within a tradition, a point of view. Such a program exists at Notre Dame where students have a Catholic guide through the thicket. The world he wants to create exists, if only for 25 students a year.
    What he needs to do is look at those Notre Dame students and ask if they are educated. Are they capable of evaluating the texts and making decisions? Specifically, in the end, are they indoctrinated into a Catholic point of view, or has the Catholic experience of the Great Books given them the opportunity to look past the bias of their guide?

  4. The professor confuses education with indoctrination. The purpose of Great Books education is to expose the student to the foundational ideas that have formed the society he or she lives in. From this it is up to the student to draw their own conclusions.
    But this is hardly relativistic. Rather, it’s placing faith in the student to develop critical thinking skills and arrive at truth without having their hand held through the process.
    The professor doesn’t trust students. He doesn’t trust the great sages of the past to enlighten modern minds. He would impose a worldview on students he feels is correct and hold their hands through the whole process. This isn’t education, it’s indoctrination, or brainwashing if you prefer.

  5. Great post. Excellent argument. We should teach the canon and we should do so from the context of our own tradition.
    My only quibble with your argument is that the canon absolutely has to be expanded to include “non-Western” works that also attempt to answer the fundamental questions of human existence.
    I am currently teaching English in Morocco right now, and I am constantly amazed by my Muslim students’ ignorance of basic historical facts about the Western tradition. None of them has read the Bible, yet they all know it is corrupt because the Koran says so.
    It reminds me how little Americans know about the Koran. They don’t realize that there exists a long hermeneutic debate about the Koran, just as there exists one about the Bible. Thinkers such as Al-Ghazali, Avicenna and Averroes all dealt with issues of reason and revelation that would be surprisingly familiar to a well-read Christian. What’s more, anyone who has read Aquinas would realize how these thinkers and Jewish thinkers like Maimonides influenced Christian answers to similar questions.
    In today’s globalized world, we need to include these “non-Western” works to the canon if we hope to engage with other cultures. I would love to see a university-educated Moroccan who has actually read the Bible along with Christian thinkers discuss religion with an American who has actually read the Koran with key Islamic thinkers. They would certainly disagree, but they would be much better prepared to actually have a reasonable, engaging discussion.
    And this is just the broader Mediterranean monotheistic tradition. Confucius, the Bhagavad Gita, Mao, literary works in Hindi and Chinese…there are plenty of texts that continue to exert influence today that we would be wise to think about a bit.

  6. Mr. Newman and Mr. Hardesty focus on Professor Deneen’s line about a Catholic context for a Great Books curriculum. This was one line, qualified explicitly by his institutional affiliation (Georgetown) and recognized as insufficient in the following sentences. He never proposes this as the way that all Great Books programs need to be organized. The idea that this piece makes no sense says far more about the reader than the author, in my judgment. Mr. Hardesty’s point in defense of the essay’s nonsensical character simply restates the very argument for the Great Books curriculum that the essay was interrogating! Oh well… I guess that we cannot demand too much of comboxes.
    But thank you, Professor Deneen, for your thoughtful essay! As a student of a Great Books program myself, I have never come close to understanding how it was supposed to cure relativism. How are 18-year-olds supposed to weigh and then choose between the radically different visions of the world proposed by some of the greatest minds ever produced by the human species?!

  7. I began this essay prepared to disagree, but I found Deneen’s critiques persuasive, especially the two below.
    1. ” … 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.”
    2. “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.”

  8. I’ve been reading for some time Deneen essays on FPR and The American Conservative. Although I’m an European, and therefore it is difficult for me to judge, I guess he must be one of the finest living North American political thinkers. However, although I understand the preoccupations he wishes to reflect here, I think his arguments arise some questions:
    -Supposing the main aim of a traditional humanist education would be to convey a christian -here, seems, more specifically catholic, indeed- vision of man and the world, would really the teaching of texts belonging mainly to the christian tradition. How could a person thus educated respond to all the intellectual and existential quests arising from nowadays society. I’m also a defender of tradition, but, how could anyone respond to arguments which are a vulgarization of Nietzsche’s philosophy, knowing only Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustin?
    -Is the way of education through Great Texts really relativist? Well, yes, in the sense that it doesn’t necessarily takes christianism and the only truth. But, is it the form of relativism that leads to hedonism? I tend to think, instead, that a person educated by the Great Texts of the various traditions which flow into the Occidental -what is Occident, by the way? isn’t it a way of hiding really different cultural spaces, such as the USA and Europe?- thought will be a sober and honest person, not ready to feel attracted by the appeal of greed, egoism, uncontrolled hedonism or whatever of the so many problems of contemporary life.
    (I beg you to pardon my very awful English.)

  9. While I understand how the reading of Allan Bloom given here could be selectively drawn from his texts, it seems to me something of a straw argument. To be sure, Bloom was not a Catholic. But his version of Socratic skepticism, even if it *was* rather more metaphysically sceptical than your average Plato enthusiast might like, was hardly a version of ‘relativism.’ On the contrary: Bloom make abundantly clear where he thought the likes of Rousseau, Tolstoi, and of course Nietzsche and Heidegger, went astray in their thinking. He was not arguing for relativistic suspension of belief, but rather for an impassioned and deeply informed *reading* and *re*reading of these texts, on the quite reasonable grounds that, however flawed, these were writers of genius whose arguments had to be met directly, and whose insights could still be pregnant with germs of truth, whatever their failings on questions large or small.
    For that matter, Bloom was perfectly honest that he did not find the writers of Classical antiquity to be in agreement with the Enlightenment tradition, from which he correctly sees the modern Western experiment to proceed (and *not*, as some optimistic Christian conservatives would like to have it, from Aquinas for example). He didn’t thereby renounce modern liberal democracy, but he critiqued many of its underlying assumptions and valuations, which is what Deneen here proposes to do (fairly enough) with Locke and co.
    If the controversy is that Bloom was no William Bennett but an atheistic wolf in sheep’s clothing, fair enough: he was, apparently, an atheist, an aesthete and in metaphysics may well have leant more towards Socratic skepticism than Platonic Realism. But he never purported to be in the business of wholesale edification ala Bennett, or to be a Burkean Traditionalist. What Deneen charges Bloom with wanting to do with the canon would be, for Bloom, the height of frivolity and unserious reading, and it is abundantly evident throughout Bloom’s published works that this is *not* what he had in mind.
    Finally,I must respectfully suggest that there is a danger of dilettantism in the handling of the Great Books suggested by Mr. Deneen, just as their is in the version he represents as that of Bloom (and others). Aquinas’ great achievement, and the Catholic church’s long history of respectful appropriation of Aristotle, does not mean that we can or should simply ‘baptize’ Aristotle’s works and not engage with them as the secularistic, rationalist speculations that they are. I’m not saying the Church has no right to make good use of them, but there’s something a tad glib about this suggestion of moving from individual to institutional relativism. I still fail to see that there has to be any ‘relativism’ here at all!

  10. This essay makes no sense. The whole purpose of the Great Books to present the wide range of thought that makes up the best of western civilization as well as some of the worst.
    It would be utterly bizarre if the Great Books formed a consistent ideological point. Any philosophy text is going to present all sorts of arguments that contradict each other.
    I don’t agree that some Catholic approach to indoctrinating students on Marx or anything else is right. All the texts can be examined critically without hoisting some particular set of values.

  11. “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 think the best approach is to engage seriously with the arguments of all the ‘Great Books’ – and look seriously at the consequences they’ve had; particularly relevant for Marx which can easily seduce naive minds. But Marxist lecturers will of course favour Marx.
    Perhaps the most important thing is to treat the examination of the Books as a search for Truth – objective truth, NOT a matter of personal preference. “Here are the arguments, here is what we think is the best answer”. It needs to be done seriously though, and students need to be free to reach different conclusions. Even if they disagree with you now, they may come to see wisdom in your position later.

  12. I think the good professor’s argument has less to do with the lack of a common understanding of what education means (though that is certainly part of it) than institutional and cultural refusal to choose a point of view and see the world through it. To me, he’s arguing that the decision to allow the individual to make up their own mind, without some grounding in any particular tradition or worldview, does nothing to improve their understanding of a particular subject and further perpetuates the atomization of the culture and tradition.
    As a classical liberal, I would disagree. A worldview freely chosen, be it traditional, progressive or otherwise, can lead to a stronger culture, but not necessarily a strong common culture, since each adherent to a particular view came there freely. Professor Deneen may view that as relativism from the perspective of a traditionalist, but I think that immersion in a Great Books tradition that leads to a rejection of some elements of that tradition is a valid reaction (though as a classical liberal, I would also say its sub-optimal).

  13. The underlying problem, as you seem to suggest, is that we no longer have a coherent understanding of what it means to be educated. For some education is little less than job-training; for others it is indoctrination into political correctness; for still others it’s a means of social engineering.

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