Why the Great Books Are the Answer

In his recent essay, “Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer,” Patrick Deneen is correct about many things. He is correct to criticize conservative supporters of great books like Allan Bloom and William Bennett who see them as a throwback to the “good old days” of liberal education. He is correct to point out the shortcomings of advocates like Anthony Kroman who view them as a means to combat postmodernism and keep relativism and political correctness at bay. He is also correct to point out that these books “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.” Even a superficial reading of them will show that they are rent with discord and do not indoctrinate.
I agree with most of what Deneen says, but unfortunately he misses the point about the great books. Like most liberal critics of the canon—and even many conservative supporters—he writes about these books on political and philosophical, not pedagogical, grounds. As a result—again like most critics and many supporters of these books—he fails to address their primary value as tools of instruction that must be central to the undergraduate curriculum because they are the best and most efficient means to achieve the aims of liberal education.
True, the great books preserve a tradition and connect us with the past, as Bloom and Bennett have argued. But equally important is how they educate us as we read them; how they reinforce the varieties of knowledge, the skills, and the habits of thought and mind appropriate to free and cultured human beings; above all else, how they teach us to “read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit,” which Thoreau reminds us “is a noble exercise” that “will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem” and “requires a training such as the athletes underwent.” The great books are the answer because they promote continuity in the curriculum, reinforce the connections between the courses that students take, and foster genuine synergy of learning in the classroom.
The great books connect us with the past because they invite us to listen to and participate in the great conversations of the ages. “Great books of every civilization,” says Thoreau, “are the voices of human experience and as such worth reading and pondering.” They are a form of travel in time and space, allowing us to experience vicariously what others have thought, felt, and even seen. They enlarge our perspectives and strip us of our provincialism. They can free us from our self-imposed nonage and transform us, as Candide was transformed in Voltaire’s story, a modern version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

Candide believed that he lived in the best of all possible worlds, that Westphalia was the best of all places, Thunder-ten-tronck the best of all castles, Pangloss the wisest of all men, and Cunegonde the most beautiful of all women . . . until he was caught kissing her and kicked out of the province. Then his real education began. He discovered that people in other parts of the world lived and acted and thought differently than the people in Thunder-ten-tronck. In Peru he encountered two women whose lovers were monkeys and saw firsthand that people could have different customs and standards of morality. In Eldorado, a place “unknown to the rest of the world, and where all nature is of a sort so different from ours,” he compared the natives’ way of living with those of Europeans and admitted for the first time in his life, against everything he had been told, “that all was pretty bad in Westphalia.” Candide’s conclusion: “travel is certainly necessary.”
Voltaire teaches us through Candide, who left the cave of Westphalia, how to leave the caves of our own lives and overcome the Idols of our Minds. Only the author of a great book, observed Thoreau, “speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.” Read and taught properly, the great books will have the same effect on us because they expose us to the vast store of experience accumulated over the ages, they free us from vulgarity, and they transform us into thoughtful and reflective human beings; they teach us questions that are essential for living a good life, as well as viable answers to those questions; they compel us to consider fundamental alternatives to the problems we face today, even liberate us from historical necessity and a dependence on custom and tradition; above all, they open up new pathways of thought and press us to test the validity and cogency of our assumptions. Once we make this effort we begin to see ourselves and our society with the detachment that is necessary for proper examination. Along the way we learn something about the past, but more importantly, we learn something about ourselves. We may still be ignorant about many things, like Candide, but we will be wiser than before. Reading is certainly necessary.
But students don’t read great books, let alone good books, as Mark Bauerlein has shown in The Dumbest Generation, and they are graduating from college or university ignorant of the knowledge that has been learned and accumulated over time, even ignorant of the reasons for the values they embrace, such as toleration, human rights, and freedom of speech. They believe these values are important but do not know why they are important, why they developed, why they might be different or the same, and in what respects. If pressed, they certainly couldn’t explain why. They possess not knowledge but assumptions, dogmas, or opinions at best.
George Bernard Shaw, certainly no reactionary, warned us of this danger many years ago. One of the “main objects of education,” he writes in “Sham Education” (1931), “is to prevent people from defeating their own civilization by refusing to tolerate novelties and heresies which history proves they had better tolerate.” It’s interesting—but not surprising—that modern cognitive science substantiates what Shaw says. Acquired learning, Eric R. Kandel and Robert D. Hawkins tell us, goes beyond individuals toward the transmission of culture from generation to generation. In this sense tradition is like memory in that it is a means for “behavioral adaptation” and a “powerful force for social progress.” The loss of memory, like the loss of tradition, “leads to loss of contact with one’s immediate self, with one’s life history, and with other human beings” (see “The Biological Basis of Learning and Individuality” in The Scientific America Book of the Brain, 1999).
Tradition is not indoctrination but where past meets present. It is, writes Mark Van Doren, “the medium through which we understand one another when communication takes place. It is the only way of knowing what we are. . . . It is what leaves novelty possible, in science or in art, for it marks the end from which beginnings can be made. Without it there can be no progress of any sort, and civilization dies.” This is precisely where we are headed if modern educators continue devaluing the great books and perpetuating intellectual nonage.
However, if the great books merely preserved tradition, then their value, and even their usefulness, would be limited and stale, as Deneen correctly points out. But in overlooking their instructional role he fails to consider how they provide students with a shared knowledge and experience that is necessary for a pluralistic society like ours; how they encourage dialogue and discussion through mutual confidence and good will; how they promote communication through embedded references and a common vocabulary which enable us to understand each other.
How many readers grasped my meaning as soon as I mentioned Candide because they have read the book themselves? How many—even among college and university graduates—will have missed the point? No doubt other books can have a similar effect, but the additional advantage to reading a great book is that it simultaneously stirs imaginative understanding and presents the possibility of transforming students’ minds, as happened in a class in which I assigned Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
Before reading the book, every student said that adultery is absolutely wrong and inexcusable; after reading it, many students had changed their minds. They still believed that adultery was wrong, but they exonerated Emma because Flaubert had masterfully recreated her greatness of soul and the oppressive bourgeois world that drove her to commit her sin. More importantly, they learned the value of a primary source and universal book, not in the sense that Madame Bovary explains everything, but in the sense that it gave them a complete vision of Flaubert’s world as he saw it at the time. When studied with other great books, such as Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Zola’s Germinal, it does teach students about the tradition of literature within which Flaubert is writing, but it also establishes appropriate connections and introduces new patterns of thought that are essential for learning and memory to form, as modern cognitive science also shows.
The value of reading books in this way, according to David Sousa in How The Brain Learns, is that past learning “always influences the acquisition of new learning.” In fact, the “more connections that students can make between past learning and new learning, the more likely they are to determine sense and meaning and thus retain the new learning.” And when connections “can be extended across curriculum areas,” Sousa adds, “they establish a framework of associative networks that will be recalled for future problem solving.”
Modern cognitive studies further confirm that the more students read books in relation to each other, the more they can read, since genuine learning takes place through appropriate connections and associations. Eric Jensen writes in The Enriching Brain that the evidence is clear: “the more you learn, the more you can learn. Complex, environmental enhancement produce higher levels of proteins associated with learning and memory.” That’s because complexity challenges the brain better than anything else, fostering what I call genuine synergy of learning.
This leads to a third reason the great books are the answer, and that’s because they reinforce the varieties of knowledge, the skills, and the habits of thought and mind appropriate to the free and cultured human being. The great books are the most practical texts that students can read precisely because they are the most intellectually challenging books they can read. They expose students to momentous ideas while teaching them how to penetrate to the root of things, follow their intellect, and acquire genuine understanding. They force students to stretch their minds by thinking through complex arguments in all fields of inquiry. They provide the kind of complexity that cognitive scientists say is necessary to maintain brain health, promote learning, and stave off boredom. They never enforce conformity of thought, they are never monolithic, they never indoctrinate. Those who read them to confirm what they believe, says Harvey Mansfield, do not really read them.
A fourth reason the great books are the answer is that they teach us to read, not for paltry convenience, but in “a high sense,” as Thoreau writes, as “a noble intellectual exercise” during which “we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.” Because they are difficult and challenging they give students time to discover a sense of plot and character, an eye for structure and arguments, an ear for style. They cultivate taste and judgment and an esthetic vision by exposing them to fine things, as Mark Bauerlein also discusses in The Dumbest Generation. Because great books are difficult and challenging they develop verbal expression and judgment, which require as much intellectual discipline and rigor as mathematical expression, as Charles Murray demonstrates in Real Education. And since verbal expression is a tool for intellectuals and the managerial class—e.g. for people in positions of power—we do a great disservice to our students by depriving them of the habits of thought and mind and the skills that will enable them to compete with their peers and advance in society.
The great books are the answer because they alone can support a general undergraduate curriculum that is both synoptic and precise, and produce “a necessary enrichment of intellectual character more quickly than alternative disciplines directed to the same object,” as Whitehead says. Collectively they cultivate the qualities that most professors say are essential for undergraduates to possess: critical thinking, moral reasoning, the ability to communicate, preparation for citizenship, living with diversity in a global society, breadth of interests—all of which traditional liberal education aims to achieve.
Lofty debates about the great books appeal to academics and intellectuals on both the right and the left, but they don’t solve the real problem, which is why students are not learning the subjects they are supposed to learn, as the 2009 study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and others show. We’d do better to discuss the remedies that are needed to save liberal education—intensified pedagogy and attention to the art of teaching—and how the great books can contribute to those goals.
J. M. Anderson received his Ph.D. in history from Syracuse University. He is the author of The Honorable Burden of Public Office: English Humanists and Tudor Politics in the Sixteenth Century (forthcoming, 2010), and a manuscript in search of a publisher, Why Can’t Professors Teach? Why Liberal Education Has Failed and What Modern Educators Must Do To Save It


J.M. Anderson

J. M. Anderson is author of The Skinny on Teaching: What You Don't Learn in Graduate School.

5 thoughts on “Why the Great Books Are the Answer

  1. This is a fine article. Regardless of who the author does or does not cite, my current “highly motivated” learners, sadly, would have a tough time making sense of any of these references. Thanks no child left behind. They have not even read the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence. They know little of their own national history. Though not “great books”, they are great documents. In the end, kudos to the author for pointing out how to use these classics in a pedagogically rich way. I hope you find a publisher for your teaching book soon.

  2. One might wonder why, with the many references to Thoreau and Voltaire, the author fails to mention the great historian of ideas Christopher Dawson, the profound Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain and his mystic wife Raissa, and the deepest religious thinker of the nineteenth century John Henry Cardinal Newman? They truly understood deeply the substance of the great books.

  3. Harold Bloom did write “The Western Canon.” However, Allan Bloom was a classicist, a professor at the University of Chicago (which had and may still have a Great Books curriculum), and the author of “The Closing of the American Mind,” which is a critique of American higher education. The “moron” who wrote “The Bell Curve” was actual a duo – Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray.

  4. Um, it’s HAROLD Bloom not Allan.
    Harold Bloom is the guy who wrote The Western Canon and mourns the elevation of inferior works because of PC reasons.
    Allan Bloom is the moron who wrote The Bell Curve.

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