Why Great Books?

In the January 2013 issue of First Things, Professor Patrick Deneen contends that the decline in the study of great books is to be found in the very arguments within the great books themselves.

While these arguments do exist, their role and the extent of their influence, is difficult to assess.  Admittedly the reflexive use of “critical thinking” as an argument for the study of great books is absurd since no one quite knows what it is or how to achieve it.  Moreover, the essence of any thinking is related to a knowledge core and experience base.  Without these conditions “critical thinking” is merely one more cliché in the armory of academic rhetoric.

John Dewey argued that the reading of great books is essential as a preparation for citizenship.  But since his view of citizenship is an individual circumscribed by “the collective,” the readings are designed to justify an end, not as an open-ended dialogue.

Then there is the view that great books leads inextricably to a humanitarian stance, a hallmark civilizational insight.  Yet Joseph Mengele, the butcher of Nazi depravity, was a scholar of classic texts.  Books can make a world and can destroy the world or even be irrelevant to the world.  Great books have housed within them the treasure of human wisdom, but it is not revealed by simple reading.  Are there books designed to perpetuate virtue or to transform education?  This bifurcated model offered by Professor Deneen is a useful concept.  For if one accepts the latter stance of transformation,  great books may be an encumbrance best displaced at the heart of education.

Deneen concludes by suggesting we consider “humble books, or at least great books that  teach humility, in contrast to those great books that advance a version of Promethean greatness, an aspiration that has undermined the study of books.”  What is called for ultimately is a “liberation from the tyranny of our unconscious submission to the ideas that dominate our age by considering others that have been discarded.”

Clearly this is praise, albeit modest praise, for “humble books” as a witness for where we stand at the moment.  But I remain unpersuaded by his argument, in part because Deneen does not truly address the importance of great books in the total educational experience.  His is right to contend these texts do not necessarily mold citizens, or encourage critical thought or offer civilizational insights.  These are weak confirmations for great books as an educational core.

What is important, what stands as the justification for great books, is that the canon asks the appropriate questions, questions that as Cardinal Newman noted, go to the very essence of education.  Instead of being narrowly defined by disciplinary restrictions, great books cut across the human experience to ask, why are we here;  how do we leave our mark; how do we control inner desire; to whom do we owe allegiance and why and recognizing the derision of death, what gives life meaning.

These, of course, are not the only questions, but they are queries unfastened to disciplinary study.  Moreover, these are questions designed to inspire thought, not  simple answers since those aren’t readily available.  In a university setting, where vocationalism is in the ascendency, a place where students often regurgitate the anticipated response to professional testing, questions that provoke are rarely on display.

Yet it is the questions that lie at the heart of the curriculum and it is the questions that are evoked from the reading of great books.  Professor Deneen appropriately tells us to moderate our claims about these texts.  I would agree; yet I would urge him to consider the real reason these books should remain at the very center of the curriculum.  In education, the question is often more significant than the answer.


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