Tag Archives: great books

The Cave-Dwellers of Shimer

20071204_Shimer_color_trans_bckgrd.jpgOn 19 April, the board of trustees of Shimer College in Chicago, by an 18 to 16 vote, ousted Dr. Thomas Lindsay from the presidency after little more than a year of service. For sixty years, tiny Shimer (about ten faculty and 100 students) has touted itself as a Great Books college on the Robert Maynard Hutchins plan. Students converse about the content of texts with one another, guided by a professorial facilitator employing the Socratic method. The experience, it was believed, would “sustain a life-long passion for learning.” Accordingly, Shimer constructed and reconstructed its mission statement to reflect—and to extend— Hutchins’s ideals. Since 1996, the ambitious Shimer educational experience purported to prepare students for “active citizenship,” not just in the United States, but “in the world.” After four years of matriculation, Shimer’s graduates would learn to shun “passivity” for “responsible action” by moving “beyond either unquestioning acceptance of authority or its automatic mistrust.”
Dr. Lindsay came to Shimer from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) where he served as deputy director and oversaw We the People, a well-regarded program designed “to encourage and enhance the teaching, study, and understanding of American history, culture, and democratic principles.” There he attracted national attention with impressive publications and lectures on how to teach the principles of the founding to the American people. Inaugurated as Shimer’s thirteenth president In January 2009, he set to work trying to elevate an institution possessed of noble goals but gasping from slipping standards, radical egalitarian governance structures, a bare-cupboard endowment, and a long history of financial distress, including several bankruptcies. Re-accreditation itself was hanging in the balance. Dr. Lindsay expanded to thirty-four the number of sitting members on the board of trustees to include educators and philanthropists who could help Shimer out of its chronic fiscal woes. Raising money in good times requires persistence and long hours to persuade prospective donors. During a recession, the task can seem Sisyphean. Dr. Lindsay says he spent two out of every three days during his first year at Shimer on the road with tin cup in hand.
Many at Shimer made known their dislike of Dr. Lindsay from the outset. Despite his obvious relish for the Great Books, many saw him as an outsider with a suspicious agenda. They complained when they discerned that he might be moving to make the founding documents of the United States more central to a Shimer education. In The Federalist Papers, a work that Dr. Lindsay would have liked Shimer’s undergraduates to read cover to cover, Publius devotes the majority of the eighty-five essays to the republican character of the Constitution. Of the two species of popular government, republicanism had refining, insulating features that democracy did not. In fact, in The Federalist Papers, the word democracy appears less than a dozen times and when discussed in its pure form draws a pejorative contrast. In a society composed of a small number of persons, Publius warns, the “citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction,” and they “are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues” of others. One would be hard-pressed to find in the United States an institution of higher learning with a more radically egalitarian and democratic structure than Shimer’s. Three faculty members and two students sit as voting members on the board of trustees. Shimer’s representative assembly consists of all students, faculty, and staff, with one vote each. Dominated by activist students, the assembly has set itself up as the moral authority of the college, and members reference the Assembly’s majority votes as if they were exquisite expressions of Rousseau’s general will. When dissidents protested that Dr. Lindsay was not sufficiently steeped in Shimer’s traditions read that he refused to kow-tow to the majoritarian voice of the predominant element in Shimer’s Assembly.

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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.

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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.

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Educating for Citizenship at Brown University: An Essay In Honor Of Allan Bloom

Brown University has been described as providing “the worst education in America.” Brown’s New Curriculum, far from requiring that students read a list of Great Books, has no core of any kind. Brown students are free to “shop” their courses and take only the ones they like. Brown’s libertarian attitude toward curricular structure no doubt influences the sort of courses that wind up being taught at the place.

Consider the goings-on in a course that has become popular at Brown in recent years. On the first day of this course, the instructor informs the delighted students that it is fine with him if they never attend another lecture during the semester. He admits that he would like them to attend their weekly discussion sections, but he assures them that they need not worry about being lectured at there: the sections in this course are conducted as student-led seminars, with the graduate teaching assistants instructed to refrain from interrupting the student’s musings in any way. There are weekly writing assignments in the course, but students are always free to write about topics that happen to interest them rather than the topic that was assigned. The syllabus indicates that the course includes a midterm, but the professor hastens to set them at ease about that. To the sound of cheers, he tells them that they may adjust the details of the questions so as to better display their own strengths and interests. He promises them in any case that their exams never will be evaluated in terms of how well the essays they write happen to fit with the questions that he (the professor) asks on the exam. Instead, each exam essay is to be evaluated simply “on its own terms.” This course concludes with a final exam sternly stipulating that students compose an essay in response to one of three questions. But the last question turns out to be: “3. Write a question about any author you have read, argument you have heard, or any idea that has occurred to you during this course. Now, answer it.”

I first read Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind twelve years ago, the year I began teaching at Brown. By the time I reached page 63 and read the sentence beginning “Education for our times must try to find whatever there is in students that might yearn for completion…”, I was enchanted. Bloom’s claim that there was a great wound lying unattended to at the soul of the university, a wound of emptiness endured without understanding by recent generations of students, resonated profoundly with my own earlier experiences as a professor at a number of what Bloom calls “the 20 or 30 best universities”. Perhaps because I had studied classics as an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Bloom’s prescription by book’s end – a return to “the good old Great Books approach” (334) – completed the spell. At last, someone had brilliantly grasped and confidently expressed worries that many of us had long but dimly harbored about the enterprise of education in America. Here was a champion worth backing.

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