Great Books and Democracy

David Clemens

I just hosted a three-week colloquium exploring the relationship between great books and democracy which featured former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson, and poet and former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia. Pinsky stressed how the medium for poetry is the body of the speaker, making poetry individual and on human scale in our mass media world.  Hanson argued three positions which give postmodern academics hissy fits:  that there is such a thing as human nature, that we can learn from the past (reading gives us knowledge without having to go through painful experience), and that life is tragic, not therapeutic.  He attributed California’s manifold problems to a utopian desire to be what we should be rather than a realistic desire to be what we actually could be, reminding me that California was the cradle of the Self-Esteem Movement.  Gioia warned about the cultural dangers of not reading, citing in particular non-readers’ disengagement from civic and social life.  Reading requires “sustained linear attention” which is not a property of electronic entertainments. Although Gioia was optimistic (“we can create the society in which we want to live”), the nagging question at the center of the colloquium remains:  if reading and poetry nurture the individual and have positive civic consequences, might it be that the fate of liberal arts education is tied to the fate of liberal democracy itself, that the fate of literature is entwined with the fate of the West? Analytic philosopher Martha Nussbaum offered her answer in the Times Literary Supplement (April 30).  As colleges carve away the liberal arts in the name of economy or productivity, Nussbaum says,

[r]adical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through.  Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive.  If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful, docile, technically trained machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.
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