Why Read Great Books?

David Randall

This article originally appeared at First Things on April 18.


Three professors involved in Great Books programs at Columbia University—Casey N. Blake, Roosevelt Montás, and Tamara Mann Tweel—have given their answer to this question in Inside Higher Ed, and there’s much to admire in what they say. “The age-old goals of humanistic education are character formation and training in the civic arts, not the creation of political cadres,” they write, adding: “The search for wisdom is not the same as the search for partisan advantage.” In their own courses, Blake, Montás, and Tweel encourage debate by assigning both Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom and John Dewey’s Liberalism and Social Action.

But they also justify reading Great Books in the language of left-wing pedagogy. And this is less wonderful in its effects, for it tends to subordinate Great Books to progressive goals.

Blake, Montás, and Tweel write that Great Books programs should be part of a Deweyan “civic education.” They should forward the “[o]wnership of the democratic tradition [that] is a key to a civic education,” so that students become “active participants in shaping their country’s democratic future.” Blake et al. conclude: “Institutions of higher education should collectively commit to creating an informed citizenry by democratizing the Great Books and connecting our least-enfranchised citizens with the challenging, fraught and majestic tradition of self-governance.”

This language of “democracy” and “civic education” has an unfortunately long history as a euphemism for “advocacy for progressive politics.” Blake, Montás, and Tweel avow that they are not “search[ing] for partisan advantage”—but their pedagogical vocabulary gives a strong impression that the reason to teach Great Books is to promote a progressive politics.

They strengthen this impression with phrasing such as, “The recent election added urgency to the day’s discussion, throwing in relief the question ‘What does democratic education mean today?’” That sentence only makes sense with progressive presumptions: You have to assume that the election result was a problem, which “democratic education” needs to solve.

Their argument should be understood with an awareness of its intended audience. Blake, Montás, and Tweel note a recent op-ed in The New York Times by Molly Worthen, detailing how progressive teachers and students frequently condemn Great Books as instruments of oppression when they don’t ignore them entirely, and disdain them as fit only for conservatives. Blake et al.’s argument may be the only one that can persuade progressives to support reading Great Books at all—and possibly should be read as an example of the “Noble Lie.”

And after all, shouldn’t there be some political motive for teaching Great Books, even if it isn’t a narrowly progressive one? Don’t we read Great Books to acquire the civic capacity to sustain our great republic? Isn’t the point of the canon to support the tradition of civic humanism?—the thin line from Cicero to Salutati, from Machiavelli to James Madison?

The problem is when you focus too much on the civic arts and not enough on formation of character. Man may be a political animal, but that isn’t all he is. We read Jane Austen to learn how to love with a happy mixture of sense and sensibility. We read King Lear not just for its political lessons, but for some shock of sympathy with a foolish old man whose loving daughter died. We read Montaigne (among other reasons) so we may learn to die well. We read Great Books to become better people, and to share in the long tradition of readers who have read these works before us. We would be better people even if we read Great Books in a tyranny—and we become better people by becoming more than narrowly political. It doesn’t matter whether the politics are progressive or not—we shouldn’t have a strictly political rationale for reading Great Books.

Then, too, we should read Great Books because they are very good books indeed, regardless of the message they convey. Great Books are also supposed to be an aesthetic education, to help students acquire a non-political standard of taste. And to learn how to make a judgment of taste is the way to learn how to make a judgment of morals—which is indispensable for both character formation and the civic arts.

Blake, Montás, and Tweel offer a rationale that ultimately makes Great Books a tool to achieve political ends. They would be a better tool than most of the other books assigned to students nowadays, but still only a tool. At the end of the day, I don’t see why teachers or students would bother. “Education for democracy” doesn’t provide firm grounding for Great Books—only quicksand.

Image Credit: Public Domain.

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