Thursday, April 8, 2010

Against the Great Books?


The Great Books are not the solution to the problems of higher education in this country. In fact, the Great Books are enemies of wisdom.

How could a proud graduate of the University of Dallas like myself say such a thing? Such a statement practically amounts to blasphemy!

But, before you dismiss me as some crazy liberal, let me point out that I am not the one who made those statements. They were made by Patrick Deneen and Fritz Wilhelmsen--hardly crazy liberals. If anything, they are usually described as crazy conservatives. And indeed, both men make their critique of Great Books programs from a conservative perspective. Last week Deneen wrote an article "Why the Great Books Aren't the Answer" which has sparked some lively discussion on a couple Internet forums. Deneen's concerns, though, are not entirely original; they were voiced years ago by one of UD's very own, the late Fritz Wilhelmsen, in his essay "The Great Books: Enemies of Wisdom."

There is a lot to think about in Deneen's and Wilhelmsen's articles, but I would like to focus on one interesting issue they both raise, and one which is, I believe, at the heart of their critique of Great Books programs: the role of tradition in a proper education.

Deneen identifies two potential effects that Great Books programs will have on most students. On the one hand, making students read a "potpourri of conflicting views"--from the ancient Greeks through the 20th century--can easily lead a student to adopt relativism or to despair of ever finding the truth once he realizes that all the great thinkers he has read disagreed radically with one another. On the other hand, many students enter college with a progressive theory of history in their mind: all of history has reached its culmination in the present, therefore the present is the best. Instead of relativism, these students will simply be confirmed in progressivist dogma. But more worrisome than either relativism or progressivism by itself is the possibility that students will combine these twin dangers of relativism to form a single monster: the dogmatic relativist. The dogmatic relativist will believe that history, and therefore truth, has culminated in relativism.

To fend off these dangers, universities, in Deneen's view, need to give students a framework within which to read the Great Books, and not simply approach them with neutrality. Ultimately, Deneen (a professor at Georgetown) believes it is necessary to teach "in the light of the standards that the Catholic tradition would provide."

Wilhelmsen in his article focuses less on the conflicting content of the Great Books and more on the inadequacy of the Great Books in fostering in students the virtues necessary for the philosophical life. For Wilhelmsen, following Aristotle, philosophy is a way of knowing; it is not found in books, but rather in the philosopher's virtues, the habits of the mind, "through which things are understood in their causal structures." Philosophy, though, also requires that a master educate a beginner in these virtues. This approach to philosophy--which Wilhelmsen describes as it used to be practiced in Catholic universities in America--is at once both traditional and personal. Each student (and teacher) submits to the tradition, but is also able, thanks to his own virtues, to contribute to that tradition. Wilhelmsen at one point even uses the word "apprentice" to describe a student's relationship to his teacher. A philosophy department at a university, then, should in this respect quite literally resemble a craft guild.

For Wilhelmsen, one of the chief follies of the typical Great Books program, besides only teaching students what others said rather than to philosophize themselves, is to teach certain texts with no regard for the historical context in which they were written. Students are expected to cope with the most varied authors "without having the faintest hint of the kind of world within which these men lived and thought." In other words, the typical Great Books program utterly neglects the importance of tradition.

Deneen's and Wilhelmsen's critiques of Great Books programs, though they emphasize different aspects of education, both rest on the assumption that a student cannot learn the truth unless he is embedded within a craft and a tradition.

This insight that has been developed by Alisdair MacIntyre in the area of virtue ethics, especially in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (in particular, chapter III: “Too Many Thomisms?”) According to MacIntyre, tradition embodies the claim that “reason can only move towards being genuinely universal and impersonal insofar as it is neither neutral nor disinterested, that membership in a particular type of moral community, one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded, is a condition for genuinely rational enquiry and more especially for moral and theological enquiry.” This claim would sound preposterous to most people today, especially in a discussion of higher education, since most people conceive of higher education as “free enquiry." MacIntyre, however, defends the rationality of tradition by pointing to two things an apprentice in any craft has to learn:

[First,] the apprentice has to learn, at first from his or her teachers and then in his or her continuing self-education, how to identify mistakes made by him or herself in applying the acknowledged standards, the standards recognized to be the best available so far in the history of that particular craft…[Second,] the apprentice has to learn to distinguish between the kind of excellence which both others and he or she can expect of him or herself here and now and that ultimate excellence which furnishes both apprentices and mastercraftsmen with their telos.
But, how does an individual’s membership in a craft connect with a larger historical tradition? “The standards of achievement within any craft are justified historically. They have emerged from the criticism of their predecessors and they are justified because and insofar as they have remedied the defects and transcended the limitations of those predecessors as guides to excellent achievement within that particular craft.”

To conclude before I quote the entirety of Three Rival Versions, I would like not to provide a complete justification of tradition--that would require me to write books I am not capable of writing--but simply to draw out three implications which Deneen, Wilhelmsen, and MacIntyre's position has for higher education, particularly Catholic higher education.

First, we must take the historical aspect of learning within a tradition much more seriously than we do now. Many of the problematic aspects of a Great Books program arise from false philosophies of history--especially, as Deneen notes, relativism and progressivism. The solution is a proper understanding of education as initiation into a craft, into a tradition. And a tradition's standards, as MacIntyre reminds us, are justified historically.

Second, if we want to restore this understanding of education as initiation into a craft, we cannot make students fumble in the dark reading all the Great Books yet expect them somehow to figure out how to philosophize on their own. And realistically, we cannot expect students to find their own way into the tradition in the four short years of their undergraduate education. College is, in many cases, already a late stage to enter into a tradition. This means we have a lot of work to do in restoring the educational craft, not only at the university level, but also in high schools, and even in elementary schools.

Third, if any healthy tradition necessarily excludes fundamental dissent in order to teach students to philosophize, we have to radically rethink our notion of academic freedom. More specifically, we have to rethink the relationship of education and religion. Academic freedom today is often portrayed as the freedom to ignore or even disparage religion. But academic freedom is not the freedom to mock what is holy, or even to read the Great Books; academic freedom--as Wilhelmsen explains--is really the freedom of a craftsman working in a tradition.


Note: For further comments on Deneen's article, see Front Porch Republic and First Things.
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