Great Books of The Western World


In my sophomore or junior year of high school,  the  family had just returned from the traditional summer vacation week on Long Beach Island.  Positioned at our front door on Mill Street in Bristol was a salesman for the Great Books of the Western World.  A reader and budding intellectual, I had filled out a coupon expressing my interest in the Great Books.

The Great Books program dates to the early 1950s.  At the University of Chicago, Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins  (University President) developed a list of books (the classics  of the Western World), that they believed, were the backbone of a liberal education.  By 1952, the Encyclopedia Britannica company had published a set of 54 volumes, the “Great Books of the Western World.”  The series was color coded — Literature, History and Social Sciences, Natural History and Mathematics, Philosophy and Theology.  Authors included Homer, Sophocles, Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Aristotle, Virgil, Ptolemy (the Greeks and Romans); Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (Christians); Chaucer, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Galileo, Descartes, Milton, Newton, Locke, (Europeans); Federalist Papers and Herman Melville (United States); Darwin and Freud (modern thinkers) — you get the idea.  Britannica market a faux leather bound set with  a  two volume “Syntopicon” – – an index to Great Ideas. Several colleges adopted the GB program as its core curriculum.

My parents were extremely supportive of education and reading.  So they purchased a set of the Great Books.  We already had the Encyclopedia Britannica.  I soon took off for a liberal arts education at Boston College.  I would be assigned readings from the Great Books authors but I always bought a paperback edition of their writings instead of using the tissue paper set sold by Britannica. After college the set  eventually migrated to my house.  I frequently said I kept the books and would read them in my retirement.  But before retirement, the books were lost in our first flood.

A few weeks ago, I saw a notice for a Great Books discussion group.  One of my New Year’s ideas was to get involved in a book discussion group.  I called.  To my amazement this GB goup had been meeting for decades.   Perfect.  Although GB discussion groups can follow the traditional canon of readings, the program also allows groups to choose readings.  Because of the holidays, the Langhorne group chose a short Inquirer article, “Liberal Arts Take a Wrong Direction” by Robert George.  There was also a short rebuttal letter, “Updated Curriculum To Shape a Better World.”

The article title and first paragraph gave me a strong suspicion about George’s point of view. “When many of the flower children and new-left activists of the ’60s became professors and university administrators in the ’70s and ’80s, they did not entirely overthrow the idea of liberal-arts education. Many proclaimed themselves it’s loyal partisans.”  The “wrong direction” was the “ACLU lawyers and Planned Parenthood volunteers and ‘community organizers'” — all those liberal types who according to George had a “mission to create soldiers in the battle for ‘social change.'”  And pretty obviously, according to George, they were totally wrong.

For  me the article was a right wing rant against the excesses of the 1960s and the presumed radicalization of college campuses (like the libeal-radical slant of mainstream media’ until there was Fox). George cloaked himself in the self righteous mantle of the Great Books.  That’s where students of the liberal arts should discover classical values, moral truths and true liberation.  Much like Conservatives who proclaim that only they correctly interpret the Constitution and the Bible. According to them,  liberal revisionists promote a do your own thing, personal auththenticity and lead students away from the truth.  This is  not a new critique.  Several years ago I bought a book for the Holy Ghost Prep Library.  The author went college by college, course by course, instructor by instructor, exposing liberal bias and liberal indoctrination.

Reading George’s article I recalled a leading Catholic theologian (probably John Courtney Murray) who lectured a room full of Boston College students in 1965 and pointed to a map with pins locating communist indoctrination camps where  young anti-war protesters were trained. My attempt to tell him that my “training” happened alone, reading and thinking on the banks of the Delaware River in Bucks County was not heard.

I checked Robert George on the Internet.  He is a professor  of jurisprudence at Princeton and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. He  has been politically involved in various conservative organizations after his views on abortion pushed him out of the liberal Democratic camp.  He is the former chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, an advocacy group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.  He drafted the Manhattan Declaration endorsed by various Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical church leaders.  The document promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against legislation that might implicate churches in abortion or same-sex marriage.  I don’t begrudge or want to deny George the right to his political views.  In fact he probably raises some good questions. My problem is that he doesn’t raise the questions for discussion (as would be supported by the Great Books movement).  Instead he has the correct answers; he holds the Canon.

I believe the questions imbedded in George’s article are (1) to what extent should there be a Core Curriculum, (2) to what extent can teaching be value free (i.e. not biased by the point of view or ideology of the instructor), and (3) when, if ever, do teachers (and parents) have truths that need to be taught.

My undergraduate degree in English from Boston College was seeped in traditional Liberal Arts (and the Great Books).  At the same time I was part of generation that said don’t tell me what I must learn, I will chose what interests me.  We fought required courses. When I looked at my own 40 years of Elementary, High School and College teaching, I think I tried to straddle the fence.  Although I never fully embraced E.D. Hirsch’s “Cultural Literacy” or Howard Bloom’s “Western Canon,” I had my BC training and owned a set of the Great Books.  Even planned to read them in retirement.  And I went crazy when 90% of the students in a graduate education class could not identify Henry David Thoreau.  My eight year grandson Eli knows HDT from several great children’s books.   But I thought, memorization of core knowledge was insufficient for a real education.  Hands on, personal choice, exploration, John Dewey, the ’60s critique of authority were also important components to education.  The trick was how to reach a balance.

Number 2. To what extent can teaching be value free.  I guess I first faced this question in the early 1970s when I was teaching American History to 7th grade students.  I believed (oops, there is a value) that current events should be part of the course.  The Vietnam Nam was headlines.  I had strong views on Viet Nam, what, how could I deal with the war.  My first year I avoided the topic.  No mention of Viet Nam.  But I soon realized that wasn’t right.  In fact I also began to believe that my values were unavoidable — they showed themselves in the material I chose to discuss, the books I asked kids to read, the way I arranged desks, gave assignments, graded reports.  Very little I did as an educator was value free.

Afte 40 years of teaching I handle the value question in a number of ways.  I explain to students that my values will influence how and what  I teach.  I explain that history is interpretation.  We are never 100% sure we hold the truth.  In recent US History courses, I have students look at five different Columbus stories — one is a Soprano episode, “Columbus Day” that pits Italian Americans against Native Americans.  They have quite different interpretations of Columbus.  Students also read in our text book (fairly traditional book, The American Pagent).  They read a chapter in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”  I met Zinn decades ago when he spoke at anti-war teach-ins at Boston University.  “A Patriot’s History of the United States” is a counter to Zinn’s liberal interpretation.  And finally James Lowen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me” compares traditional historical interpretation with revisionists texts.  The students’  assignment is to compare the texts and write their own Columbus story.

In any course and any topic, I try to provide students with alternative views, and always make them aware of Point of View.  Some times purposely and sometimes inadvertently, my own views become quite obvious.  In fact in teachers education courses, I usually ask students to evaluate my POV on a number of dimensions.  Some of them seem To  “know me like a book” but others describe a me I don’t fully recognize.

My final question.  Are there values we believe true and are obligated to teach students.  My answer is unequivocally yes.  I do not feel I am indoctrinating students in liberal thinking when I teach that racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are wrong.  These are American values enshrined in our Constitution, well in laws and Supreme Court decisions.  In teaching United States history, I spend significant time on slavery and its aftermath, Jim Crow, modern Civil Rights, and racial issues today.  In the aftermath of 9-11, I engaged student teachers in curriculum choices they would make  — to teach the facts of 9-11, hero stories, sensitivity to Islam and Arabs or not teach the event (some school districts made this decision).  Our choice reflects our values and something we believed to be true.

Before the meeting of the Langhorne Great Books discussion group, I joked with some friends that the discussion of the Robert George article would probably say a lot about the group.  When we met, no one seemed to support George and a few like me were pretty critical.  But in the GB tradition, our group leader attempted to keep us focused on the text.  What was said?  What did it mean?  And that is not always easy to do.  Our biases, point of view, ideology intrude.  What we read and hear is filtered through “our lens.”

I look forward to returning the the GB discussion group in two weeks.  We are reading several short stories.  I enjoy being pushed to read the text,  I believe there are classic works and ideas that should be part of a liberal education.  But I also believe in drawing on my personal experience and seeing knowledge through my personal filter.

I’ll end this (what might be my rant) with a quote from “Truth In History” by Oscar Handlin. “While the world of the elapsed past has it’s own reality, independent  of who attempts to view and describe it, and is thus objective, the scholar’s vision is subjective, at least to the extent that his own point of observation and the complex lens of prejudice, interest and preconception shape what he describes and therefore what he can portray. ”  I believe this mix of objective reality and subjective interpretation apply to all knowledge and learning.  And maybe suggest The tension between objective truth and subjective interpretation.





3 thoughts on “Great Books of The Western World

  1. Great post Vince. In 2011 my grandmother died 10 years after her husband and 100 years 7 months after her birth. I got the chore of cleaning out the apartment where the two of them lived since 1975. There was a Great Books collection resembling the photos you put on your blog fitted into a custom 360degree wooden bookcase about 30 inches tall and I think provided along with the volume set. I donated it to the Greenfield Elementary School where the library is named after my late Grandfather Gustave G. Amsterdam. PS regarding Greenfield and Gus, I highly recommend Dan Rottenberg’s recently published history of AMG titled “The Outsider” from Temple University press. I know you will love this book.

  2. Thanks Mike. Not only the Standards but technology contributes to less literature. I had an English teacher tell me last year that she couldn’t assign a long novel any more. Kids attention span too short! This is in Prep school?

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