1. In my continuing outreach to the Porchers, let me highlight an argument against “Great Books” education that I read and heard lately in various places by the eminent Dr. Pat Deneen. (I’m too lazy to link and Patrick is free to correct.)
2. First off, it’s relativistic. The student learns that certain books are great, but they disagree on God, morality, science, and all that. So the student has to judge which kind of greatness is most true and the best guidance on how to live. But said student also learns that he or she is much dumber than Plato, Thomas Aquinas, and Nietzsche. So how to judge? What right does insignificant me have to judge? This promiscuous appreciation for greatness, to say the least, is not an obvious cure for the moral impotence and confusion of our time.
3. This relativism is especially a problem, Patrick adds, in the best seller by Allan Bloom.There we get the strong impression that great thought has emptied the contents out of moral life—beginning with religion and the family. And because the Enlightenment isn’t really touched by allegedly deep criticism by Maritain (and other neo-Thomists), T.S. Eliot, and so forth, there’s no going back. So these days the choice is between being a philosopher and being nothing, but most people can’t be philosophers. And philosophy is nothing more than living constantly in light of the finality of death and has no moral content beyond what’s good for philosophy. Not only that, finally all the great books—the ones by the philosophers—agree on this philosophy or nothing thing. (Obviously I’ve given my own spin on this to get your attention.) Patrick goes too far in calling Bloom a relativist; he has a standard. But how helpful is it, really, in deciding how to live these days?
4. A lot of Great Books education is combined with a kind of uncritical deference to the philosophic wisdom of the American founders. But from the point of view of a professor at a Catholic university (Patrick’s), don’t we have to be judgmental about the efforts of, say, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke not only to “tame” but to destroy Christianity [see the symposium on Strauss referenced below]? And don’t we have to explain [employing the truth about who we are] why they failed, contrary to their intentions or at least hopes (says Patrick and me)? So don’t we have to criticize our “political Fathers” for being so Lockean (says Patrick especially)? We can’t quote Jefferson on “monkish ignorance and superstition” as if he were simply right or great or whatever! I would add, following the example of the best American Catholic “public philosophers” John Courtney Murray and Orestes Brownson, that we should, as loyal Americans [we Porchers and REM fans are all about standing for the place where we live], actually explain why our Fathers built better than they knew—which means criticizing their thinking and affirming [most of] their practice with a theory that at least wasn’t completely their own.
5. Patrick also says that a Catholic university should give “the pride of place” in teaching Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Not only are they “our team,” so to speak, but they teach much truth that can’t be found in other great books. That means, it seems to me, rejecting the ancient vs. modern distinction as the key to understanding the West and even reason vs. revelation the way it is understood by many Great Books teachers.
6. We American Catholics or just we American realistic postmodern conservatives don’t necessarily know that much about Maritain or Eliot, but we do know that our American Thomists Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor know stuff that Jefferson certainly didn’t [and, I willingly admit, even Maritain didn’t and MacIntyre doesn’t].
7. Still, the polemic for teaching “Great Books” remains very valuable in pushing the teaching of “real books,” as opposed to technical books, textbooks, or trendy books.
And I have admit that I always give the “lawyer’s argument” for the great book I’m teaching, while often merely alluding to criticisms both tentative and pointed.The Catholic approach is not appropriate for a teacher at a non-Catholic college, and my approach usually has the effect I can’t completely explain of making my smart Christian students more Christian. And maybe even my Deist students more Christian over the long haul, at least. I don’t claim to be evangelical enough to even know how to make that my primary “learning objective.”