Professor Patrick Deneen has posted the text of one of his recent lectures to his blog, What I Saw in America. In his remarks, delivered to the University of Texas at Austin (originally under the title “Against Great Books,” later softened to “Why Great Books?”), he questions what is often a go-to remedy by those concerned with the state of education in America.
Agreeing with the diagnosis that education has become unmoored from its original goal of transmitting our knowledge of the past in favor of an “experiential” or laboratory-centric approach (which he credits John Dewey for popularizing in the United States, even as he traces its ultimate origins back to Enlightenment thinkers like Francis Bacon [learning was to be put in the service of "the relief of the human estate"]), Deneen breaks from what has become a standard prescription for the illness. While he thoroughly supports the reading of Western civilization’s foundational books, he’s not sure how viable or desirable a return to some imagined canon would be absent a deeper understanding of man prefiguring and guiding that venture:
The decline of the role of Great Books in our universities today is not due simply or merely to financial constraints or the requirement of federal funding for scientific inquiry or even science itself; preceding all of this was an argument made in many Great Books that the study of Great Books should be displaced from the heart of education. [...]
What we are forced to consider is whether the justification of a study in the Great Books is sufficient – whether simply presenting these books as general representatives of “greatness” does not in fact contribute to the undermining of the study of the Great Books. If we do not, in the first instance, forefront a deeper philosophic claim that a certain conception of humanity within a created order is the precondition for the justification of the widespread study of the Great Books, then it is likely that such programs will remain boutiques amid a broader effort to expand the role of STEM in our institutions of higher education. Perhaps we even need to reconsider the very language of Greatness – perhaps at least considering a commendation of humble books, or at least Great Books that commend humility, in contrast to those books advancing a version of Promethean greatness which have undermined the study of books.
The full text makes for long(-er) read, coming in, as Deneen notes, at around sixteen printed pages, but it’s well worth it. If you have a bit of time, grapple with the whole argument here.