Patrick Deneen argued in our January issue that “the very source of the decline of the study of the great books comes not in spite of the lessons of the great books, but is to be found in the very arguments within a number of the great books.”
He also voiced skepticism of the claim that a great books curriculum imparts “not merely a way of thinking but a particular and substantive set of conclusions [about liberty and human dignity, for example] that makes the teaching of these texts essential and necessary.” Not all works categorized as “great” lead to such a desirable worldview; rather, they contradict each other, and some even attack the notion that reading the great books is worthwhile in the first place.
Several readers (whose letters we published in the March issue) objected to Deneen’s characterization. They pointed out that disagreements about the good life have always been with us; the great books are less a storehouse of knowledge than a locus of debate. That they contradict each other is a feature, not a bug. Robert Woods presents the same objection to Deneen at The Imaginative Conservative, arguing that ”the problem of contradictions and opposing worldviews ought not to trouble us.”
As it happens, Deneen has addressed such objections at some length in an earlier criticism of the great books published by Minding the Campus. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for students to encounter “a ferocious and ongoing set of disagreements about the most basic human beliefs,” but the way the great books are typically presented is not neutral and not likely to lead students to the truths that most conservatives seek to impart:
Any student confronting such a wide variety of texts will be driven to make some sense of them, to evaluate their strong and contradictory claims. It’s not enough to state that higher education should consist of an exposure to the Great Books and leave it at that: students will need some way of negotiating their way through the philosophical thicket into which they are being thrown.
For [Anthony] Kronman [author of Education's End], this is exactly the point: exposure to this diversity of views encourages a probing examination of the best way to live, or “the meaning of life.” Any student confronting these texts in even a remotely serious way cannot be left complacent—he must confront his own presuppositions and articulate a response to the many challenges to which he will be exposed.
Even as each student will be encouraged to arrive at a deeply informed and highly articulated “meaning of life,” a deeper lesson is advanced by such a curriculum: the “meaning of life” is always highly personal and relative to each person. A person may arrive at a “philosophy of life” that is not itself relativistic—for instance, finding in the Biblical texts a religious basis for their beliefs—but overall, such a conclusion will take place within the context of a curriculum that is itself fundamentally relativistic, in which each student is encouraged to come to their own conclusion about the meaning of life, and thus to arrive at a personal set of criteria by which to evaluate all the respective arguments.
Indeed, such an approach in fact suggests that there is a single “meaning to life,” and that meaning is fundamentally “decisionist.” Most curricula in the Great Books offer the various philosophies as inherently coherent and valid systems, suggesting to each student that there is finally no basis on which to decide which philosophy to adopt other than mere preference. One must simply decide.
Read the whole article, including Deneen’s suggestion of how the great books should be taught, here.