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For many years, traditionalist thinkers have promoted the teaching of a set of core texts—the “great books”—as a vital element of a liberal arts education during a time when demands for multiculturalism led to the dismantling of a number of traditional programs of study. In more recent years, thinkers such as Harold Bloom and John Searle have argued that the well-rounded, thoughtful individual must have an education grounded in the great texts of the West.

I have long sympathized with these arguments, but in recent years I have come to suspect 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. The broader assault on the liberal arts derives much of its intellectual fuel from a number of the great books themselves.

Thus, those who insist upon an education in the great books end up recommending texts and arguments that undermine their own beliefs in the central importance of liberal arts education. Those who habitually defend the great books need to reflect more extensively on the notion of “greatness” and its relationship to the great books—and their authors—that have helped put humanistic education on the ropes.

Many commend the teaching of great or core texts to provide something more than the exercise of “critical thinking,” a goal onto which academics have latched (after the ferocious curriculum battles of the 1980s and 1990s) with an almost audible sigh of relief. Debates about substance were put to rest as agreement was reached on the contentless goal of critical thinking, which allowed academics to lay down their arms and embrace the common project of cultivating a thinking style. Indeed, it has reached a pass in which the only idea impervious to critical thinking is the shared goal of critical thinking: No one quite knows what it is, but we can all agree that we want our students to be able to do it. Push-pins is equal to Homer, and Homer equal to push-pins, since both can be claimed to foster critical thinking.

Yet, typically, a defense of an education in the great books requires making a more robust claim about the aim of education: These texts teach not merely a way of thinking but a particular and substantive set of conclusions that makes the teaching of these texts essential and necessary. One finds, for example, arguments that an education in the great books is essential for a preparation for citizenship, that it has the aim of teaching about the nature of liberty. Such claims thus draw a preliminary conclusion about the nature and substance of the lessons taught by the great books, a conclusion that justifies holding them to be the source of knowledge essential to a citizen in a modern liberal democracy.

There is a more fundamental claim that one also finds in the defense of the reading of the great books: that the core texts of the West have made us what we are, that they are the sources from which we have derived such concepts as human dignity, equality, individual liberty, constitutionalism, democracy, and so on. So conceived, the great books have shaped a world in their image and guided not only individuals, but a whole civilization, in fostering a way of life. Only by reading the great texts can we come to a true form of self-understanding, in the most comprehensive sense.

This is an extraordinary claim: that books can make a world—even when many have not read those books. Yet it is not an uncommon thought. I have in mind something like the following passage from Wendell Berry’s novel Andy Catlett: Early Travels, in which an older Andy remembers his grandmother making a raspberry pie: “A peculiar sorrow hovered about [my grandmother], and not only for the inevitable losses and griefs of her years; it came also from her settled conviction of the tendency of things to be unsatisfactory, to fail to live up to expectation, to fall short.”

She was haunted, I think, by the suspicion of a comedown always lurking behind the best appearances. I wonder now if she had ever read Paradise Lost. That poem, with its cosmos of Heaven and Hell and Paradise and the Fallen World, was a presence felt by most of her generation, if only by way of preachers who had read it. Whether or not she had read it for herself, the lostness of Paradise was the prime fact of her world, and she felt it keenly.

At the outset of the book, Berry compares the village of Port William with Hargrave, the town in which Andy grows up. In contrast to Hargrave, Port William seems influenced by the lesson of Paradise Lost:

Hargrave, though it seemed large to me, was a small town that loved its connections with the greater world, had always aspired to be bigger, richer, and grander than it was, and had always apologized to itself for being only what it was. When school was out, I lived mostly in the orbit of the tiny village of Port William, which, so long as it remained at the center of its own attention, was entirely satisfied to be what it was.

This condition of longing for something more, so characteristic of Satan in Paradise Lost, is contrasted with a kind of acceptance of the world as a fallen place that may require more endurance than transformation. Like Andy’s grandmother, Port William seems to have adopted the teachings of Paradise Lost while Hargrave seems to have turned to a different set of ideas.

Berry has returned recently to a reflection on the role of books in shaping a worldview—and specifically the influence of Paradise Lost—to suggest that it is a part of the wisdom of the older books to teach us not only about what we ought to aspire to do, but also about what is inappropriate and forbidden. In an essay written shortly after the near-collapse of our financial system, he points to Milton’s reflections on our urge to know, when the archangel Raphael, in response to Adam’s questions about the story of creation, agrees “to answer thy desire / Of knowledge within bounds” (Berry’s emphasis). Raphael explains that

Knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain;
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.

Berry continues: “Raphael is saying, with angelic circumlocution, that knowledge without wisdom, limitless knowledge, is not worth a fart; he is not a humorless archangel. But he also is saying that knowledge without measure, knowledge that the human mind cannot appropriately use, is mortally dangerous.”

Berry writes of the books that aimed to educate human beings by teaching the limits of human power and knowledge. Great books such as Paradise Lost sought to inculcate a sense of limits, a cognizance of knowledge inappropriate to humans. They sought to cultivate a capacity to accept and endure rather than the impulse to transform and escape, and they endeavored to foster an education in the accompanying virtues that are required in a world where such limits are recognized—virtues such as moderation and prudence—and in the avoidance of vices like pride and hubris. Here we could look at a dominant understanding of a long succession of great books, from antiquity through the Middle Ages—books whose authors would include the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Dante, and Aquinas, among others.

For these writers, the appropriate disposition toward the world is not the effort to seek its transformation, but rather to conform human behavior and aspirations to the natural or created order. Hence, the primary purpose of education is learning to live in a world in which self-limitation is the appropriate response to a world of limits. Education in virtue is a central goal—particularly the hard discipline of the human propensity toward excess, especially in the forms of pleonexia or pride.

Books were understood to be a storehouse of wisdom from the past, a treasury and repository of hard-won experience and knowledge of these limits. What these books taught was itself a justification for an education centered around them. Because the present and future were believed to be fundamentally identical to the past, the past was understood to be a source of wisdom about our condition as humans in a world that we do not command. An education in great books was itself a consequence of a philosophical worldview, and not merely an education from which we derived a worldview (much less sought an education in critical thinking).

Arguments against this form of education became common among elite thinkers in the early modern period, who sought to justify a new kind of science that had as its aim the expansion of human control over nature. Arguing strenuously against the content of books by authors such as Aristotle, Francis Bacon castigated previous thinkers for their “despair” and tendency to “think things impossible.” Asserting that “knowledge is power,” he rejected the idea that knowledge consists first in acknowledging human limits and claimed that it was necessary to wipe clear “waxen tablets” inscribed with older writing in order to inscribe new lessons upon them. Books were more often than not one manifestation of the “idols of the cave,” or illusions that obscured true enlightenment, and in the schools “men’s studies? . . . [were] confined and imprisoned in the writings of certain authors.” His book Novum Organum is devoted to arguing against the flawed inheritance of the past, including the arguments found in the great books of his age.

Novum Organum is now one of our great books—a great book that recommends against the lessons of previous great books. His work inaugurated a long line of great books that argued against an education in books. Another in this genre is René Descartes’ Discourse on Method, which begins with a similar condemnation of book learning as an obstacle to true understanding. “As soon as my age permitted me to pass from under the control of my instructors,” he wrote, “I entirely abandoned the study of letters, and resolved no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the great book of the world.” Books are the repository of foolishness: “When I look with the eye of a philosopher at the varied courses and pursuits of mankind at large, I find scarcely one which does not appear in vain and useless.”

He compares book learning to the experience of travel and concludes that both forms of sallying forth into the world of custom and opinion are largely a waste of time. Instead, he “shuts [himself] up in a room” during a cold winter’s night and proceeds to investigate what he can know purely through skeptical examination of his own empirical experience of reality. Famously, he concludes that he exists because he knows that he thinks—a conclusion that requires no consultation of books or culture, but only what his own mind, stripped bare of all external influences, can grasp.

In the chapter of Leviathan titled “Of Reason and Science,” Francis Bacon’s secretary Thomas Hobbes also rejects the counsel of those who follow “the authority of books,” and instead tells the learner to trust entirely his own experience and experimentation with the natural realm and thereby make it possible for man to exercise control over the natural world and attain a condition of “commodious living,” an echo of Bacon’s aspiration toward “the relief of man’s estate.”

Centuries later, this line of argumentation would be employed in the United States in defense of disassembling existing curricula oriented to the study of the great books. Widely regarded as America’s most influential educational reformer, John Dewey, in books that continue to exert great influence in schools of education, argued that learning should be accomplished “experientially” rather than through an encounter with books. In his short work Experience and Education, he argues strenuously that an education based in books transmitted “static” knowledge to a citizenry that needed to be better enabled to face a world of rapid change. Learning through books is “to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception.” Accordingly, he founded an institution in Chicago called the Lab School. Laboratory was to replace library, experiment would substitute for knowledge gleaned from the past.

Not only was such an education the necessary response to a society experiencing change, but it also would lead to desirable acceleration of change. A society based upon roiling change had two aims: to actively displace cultural transmission as a norm of education and thus unseat “authority” and the past as guides to action, and to permit greater command of the natural and human world and the growth of human power. Dewey makes this case in pointed terms in his book Democracy and Education, asking, “Why does a savage group perpetuate savagery, and a civilized group civilization?” He answers that “in a sense the mind of savage peoples is an effect, rather than a cause, of their backward institutions. Their social activities are such as to restrict their objects of attention and interest, and hence to limit the stimuli to mental development.”

Even as regards the objects that come within the scope of attention, primitive social customs tend to arrest observation and imagination upon qualities which do not fructify in the mind. Lack of control of natural forces means that a scant number of natural objects enter into associated behavior. Only a small number of natural resources are utilized and they are not worked for what they are worth. The advance of civilization means that a larger number of natural forces and objects have been transformed into instrumentalities of action, into means for securing ends.

Dewey claimed that progress rests upon the active control of nature and hence requires the displacement of the “savage” regard for the past and, arguably, the inclination to make a home in the world as created rather than seek its transformation through human mastery. The savage tribe does manage to live in the desert, he writes, by adapting itself, and “its adaptation involves a maximum of accepting, tolerating, putting up with things as they are, a maximum of passive acquiescence, and a minimum of active control, of subjection to use.” A “civilized people” in the same desert also adapts itself. But “it introduces irrigation; it searches the world for plants and animals that will flourish under such conditions; it improves, by careful selection, those which are growing there. As a consequence, the wilderness blossoms as a rose. The savage is merely habituated; the civilized man has habits which transform the environment.”

Dewey traces his own thought back to Francis Bacon, whom he considered the most important thinker in history. Bacon, he wrote in Reconstruction in Philosophy, teaches that “scientific principles and laws do not lie on the surface of nature. They are hidden, and must be wrested from nature by an active and elaborate technique of inquiry.” The modern scientist “must force the apparent facts of nature into forms different to those in which they familiarly present themselves; and thus make them tell the truth about themselves, as torture may compel an unwilling witness to reveal what he has been concealing.”

In Dewey, as in Bacon, a close connection is forged between the modern project of the mastery of nature and the rejection of an education focused upon the teachings of the great books. Only by overcoming the “static” teachings of those texts can progress be unleashed; only by extending human mastery over a tortured nature can humanity achieve the true measure of its potential greatness.

Dewey’s arguments deeply and pervasively shaped American educational institutions. While these institutions still offer an education in the humanities, increasingly their main end is to advance the goal of knowledge as power in the effort to secure a form of liberty in which nature no longer is thought to govern or guide human life. They focus on the STEM subjects—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—with a corresponding decline in commitment to the humanities, in some cases disbanding entire departments once devoted to the study of the humanities through the reading of books.

At most institutions of higher learning, one can at best see only the remnant of an older understanding of the role of the great books to educate students in the virtues necessary in a world to which we must conform our actions. More in evidence is the effort to “create new knowledge” and advance the aims of the modern research university, a goal that one can see on the home pages of most contemporary universities. One needs to look harder to discover the older understanding of education, often in the symbolic inheritances of an institution—such as the books (indeed, great books) emblazoned on the seals of Princeton and Harvard Universities.

Once one begins to compare the content of these older symbolic presences with contemporary claims, one sees the profound change that has taken place—a consequence of embracing the lessons of such authors as Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes—particularly captured in contradiction between the seals and mottos of older institutions and their more recent mission statements. Consider, for instance, the motto of the University of Texas at Austin. Emblazoned on its seal are the words Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis, which is translated as “A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.” These words are drawn from a longer statement of the Republic of Texas’ second president, Mirabeau Lamar, which reads: “A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy and, while guided and controlled by virtue, the noblest attribute of man. It is the only dictator that freemen acknowledge and the only security that freemen desire.” This fuller statement, with its stress upon the relationship of virtue, authority, and liberty, and with the overtones in the word disciplina not only of “cultivation” but also of discipline, points to an older conception according to which liberty was the achievement of hard-won self-control through the discipline of virtue.

Moreover, the seal itself portrays the image of an open book on the upper field of the shield, demonstrating that the means by which this discipline of liberty is to be won is an education in the wisdom, the lessons, and the cautions of the past accumulated on the pages of books that are deemed by an older generation to be essential in the education and formation of every new generation. The aim of such an education is not critical thinking, but the achievement of liberty governed by the discipline—even dictatorship—of virtue.

Contrast this seal, designed when the university was founded, with the more recently devised mission statement that is found on the main web portal of the university. There, after some boilerplate about a dedication to “excellence” in education (a word embraced by every institution, which is about as rich in content as the phrase “critical thinking”), the university offers a statement about the purpose of education at the University of Texas. “The university contributes to the advancement of society through research, creative activity, scholarly inquiry and the development of new knowledge.” The stress here is upon the research and scientific mission of the university, notably the aim of creating “new knowledge,” not upon the effort to understand older wisdom. One searches in vain for a modern re-articulation of the sentiments of the older motto. Rather than declare the importance of inculcating virtue, it emphasizes research in the service of progress, particularly the progress that contributes to the centuries-old ambition to subject nature to human will.

Thus, two distinct and contradictory conceptions of liberty have been advanced in a long succession of great books. The first of these commends the study of great books for an education in virtue in light of a recognition of human membership in a created order to which we must conform and that we do not ultimately govern. The other argues against the study of great books and asserts a form of human greatness that seeks the human mastery of nature, particularly by the emphasis of modern science. This latter conception of liberty does not seek merely to coexist alongside an older conception, but requires the active dismantling of this idea of liberty and hence the transformation of education away from the study of great books and toward the study of “the great book of nature” with the end of its mastery.

The older conception of liberty held that liberty was ultimately a form of self-government. In a constrained world, the human propensity to desire and consume without limit and end inclined people toward a condition of slavery, understood to be enslavement to the base desires. This older conception of liberty was displaced by our regnant conception of liberty, the liberty to pursue our desires ceaselessly with growing prospects of ongoing fulfillment through the conquest of nature, accompanied by the constant generation of new desires that demand ever greater expansion of the human project of mastery. The decline of the role of great books in our universities today is not due merely to financial constraints, or to the requirement of federal funding for scientific inquiry, or even to science itself. Preceding all of this was an argument that the study of great books should be displaced from the heart of education.

We are forced to consider whether the justification for studying 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. Perhaps we even need to reconsider the very language of greatness, and consider commending instead humble books, or at least great books that teach humility, in contrast to those great books that advance a version of Promethean greatness, an aspiration that has undermined the study of books.

Whether we study their ideas or not, inescapably these books make a world in their own image. Through study of these books we can at least understand the ideas underlying the world we inhabit, and we might even achieve a kind of liberation from the tyranny of our unconscious submission to the ideas that dominate our age by considering others that have been discarded. We ignore these books at our peril—not because they will make us more urbane and cultured, but because they shape us whether we know it or not. Only by understanding the competing teachings of the great books can we reconsider the lessons that our age has embraced—lessons that have led us to think that we can dispense with reading the great books—and even ponder whether it would be wiser to commend the teachings of the humble books as we witness the accumulating wreckage amid our progress.

Patrick J. Deneen is an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.

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