Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

When it comes to higher education, many conservatives talk about Great Books programs as if they are a panacea for all that ails the liberal academy. But anyone who has actually read those texts will likely agree with Patrick Deneen’s contention that “a curriculum of great books probably cannot do anything but promote a more fundamental relativism unless it takes place within a distinctive theological and political worldview.” As Deneen notes :

The Great Books have long been recommended by figures ranging from Allan Bloom to William Bennett as the basic texts of a liberal education and for containing essential knowledge about the Western tradition. An education in the Great Books was seen as essential in the cultivation of the educated person, and as the source of ideas that gave rise to many of the treasured inheritances of the West - including constitutionalism, liberal democracy, separation of Church and State, individual rights, a free-market economy, and the dignity of the human person. Knowledge of the constitutive texts of the West was seen by many of its defenders as the prerequisite for the informed citizen, someone not only who would believe in the traditions of the West, but be able to muster an articulate defense of the same.

However, for anyone with even passing familiarity with those constitutive texts, it is readily evident that these texts provide nothing of the sort. These texts are hardly primers on liberal democracy or any other political, ethical or economic system, but rather contain a wide and ranging set of debates over the nature of the good and best life, the good and best polity, the good and best economic system, and so on. The texts typically listed in such a course of study are marked by severe and profound disagreements. For example, on the list of books provided by Kronman that have been recently assigned in the Yale Directed Studies Program, they have included such radically distinct books as The Hebrew Bible, The New Testament, Aristotle’s Politics , Cervantes’ Don Quixote , Machiavelli’s Prince , Rousseau’s Social Contract , Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France , the Federalist Papers , Mill’s O n Liberty , Marx’s Communist Manifesto , Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals , and Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals . Thus (to be somewhat reductionist), students are exposed to arguments on behalf of Judaism, Christianity, Teleology, Pessimism, Classical Liberalism, Conservatism, Utilitarianism, Progressive Liberalism, Communism, Deontology, and Nihilism (among many other alternatives). On point after point and issue after issue, basic elements of each theology or philosophy contradict some fundamental aspect of all the other philosophies listed here (and others that go unlisted). An education in the Great Books is a potpourri of conflicting views, a set of strongly articulated arguments that continuously strive to refute other views that purportedly comprise a single “tradition.” The “Western tradition” is a ferocious and ongoing set of disagreements about the most basic human beliefs.

The entire essay is persuasive, but I found this caution particularly compelling: “Given that most students today have deeply ingrained progressive worldviews (that is, the view that history has been the slow but steady advance of enlightenment in all forms, culminating in equal rights for all races, all genders, and all sexual preferences), a curriculum that begins with the Bible and Greek philosophy and ends with Nietzsche subtly suggests that Nietzsche is the culmination of Enlightenment’s trajectory.”

Despite those qualms, I still believe the Great Books curriculum should be the foundation for a liberal education—provided, as Deneen says, that they are approached from a distinctively Christian worldview. As an evangelical, I’m partial to the Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute , headed by my friend (and Evangel co-blogger) John Mark Reynolds. But there are surely at least a half-dozen schools that present the Great Books within their proper context. What other worthy programs could be recommended to conservative Christian parents and students?

(Via: Front Porch Republic )

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles