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Encounters With Greatness
That's why we read the "great" books, isn't it?
I’d been meaning to weigh in on Louis Menand’s perplexing New Yorker essay on “great books” courses since it came out, and then before I got around to it John McWhorter weighed in and confused the matter further. What was most useful in Menand’s essay was his correct assessment that these courses were always intended to be counter-cultural, a kind of institutionalized dissent from the fundamental organizing principle of the modern university, which was scientific. That orientation in turn was a somewhat radical transformation from what the university had been before its modern incarnation. As Menand rightly states:
In the creation of the modern university, science was the big winner. The big loser was not literature. It was religion. The university is a secular institution, and scientific research—more broadly, the production of new knowledge—is what it was designed for. All the academic disciplines were organized with this end in view.
That includes the humanities: literature, history, etc. Professors in these subjects are supposed to advance knowledge in their area of expertise, and not merely to master it and pass it on. One can question whether that is an optimal way to organize the humanities, whether the preservation and transmission of cultural heritage is served or impaired by the imperative to produce, but I think that question is somewhat off to the side of the question of “great books” and the courses dedicated to them.
Both Menand and McWhorter seem to take it for granted that the purpose of these courses is to make students (and teachers) into “better people.” Menand thinks they don’t achieve this goal, and McWhorter thinks they do, but they seem to agree that this is their purpose, and I wonder why. I do think Menand gets the better of the fight if it’s to be fought on that ground.
McWhorter suggests that the “great books” improve us because they teach us something about the world’s complexity, and the diversity of perspectives on it. I don’t disagree that after completing a tour from Homer to Beckett, or from Plato to Wittgenstein, one ought to come away at least somewhat humbled—but I doubt the reason is because the perspectives encountered are so diverse, or because one now appreciates the world’s true complexity. Other claims have also been advanced: that reading novels teaches empathy, that classical philosophy is the foundation of our own political system, or that these books are ultimately aids in coming to understand ourselves better. I think there’s truth in all these claims—but it’s not clear that great books are any better for teaching empathy than merely good ones; our political system is substantially built on a rejection of classical philosophy; and I’ve never met a practicing therapist who treats their clients by reading them Dante. If these instrumental claims were really the purpose of these courses, they would have been redesigned long ago on more rational lines.
Indeed, any effort to justify reading the “great books” on the grounds of moral or civic edification runs into two very fundamental problems. First, a great many of these books don’t immediately strike one as morally or civically edifying in the least, and reading them to that end encourages one to critique them precisely from that perspective, and toss them if they don’t pass muster. (That’s precisely how the poets get banished from Plato’s Republic.) Second, such a justification turns these courses into a kind of substitute religion, and I can’t help but wonder why anyone would think that they would serve that purpose better than the real thing? Or, to make the same point from the other way around, if an education into liberty requires a cacophonous canon, then by the same token the attempt to impose harmony thereon by enfolding all in a civic or therapeutic embrace deforms the voices of that canon—the more prophetic ones, those most likely to object to being read alongside some of their neighbors on the syllabus, in particular—beyond recognition. How, then, can they achieve their own avowed purposes?
Menand complains that the courses we’re talking about are “unfortunately but inescapably” referred to as “great books” courses, but I don’t think the nomenclature is unfortunate in the least. It points quite accurately at the reason for their being and the basis on which the books studied are selected: greatness. A university ought to provide its students with many opportunities for intellectual growth and challenge, but these courses are designed to provide a concentrated encounter with extraordinary minds operating at the peak of their capacity, using words as their medium of expression. That’s the fundamental purpose of the courses: to orchestrate that encounter with greatness, and to reveal thereby its ready availability in the future, since all you have to do to renew the encounter is to open a book.
Do we become “better” people thanks to that encounter in a moral, civic or therapeutic sense? I don’t know. I’m sure some of us do. I’m pretty sure some of us don’t, though—some may even be ruined by it. The argument for the courses is ultimately not what they do but what they are: the purpose is the encounter itself, because, so the argument goes, that encounter is itself one of the most worthwhile experiences of life. You don’t read Shakespeare to become a better person or even a better writer, though in his case I think you might do both; nor do you read him solely because of his enormous cultural and historical significance. You read Shakespeare because there’s no one in English more worth the read.
That’s the argument, in the final analysis. The value of the encounter stands or falls on the power of the encounter itself, in its immediacy and in memory. That’s what the professors teaching these courses are trying to shepherd their students towards. And they are qualified merely by the fact that few if any of them would have pursued their vocation had they not been awe-struck by such an encounter themselves.