Great Books, Great Discussion: A Timelessly Great Idea

A half century ago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, and the distinguished philosopher Mortimer Adler officially launched the Great Books Movement, dedicated to the "great conversation" that would result from group discussions of classic texts. In the decades that followed, Great Books Councils were established across the country and many thousands of people met in libraries, community centers, or college classrooms to talk about Plato and Aristotle, Shakespeare and Dante.

The rules were simplicity itself: "bookees" agree to read the assigned text and engage in discussion about it. All this without grades, without the authority of an expert (discussion leaders simply try to keep order in what often looks like chaos), and most of all, without the worry of being wrong.

I wish that I could report that our colleges and universities share this commitment to Great Books, but most do not. Talk about "great books" surfaces from time to time at faculty meetings, although usually with a sense that nobody can really say what a Great Book is, and even if one dared to, he or she would risk going public as an elitist. I tend to be the guy willing to take that risk, not only because I know of no college football team that picks its place-kicker by a random drawing, but also because I don't think there's much point in waxing eloquent about the hope that our graduates will become lifetime learners if those entrusted with their education continue to believe that one book is only "different" from - not better than - another.

The texts that matter, that have pleasured many and pleasured them long, do so because they raise fundamental questions about the human condition. You can find them in all times when literacy was widespread, and among all cultures. Their earmark is excellence, a term that once meant something but now has become something of a fighting word.

Perhaps nothing strikes me as more infuriating than the way the Great Books have become a political football, kicked around by those on the cultural left as well as on the cultural right - and often by people in either camp who demonstrate little direct experience in turning pages and reflecting about what they've read. Whatever else the Great Books might be, they are not the product of dead, white European males out to justify their oppression, nor are they a sure-fire means to the civic virtue that certain conservative people are always crowing about.

The Great Books are genuinely subversive documents that question our beliefs, challenge the status quo of a given writer's times, and give us a glimmer of life that transcends the boundaries of our own identity.

In a word, the Great Books are dangerous, not only because they challenge our assumptions, our dogmas, and our passive acceptance of the existing order of things, but also because reading and discussing them can be habit-forming. From all walks of life, the folks in Great Books groups learn to experience another person's experiences, and in the process, to expand their own horizons. Sometimes participants encounter "bad news" - views about life they quarrel with, just as one Great Book tends to quarrel with another. They end up, not with answers, but with richer, deeper questions. It's a condition that can, and often does, last a lifetime and in the process may be as good a definition of "education" as we are likely to get.

* Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pa., and editor of Academic Questions, a quarterly of the National Association of Scholars.

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