Do The Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?

Originally posted at The Scholar’s Stage on the 27th of May, 2013.

A selection of the 60 volume Great Books of the Western World.
Image source.

A “proper education” changes with its times.

In the days of America’s founding a true education was a classical education. An educated man was not simply expected to be familiar with the great works of Greek and Roman civilization; the study of these works was the foundation of education itself. Thomas Jefferson’s advice to an aspiring nephew captures the attitudes of his era:

It is time for you now to begin to be choice in your reading; to begin to pursue a regular course in it; and not to suffer yourself to be turned to the right or left by reading any thing out of that course. I have long ago digested a plan for you, suited to the circumstances in which you will be placed. This I will detail to you, from time to time, as you advance. For the present, I advise you to begin a course of antient history, reading every thing in the original and not in translations. First read Goldsmith’s history of Greece. This will give you a digested view of that field. Then take up antient history in the detail, reading the following books, in the following order: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophontis Hellenica, Xenophontis Anabasis, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, Justin. This shall form the first stage of your historical reading, and is all I need mention to you now. The next, will be of Roman history (*). From that, we will come down to modern history. In Greek and Latin poetry, you have read or will read at school, Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles. Read also Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakspeare, Ossian, Pope’s and Swift’s works, in order to form your style in your own language. In morality, read Epictetus, Xenophontis Memorabilia, Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Cicero’s philosophies, Antoninus, and Seneca…. 

Having ascribed proper hours to exercise, divide what remain, (I mean of your vacant hours) into three portions. Give the principal to History, the other two, which should be shorter, to Philosophy and Poetry. Write to me once every month or two, and let me know the progress you make. Tell me in what manner you employ every hour in the day. The plan I have proposed for you is adapted to your present situation only. When that is changed, I shall propose a corresponding change of plan. I have ordered the following books to be sent to you from London, to the care of Mr. Madison. Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon’s Hellenics, Anabasis and Memorabilia, Cicero’s works, Baretti’s Spanish and English Dictionary, Martin’s Philosophical Grammar, and Martin’s Philosophia Britannica. I will send you the following from hence. Bezout’s Mathematics, De la Lande’s Astronomy, Muschenbrock’s Physics, Quintus Curtius, Justin, a Spanish Grammar, and some Spanish books. You will observe that Martin, Bezout, De la Lande, and Muschenbrock are not in the preceding plan. They are not to be opened till you go to the University. You are now, I expect, learning French. You must push this; because the books which will be put into your hands when you advance into Mathematics, Natural philosophy, Natural history, and will be mostly French, these sciences being better treated by the French than the English writers. Our future connection with Spain renders that the most necessary of the modern languages, after the French. When you become a public man, you may have occasion for it, and the circumstance of your possessing that language, may give you a preference over other candidates. I have nothing further to add for the present, but husband well your time, cherish your instructors, strive to make every body your friend; and be assured that nothing will be so pleasing, as your success, to, Dear Peter. 

(*) Livy, Sullust, Caesar, Cicero’s epistles, Suetonius, Tacitus, Gibbon. [1]

Mr. Jefferson’s ideal education was more than a close reading of Herodotus, Sophocles, Caesar, and Cicero. A proper education was incomplete without a strict exercise regime, a study of the leading scientific and mathematic minds of the day, and a mastery of multiple foreign languages, both living and dead.

These would be the hallmarks of  ‘proper’ education for the next century. The general contours of the classical education changed very little — the emphasis on mastering multiple languages was reduced as time went on and (for Americans) the subject of oratory and rhetoric was added to the list. In addition to studying the “Great Books” of the Western world most Americans would study the great speeches of English-speaking world; compilations like The Columbian Orator were a cornerstone of 19th century education. [2]  

During the 20th century things changed drastically.  Several weeks ago Michelle Togut wrote a thoughtful overview of these changes for the League of Ordinary Gentleman’s Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. [3] She notes that controversy over and opposition to the hallowed place the Western cultural tradition had at the center of American education (embodied in the study of the “Great Books”) came in two waves, ultimately resulting in the system of general education found in America’s 21st century universities. Conservatives alarmed by these changes have thus fallen into two groups, each raising a different objections to the modern system. Their arguments can be summarized succinctly:

  • 1. The Western cultural tradition is dying on campus because post-modernism, gender studies, area studies, and multiculturalism generally have replaced them. This is bad. (The primary argument from the 1970s to the 2010s). 
  • 2. The Western cultural tradition is dying on campus because social science and statistics has conquered the humanities and specialization has made general education irrelevant to the average student’s education. This is bad. (The primary argument from the 1930s to the 1960s).

Of the two, I find the second both more convincing and alarming.

Mortimer Adler was one of the founding members of the second group. (He is most famous today as the first editor of the 60-volume Great Books of the Western World.) Professor Adler and his kin often talked of the Western cultural tradition as a “great conversation.” Said he:

“What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways” [4]

As Adler saw it, understanding Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Conrad requires a knowledge of what came before them. Their words, ideas, and works were inspired by the good that came before, written in response to the bad which they deplored, and full of allusions to both. It is hard to appreciate or engage with these authors in isolation.

The multiculturalist objection to all of this is easily resolved. How can we support a “great conversation” that excludes so many voices? The answer: what stops us from including them? This has been the course I have followed in my personal education, and have found it rewarding. I have learned more from Sima Qian and Ibn Khaldun than I ever did from Herodotus or Aristotle. The Great Conversation has excluded the view points of women and minorities? Then let us add Sei Shōnagon and Kālidāsa to it! This cross cultural approach has deepened my appreciation for and understanding of the Western canon. [5] Moreover, in a world as interconnected as ours now is, almost any argument for attaining cultural literacy in the Western tradition can (and should) be applied to the Indic and East Asian traditions. Cultural literacy in the 21st century reaches far beyond Athens and Jerusalem.[6]

The second argument is more worrisome. The eclipse of the Western tradition has just as much to do with specialization as it does multiculturalism, though some habits of the newer humanities – such as the general distaste for studying “great men” at all – have contributed. The general expansion of college education from an elite endeavor to career-prep for the masses is another part of the story. I think so many critics of the university ignore these things because multiculturalism is an easier target. Changing a reading list is easy; changing the structure of higher education is not.

The consequences are the same, either way. There is something to be said for education that has coherence; there is something to be said for seeking to learn from lives long gone. I fear that we are cutting ourselves off from the past. When we do not leave room for the “great conversations” in our studies, it dies. Thousands of years of human endeavor and emotion are found in the Western tradition. And unlike our predecessors, we have the option of adding to this tradition, to expand it from Western to human. I find that exciting. Alas, the academy does not. “Tradition” is not a word worth much there.


[1] Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr. Paris, 19 September 1785. Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy. Accessed 25 May 2013. 

[2] Frederick Douglas eloquently testifies to the power the English oratorical tradition.    The Columbian Orator was one of the first books he ever read; he described its influence in the following terms:

The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts which had often flashed through my mind and died away for want of words in which to give them utterance. The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth penetrating the heart of a slave-holder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue; and from the speeches of Sheridan I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man. Here was indeed a noble acquisition. If I had ever wavered under the consideration that the Almighty, in some way, had ordained slavery, and willed my enslavement for His own glory, I wavered no longer. I had now penetrated to the secret of all slavery and all oppression, and had ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power, and the avarice of man. With a book in my hand so redolent of the principles of liberty, with a perception of my own human nature, and the facts of my past and present experience, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether white or black,—for blindness in this matter was not confined to the white people.

Frederick Douglas. Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / My Bondage and My Freedom / Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Library of America). (New York: library of America). 1994. p. 226.

[3] The series is in three parts:

 Michelle Togut. “G-d and Man and Sex(!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part I “. League of Ordinary Gentleman. 10 April 2013.

 Michelle Togut. “G-d and Man and Sex(!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part II“. League of Ordinary Gentleman. 15 April 2013.

Michelle Togut.  “G-d and Man and Sex(!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part III”. League of Ordinary Gentleman. 19 April 2013.

This entire post is an expansion and reworking of a comment I left on Ms. Togut’s concluding entry,

[4]See his introduction to “The Great Books of the World: Author-to Author Index.” The Great Ideas Online. No. 692. November 2012. p. 1

[5] For example, consider the insights found in my earlier essay: “Whence Springs a Strategic Canon?” The Scholar’s Stage. 9 April 2013. 

[6] This is something most non-Westeners understand. At sundry times and places I have been friends or colleagues with Chinese men and women. I was very surprised at how historically grounded the Chinese are – Chinese popular culture, even at the level of the uneducated layman, is saturated with its history and literature. It took some getting used to (and it presents a very practical language learning problem!) Among educated Chinese, I have been very impressed with their desire to learn about and absorb Western history and culture. They value that of their own world, and seek that of the new, thus beating out Americans twice over, who do neither.

11 thoughts on “Do The Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?”

  1. It is a bit difficult to expect American college students to learn Greek and Latin. I took Latin in high school but the resources at the college level are very limited. My middle daughter took Arabic at UCLA as part of an interest she has in the Muslim occupation of Spain. At one point, UCLA canceled the class for low enrollment. She and the other students contracted with the instructor to continue the class at his home. She has now suspended her PhD program and taken a job. She tired of the academic world.

    I read many of these works in translation when I was a high school student, not in class but because I wanted to know what they were about. I kept a copy of JB Bury’s “History of Greece to the Death of Alexander” on my bedside table for reading for many years. A lot of kids today just don’t read. TV is ubiquitous and reading is not the dominant cultural influence. One of my kids, who was not much of a reader in school, is now devouring books as he is in his 40s.

    I don’t know the answer but am very worried about the future. My youngest daughter graduated from U of Arizona last May. She is another limited reader and her classes were filled with leftist junk. I think she skimmed over the worst of it. For example, she was taught that “The Silent Majority” of the 60s consisted of white people who refused to accept the Civil Rights Act. That definition was included in a study guide for her final in US History.

  2. Dr. Kennedy,

    Widely read as you are you surely know that the elderly have always been worried about the future when they look at the young. Our only solace is that it has always been thus. It must have something to do with stimulating within us a desire to do something to preserve the past for the future, something with which the young cannot be bothered. I think this is part of why grandparents take such joy in grandchildren; they can project upon them a future their children have failed to fulfill.

    It is interesting that you should castigate TV. I wasted many hours in front of the tube as well as being a voracious reader and talker. Now, I look across the room at my son, transfixed on Facebook and realize how alien the TV and telephone must have seemed to my father, for whom the radio and airplanes were new technologies that must have seemed as alien to his father, my grandfather.

    But if you read Bury, you must also know of the idea of progress. And part of our responsibility for producing it is making way for it by exiting gracefully when our work is done.

  3. Mrs Davis…”you surely know that the elderly have always been worried about the future when they look at the young. Our only solace is that it has always been thus”

    As my father used to put it:

    My grandpa in his house of logs
    Said the world was going to the dogs
    And HIS grandpa in the old peat bogs
    Said the world was going to the dogs
    (more verses)
    And HIS grandpa in caveman togs
    Said the world was going to the dogs

    …but sometimes, the world really does go to the dogs, as many events in the history of the 20th century demonstrate.

    I think media technology does have an impact on how people think and perceive reality…see Metaphors, Interfaces, and Thought Processes, and Duz Web Mak Us Dumr?

  4. “Do The Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?” No.

    Having read most of them, I can forthrightly say none prepared me to accept the truth of Islam, Marxism, Obamunism, feminism, the EUSSR, etc. All are obsolete. “Humanism” has passed from the Earth, replaced by doctrines harmonious with human nature.

  5. “Would Freud, James or Marx make the cut if this collection was being made today?”

    Do you mean Jefferson’s collection, or Alder’s?

    Alder would probably include all three for sake of the “conversation.”

    Jefferson would not include them, but for different reasons than mere idealogical nitpicks. Notice that the only writers he includes that were writing within two centuries of him: to learn “style” in his English he was to study Milton, Shakspeare, Pope, and Swift, for mathematics and science, Martin, Bezout, De la Lande, and Muschenbrock, and for history, Gibbon. More recent political thinkers (e.g. John Locke) were not included in the program. Post-Roman philosophers and theologians also had no place in Mr. Jefferson’s ideal education – at least not in laying its foundation.

    Jefferson put history first and foremost in his educational philosophy. Abstract political principles are meaningless without historical context.

    It is a less so many modern educators – insistent on fostering ‘critical thinking’ and ‘creativity’ in their students at the expense of actually learning hard facts – would do well to heed.

  6. “.…but sometimes, the world really does go to the dogs, as many events in the history of the 20th century demonstrate.”

    David this struck a chord with me. I just read the first chapter of G.K. Chesterton’s “A Short History of England” (published 1917, thanks Gutenberg Library). He suggested that the time after Roman decline and the advent of the Dark Ages culturally was full of the idea of “Good Times Going” and his culture (and we until recently, perhaps, in our time and turn) were full of the idea of “Good Times To Come”.

    He continued: “All the motives that make a man progressive now made a man conservative then. The more he could keep of the past the more he had of a fair law and a free state; the more he gave way to the future the more he must endure of ignorance and privilege. All we call reason was one with what we call reaction. …. If the most extreme modern Republican were put back in that time he would be an equally extreme Papast or even Imperialist. For the Pope was what was left of the Empire and the Empire what was left of the Republic.”

  7. I have a vague memory from the 1970s (probably) of Mortimer Adler being the subject of a PBS television series. In it he hosted a colloquium with several students. During the course of which one student quoted Jefferson: “the government that governs best governs least,” to which Adler replied, “now we know that’s wrong.”

    It was then that I realized despite his erudition, Adler was no friend of liberty, no friend of America, and missed the entire twentieth century. So should I choose between Jefferson’s and Adler’s education, the choice must fall to the only one who believes I should be free.

  8. I would find the “social science and statistics” explanation more credible if social scientists had a stronger grasp of statistics. It may be that my experience is dated but my experience (I’ve tutored social science grad students in statistics) was that the understanding is limited to the results that could be cranked out of a computer program.

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