Today at A&L

A&L links to The Common Review, which appears to be the “Great Books Club” official journal- but I may be wrong. It is clearly associated with Penguin. Do the Chicago lads (and lasses, I guess) know anything about the path of the Great Books Clubs from then to now?

A&L was looking at the review of a new E. D. Hirsch book, The Knowledge Deficit. Albert Fernandez begins with some grudging agreement with the argument Hirsch develops. Indeed, we see in this review, apparently in Hirsch’s book, and in the book I described earlier (Zoch’s Doomed to Fail) a common critique of the Dewey influenced teaching in America and a common appreciation of how important a breadth of knowledge is, quite simply, to our reading, let alone our analysis of what we’ve read.

Given Jonathan’s current project, this site’s passion for listing books & selling them is interesting, since it seems to arrive at lists that include some of the same great works but through quite different routes. The editor’s take is different than we see here (for instance, he takes the deaths of Iraqis as the Lancet total – the sympathy people such as this assume for such deaths followed by their desire for an immediate pull-out is a sentimentality I’m having trouble stomaching). But the emphasis upon a context for events made up of books is not.

A&L also links to a Toronto interview of Pinker, who is examining the nature of language – another bookish concern, of course, but most of all a cognitive one. Pinker argues that “It could be that 95 per cent of our speech is metaphorical, if you go back far enough in language.” Anyone who is interested in word derivations or spends a little time with a dictionary recognizes the soundness of this observation. But, of course, it also tells us much about how our minds work – how symbolism comes easily to us. Beneath the economy of such metaphors is a supposition, he argues, “that the mind itself works metaphorically, that we see the abstract commonality between argument and war, between progress and motion. And it presupposes that the mind, at some level, must reason very concretely in order that these metaphors be understand and become contagious.”

(The Great Books Clubs in the fifties spread across the country.  I remember my father and the Lutheran minister joined in forming one in our village. How different, how similar are they now? Of course, assumptions have changed: one of my husband’s colleagues a few years ago put up an ad saying he was selling his inherited collection since we now realize the irrelevancy of such a canon.)

6 thoughts on “Today at A&L”

  1. I think a lot of the modes and methods of “progressive” education evolved in reaction to decreasing intellectual caliber of educators in general. Prior to women’s liberation, education attracted the best and brightest women as the only common outlet for their abilities. Women today who are doctors, lawyers, corporate leaders etc would in the past have been k-12 educators. Today, education students stand firmly at the bottom of academic ranking. The education system never adapted never to this change in its talent pool.

    Teachers cannot provide a broad knowledge base for their students if they lack it themselves. Naturalism and formalism provide a rationale excusing teacher’s ignorance by claiming that knowledge doesn’t matter in teaching. Teachers just have to understand the technique du jour to be regarded as proficient. When the education system lost the knowledgeable people it needed to provide students with a broad knowledge base, it solved the problem by simply defining broad knowledge as unnecessary to a good education.

  2. Ginny,
    Yes, The Common Review is the quarterly magazine of the Great Books Foundation. We launched the magazine in fall 2001, and much of our content can be read at, although for the full contents we recommend a subscription.

    Glad you read Fernandez’s review of Hirsch. We think it’s an important essay on the subject of reading comprehension.


    Dr. Daniel Born
    Editor, The Common Review
    The Great Books Foundation
    35 E. Wacker Dr., Suite 2300
    Chicago IL 60601

  3. Thanks, Dr. Born.

    Shannon, You are right – and I’m old enough to remember the end of that era, with a few wise old teachers. And it’s a lot easier to think content isn’t important if you don’t know what it is. And that, too often, seems the case.

    At some point, though, we might have taken a different path if we had honored what people teach. Money would have helped, but now pay for teachers is more than commensurate with the amount of time they prepared within their profession and the time they spend each week.

    Teacher’s unions and teacher’s colleges have had a pernicious effect. As undergraduates in the sixties, we would have been embarrassed to say we were in education – even though educators were getting low but real professional salaries & liberal arts people little more than minimum wage jobs – and certainly longer hours. At that stage, few of us were preparing to become lawyers & corporate heads. Sure, some of us ended up doing that but those fields were just opening. If the profile and requirements for educators had been higher, we might have expected more money but we also would have considered the profession more seriously.

    A somewhat interesting aside: the teacher who has most inspired all three of my daughters in high school has been their American history AP teacher. A good percentage of his kids get 5’s on the AP test. He has told the students that he would have stayed career military if the pay wasn’t so lousy in the 80’s (I think that’s when he got out; he’s got a family and been teaching for decades.) He’s also a coach – a few years ago his baseball team got to practice with Gorbachev and Bush Sr. Not surprisingly, that teacher makes history live.

  4. The history of the great books program is covered on Wikipedia:
    Link and

    The Chicago connection was through Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899–1977) who was president of the University of Chicago from (1929–1951), and his comic sidekick Mortimer Adler. Hutchins was the great advocate of the Great Books as the foundation of education. When I arrived in Hyde park in 1965, the college still had a core curriculum, although it was not a Great Books curriculum like St. John’s. The legend on campus was that the 10 year long courses of the core, had been reduced from 18 in the late 40s, in order to mollify the faculty, who were interested in their own specialties, not in gen ed. From what I understand, the core curriculum has since beaten to a bloody pulp and no longer stands for much.

  5. “Today, education students stand firmly at the bottom of academic ranking.”

    Shannon – not quite at the bottom. Based on the data in the chart on this site, the only people more inept than future educators are people wanting to go into public administration. Go figure.

    It was quite shocking for me to see that education school entrants score lower on the GRE verbal than any engineering discipline except Industrial. That gives lie to the claim from schools of education that communication is their major stock-in-trade. At least when I was an undergrad, even the engineering profs used to admit that engineers in general could not write for beans.

  6. Ginny,
    I appreciate your critical remarks about our most recent issue of The Common Review, and would welcome your elaboration of them to be published in the next issue of our magazine. We appreciate thoughtful criticism and commentary from all and any of our readers.
    Go ahead and send your comments directly to my email, if you wish.
    Daniel Born
    Editor, The Common Review
    The Great Books Foundation
    35 E. Wacker Dr., Suite 2300
    Chicago IL 60601

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