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The War Of The Great Books
What seemed to be just another tempest in the teapot of academia has escalated into a matter of national values and politics. Who would have believed that the choice of which books Stanford University students must read would create so much tumult? And that the controversy goes back so far?
February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
While Great Books supporters—the ancients—insisted on the classics’ continuing vitality in providing the answers to contemporary American dilemmas, the moderns just as firmly denied this. Many of John Dewey’s followers saw the GBWW as simply the culminating product of the wrongheaded careers of Hutchins and Adler. The search for eternal truths embedded in a set of great books offended America’s strong pragmatist tradition, which emphasized progressive, changing truth. The philosopher Richard Rorty’s recent critique of Bloom continues the pragmatists’ dispute with Hutchins: “Deweyans cannot see why knowledge should be thought of as a unity (rather than, say, as a bag of tools). The university as flea market … is fine with us.”
Another line of attack was aimed at a troubling corruption of high culture believed implicit in the GBWW. Dwight Macdonald scored some damaging hits against the project in a New Yorker article, “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club.” Besides questioning the assumption that the average reader can appreciate Aquinas’s disquisition on “Whether an Inferior Angel Speaks to a Superior Angel?” or other passages of esoterica without some introductory notes, Macdonald went on to indict what he saw as the raison d’être of the set: the Syntopicon. Adler’s obsession with classifying the great ideas and seeing them as part of a seamless transmillennial conversation tended to universalize the diverse phenomena of life. To believe, as Adler apparently did, that ideas, like words in a dictionary, can be reduced to a row of “definite, concrete, distinguishable entities” is mistaken. “An idea,” Macdonald countered, “is a misty, vague object that takes on protean shapes, never the same for any two people.”
Even worse, in Macdonald’s eyes, was the blighting technique of Madison Avenue in hawking Western civilization’s greatest intellectual treasures. Macdonald could not have known about—but would not have been surprised at—William Benton’s suggestion (deflected by Adler) that “Adultery” rather than “Angel” would be a better eye-catcher to open the Syntopicon. Macdonald did note that after sales of the GBWW lagged in the early years, Britannica brought on its supersalesman Kenneth M. Hardin to direct marketing. Hardin’s decision to go after the mass market, “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,” quadrupled sales. In 1961 more than fifty thousand sets were sold, and GBWW salesmen were living well. But this could be done only through a hard-sell approach, emphasizing, as Macdonald wrote, “Respect for Culture, Keeping up with the Adler-Joneses, and, above all, the Obligation to the Children, who would be forever disadvantaged if their parents failed to Act Now on this Opportunity for a mere $10 down, $10 a month. …”
Many parents did act. But did their purchase herald a new age of philosophic wisdom in America?
For Allan Bloom the early promise of the Great Books program was not fulfilled. It was thwarted by what he sees as the philosophic poverty of our universities today. His accusations have aroused even vitriolic comment than Hutchins or Adler ever knew. Perhaps part of the antagonism stems from the provocative tone Bloom delights in employing. What was once said of Robert Hutchins applies equally well to him: “His way of saying things is so annoying that good men cannot keep their minds on what he is saying.”
But some did listen carefully to Hutchins and were disturbed by what they thought they heard. In the 1930s John Dewey detected a nascent authoritarianism in the Hutchins program. Similar charges are lodged today against Bloom and his governmental counterpart, William Bennett. Why should a diverse student body be subject to a single curriculum? Isn’t this sort of rigorous classical education intrinsically elitist? Who is to determine the “truth” that students will be given? And isn’t the pursuit of social justice, after all, more important than a quest for a holy grail of truth? These criticisms, laden with political and ideological implications, have in the eyes of some tainted the entire Great Books program as being simply an adjunct to a New Right agenda.
Nevertheless, for an American public searching for some moorings of belief in an unsettled world, Allan Bloom seems to have his finger on something important. In the pendulum swings of American culture we are clearly on the return arc from the experimentalism and tradition bashing of the sixties. Political conservatism inspires a similar mood in education. Where Hutchins and Adler appealed to a fear that free world leadership required more wisdom than our colleges were giving, Bloom speaks to a society anxious lest its international competitiveness become compromised by inferior schooling. Just as Hutchins’s Chicago reforms reacted against the dominance of progressive educational theories, so Bennett and others are responding to the liberalized curriculum of the sixties and seventies. It is not surprising that the past few years have seen a raft of studies—E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Cultural Literacy , Diane Ravitch and Chester R. Finn’s What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? , and William Bennett’s report “To Reclaim a Legacy” the most prominent of them—bewailing an educational system in disrepair.