Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Look Back at the Great Books

My mother was one of those one million Americans that bought the Great Books (and let me tell you, she had to do without a lot to scrape together the $$$). I wouldn't have survived my high school years without them; they were my friends. It's a sad commentary on the postmodern dumbing-down of America (the entire West, for that matter) that no one can talk about the Great Books without putting those infuriating "air quotes" around the word "Great". The fact is, they are great, and they'll be great long after "Desperate Housewives" and Eminem (see below) have stopped being the kind of sad, degrading memories that make you feel just a little bit soiled knowing that you ever devoted a single brain cell to thinking about them. Kant, Hume, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and even that annoying and consistently wrong Athenian elitist named Plato, whose Great Books volume still has a place of honor on my bookshelf, where I take it down every year or two to write yet another screed attacking yet another aspect of Plato's wrong-wrong-wronnnnnnggggggg thought. (my personal feeling about Plato is this: if Plato doesn't infuriate you to the point where you stand up and kick furniture, then you really haven't understood him ...).

The problem with the internet is that it is so bloody indiscriminate. A young person online has no way of knowing that an online version of Plato's Phaedrus is better for him/her to read and learn from than an online screed from some tinfoil-hat wearer going on about missiles taking down Flight 800. The idea that the internet puts everything out there, and the person reading it has to apply his/her discriminatory powers to culling the wheat from the chaff, dodges one crucial question: where the hell are young people supposed to have learned these "discriminatory powers"? The Great Books project did something that's considered "rude" and "elitist" in this low, degraded post-Western age. It dared to say: "look, kid, it's like this. Here are the Great Books of Western Civilization. We probably missed a few, but these are pretty much the best of the best. They've stood the test of time -- in some cases, millenia of time. So just take our word for it, and get reading!" I wish we as a society still had the courage and faith in the best parts of our shared heritage to be willing to dictate to our young people like that. These days we're more concerned with pumping up their all-important "self-esteem." Twenty years from now, I believe our young people will hate us for betraying them that way.


Molly Rothenberg, a student at St. John's in Annapolis, Md., told Mr. Beam of comparing notes when she was a sophomore with a fellow graduate of the public high school in Cambridge, Mass. St. John's sophomores study works by such authors as Aristotle, Tacitus and Shakespeare. Her friend was attending Bates College in Maine. "She told me they were studying Rhetoric," Ms.
Rothenberg said, "and they would be watching episodes of 'Desperate Housewives' and listening to Eminem. They were going to analyze it. I just laughed. What could I say?"


Doctor Panacea said...

I read your excellent article on the great books yesterday. Today I was looking at the "Arts & Letters Daily" and came across two articles on the same subject, with a distinctly different viewpoint from yours. I much prefer your take on the books. If you want to check these things out (the first link is just to the A&L Daily):


Roland Stroud

Anonymous said...

How funny, must've been something in The Eternal Aether that prompted people to be thinking about The Great Books at the same time. :-) I'll definitely read those this week. Thanks for the pointer.