Sunday, November 30, 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 makes 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 civilization 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

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?"

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