Britannica Blog, too often overlooked, continues to impress with its thoughtful writing and conversation on education. With writers like Dan Willingham and Karin Chenoweth, it’s unabashedly intellectual, broad and wide-ranging, and refuses to cater to the allegedly short attention span of the online reader. This week, to mark the publication of Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam’s new book, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, the B.B. sets many minds to work on the question, “Do ‘Great Books’ still matter?”
Robert McHenry, former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica, observes that any discusssion of the very idea of “Great Books” comes down to a single (and singular) question: What is education for?
Do we educate our young so that they will find gainful and rewarding employment? Do we educate them so that they will be good citizens? Do we educate them so that they will have disciplined and well-stocked minds? Do we educate them mainly to get them out of the house?
Echoing McHenry, the president of St. John’s College, Christopher B. Nelson, reclaims the liberal arts ideal, reminding us that too many of us in education, in our relentless focus on test scores and outcomes, risk losing our way. Try not to cringe as Nelson describes the chairman of the business department of a small “liberal arts” college saying to one of his sons,
“My job is to make you into the best product that can be sold on the market. You are raw material and I am the producer and together we must make a product that we can go out and sell. I want to help you get the best price for your mind and body when you graduate from here, in competition with all the other products from all the other colleges.”
In a certain sense, there is nothing wrong with this approach, Nelson writes. ”More people should have this. Almost all of us need to work in order to live. But life is more than earning a living. One ought also to be concerned with making a life worth living. So, the problem with this kind of education is that it is just not enough,” he concludes.
Lastly, for teachers who, inevitably, question the relevance of Great Books to low-income, immigrant, or minority learners, English professor Bruce Gans has a reply. Observing the “tragic intellectual and cultural handicaps” that have hobbled his students, Gans administers a curriculum based on Mortimer Adler’s famous reading list.
The most serious form this terrible damage takes is that my students as a consequence are unexposed to the ideas, questions, and meditations on the human condition these major figures have contributed and from which millions of the educated have gleaned a deeper and more useful understanding of themselves, of others, and of the long and painful evolution that has brought us to our current stage of civilization and human freedom.
“Insofar as the Great Books are concerned, they will continue to deeply reward those like my students who study and understand them,” Gans writes. And to those who dismiss them? ”One calls to mind the Middle Eastern expression: the dogs bark, the caravan passes.”