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or many years, traditional-
ist thinkers have promoted the
teaching of a set of core texts—
the “great books”—as a vital element of a liberal arts education during
a time when demands for multiculturalism led to the dismantling of a
number of traditional programs of study. In more recent years, thinkers
such as Harold Bloom and John Searle have argued that the well-rounded,
thoughtful individual must have an education grounded in the great texts
of the West.
I have long sympathized with these arguments, but in recent years I
have come to suspect that the very source of the decline of the study of
the great books comes not in spite of the lessons of the great books, but
is to be found in the very arguments within a number of the great books.
agai nst great books
Patrick J. Deneen questions our approach to the Western canon.
Patrick J. Deneen is an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.
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The broader assault on the liberal arts derives much
of its intellectual fuel from a number of the great
books themselves.
Thus, those who insist upon an education in the
great books end up recommending texts and ar-
guments that undermine their own beliefs in the
central importance of liberal arts education. Those
who habitually defend the great books need to re-
lect more extensively on the notion of “greatness”
and its relationship to the great books—and their
authors—that have helped put humanistic education
on the ropes.
any commend the teaching of great or
core texts to provide something more
than the exercise of “critical thinking,”
a goal onto which academics have
latched (after the ferocious curriculum
battles of the 1980s and 1990s) with an almost au-
dible sigh of relief. Debates about substance were put
to rest as agreement was reached on the contentless
goal of critical thinking, which allowed academics to
lay down their arms and embrace the common project
of cultivating a thinking style. Indeed, it has reached
a pass in which the only idea impervious to critical
thinking is the shared goal of critical thinking: No one
quite knows what it is, but we can all agree that we
want our students to be able to do it. Push-pins is equal
to Homer, and Homer equal to push-pins, since both
can be claimed to foster critical thinking.
Yet, typically, a defense of an education in the
great books requires making a more robust claim
about the aim of education: These texts teach not
merely a way of thinking but a particular and sub-
stantive set of conclusions that makes the teaching
of these texts essential and necessary. One nnds, for
example, arguments that an education in the great
books is essential for a preparation for citizenship,
that it has the aim of teaching about the nature of
liberty. Such claims thus draw a preliminary conclu-
sion about the nature and substance of the lessons
taught by the great books, a conclusion that justines
holding them to be the source of knowledge essential
to a citizen in a modern liberal democracy.
There is a more fundamental claim that one also
nnds in the defense of the reading of the great books:
that the core texts of the West have made us what
we are, that they are the sources from which we have
derived such concepts as human dignity, equality, in-
dividual liberty, constitutionalism, democracy, and
so on. So conceived, the great books have shaped a
world in their image and guided not only individu-
als, but a whole civilization, in fos tering a way of
life. Only by reading the great texts can we come
to a true form of self-understanding, in the most
comprehensive sense.
This is an extraordinary claim, that books can
make a world—even when many have not read those
books. Yet it is not an uncommon thought. I have
in mind something like the following passage from
Wendell Berry’s novel Andy Catlett: Early Travels,
in which an older Andy remembers his grandmother
making a raspberry pie: “A peculiar sorrow hovered
about [my grandmother], and not only for the inevi-
table losses and griefs of her years; it came also from
her settled conviction of the tendency of things to be
unsatisfactory, to fail to live up to expectation, to
fall short.”
She was haunted, I think, by the suspicion of a
comedown always lurking behind the best appear-
ances. I wonder now if she had ever read Paradise
Lost. That poem, with its cosmos of Heaven and
Hell and Paradise and the Fallen World, was a
presence felt by most of her generation, if only by
way of preachers who had read it. Whether or not
she had read it for herself, the lostness of Paradise
was the prime fact of her world, and she felt it
At the outset of the book, Berry compares the
village of Port William with Hargrave, the town in
which Andy grows up. In contrast to Hargrave, Port
William seems inluenced by the lesson of Paradise
Lost. “Hargrave, though it seemed large to me, was a
small town that loved its connections with the greater
world, had always aspired to be bigger, richer, and
grander than it was, and had always apologized to
itself for being only what it was. When school was
out, I lived mostly in the orbit of the tiny village of
Port William, which, so long as it remained at the
center of its own attention, was entirely satisned to
be what it was.”
This condition of longing for something more—
so characteristic of Satan in Paradise Lost—is con-
trasted with a kind of acceptance of the world as a
fallen place that may require more endurance than
transformation. Like Andy’s grandmother, Port
William seems to have adopted the teachings of Para-
dise Lost while Hargrave seems to have turned to a
different set of ideas.
Berry has returned recently to a relection on the
role of books in shaping a worldview—and specin-
cally the inluence of Paradise Lost—to suggest that
it is a part of the wisdom of the older books to teach
us not only about what we ought to aspire to do, but
also about what is inappropriate and forbidden. In
an essay written shortly after the near-collapse of
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our nnancial system, he points to Milton’s relections
on our urge to know, when the archangel Raphael,
in response to Adam’s questions about the story of
creation, agrees “to answer thy desire / Of know-
ledge within bounds” (Berry’s emphasis). Raphael
explains that
Knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain;
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.
Berry continues: “Raphael is saying, with angelic
circumlocution, that knowledge without wisdom, lim-
itless knowledge, is not worth a fart; he is not a humor-
less archangel. But he also is saying that knowledge
without measure, knowledge that the human mind
cannot appropriately use, is mortally dangerous.”
erry writes of the books that aimed to edu-
cate human beings by teaching the limits
of human power and knowledge. Great
books such as Paradise Lost sought to in-
culcate a sense of limits, a cognizance of
knowledge inappropriate to humans. They sought
to cultivate a capacity to accept and endure rather
than the impulse to transform and escape, and they
endeavored to foster an education in the accompany-
ing virtues that are required in a world where such
limits are recognized—virtues such as moderation
and prudence—and in the avoidance of vices like
pride and hubris. Here we could look at a dominant
understanding of a long succession of great books,
from antiquity through the Middle Ages—books
whose authors would include the likes of Plato,
Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Dante, and Aquinas,
among others.
For these writers, the appropriate disposition to-
ward the world is not the effort to seek its transfor-
mation, but rather to conform human behavior and
aspirations to the natural or created order. Hence,
the primary purpose of education is learning to live
in a world in which self-limitation is the appropriate
response to a world of limits. Education in virtue is a
central goal—particularly the hard discipline of the
human propensity toward excess, especially in the
forms of pleonexia or pride.
Books were understood to be a storehouse of wis-
dom from the past, a treasury and repository of hard-
won experience and knowledge of these limits. What
these books taught was itself a justincation for an
education centered around them. Because the pres-
ent and future were believed to be fundamentally
identical to the past, the past was understood to be a
source of wisdom about our condition as humans in
a world that we do not command. An education in
great books was itself a consequence of a philosophi-
cal worldview, and not merely an education from
which we derived a worldview (much less sought an
education in critical thinking).
rguments against this form of education
became common among elite thinkers in
the early modern period, who sought to
justify a new kind of science that had as
its aim the expansion of human control
over nature. Arguing strenuously against the content
of books by authors such as Aristotle, Francis Bacon
castigated previous thinkers for their “despair” and
tendency to “think things impossible.” Asserting
that “knowledge is power,” he rejected the idea that
knowledge consists nrst in acknowledging human
limits and claimed that it was necessary to wipe
clear “waxen tablets” inscribed with older writing
in order to inscribe new lessons upon them. Books
were more often than not one manifestation of the
“idols of the cave,” or illusions that obscured true
enlightenment, and in the schools “men’s studies
. . . [were] connned and imprisoned in the writings
of certain authors.” His book Novum Organum is
devoted to arguing against the lawed inheritance of
the past, including the arguments found in the great
books of his age.
Novum Organum is now one of our great
books—a great book that recommends against the
lessons of previous great books. His work inaugu-
rated a long line of great books that argued against
an education in books. Another in this genre is René
Descartes’ Discourse on Method, which begins with
a similar condemnation of book-learning as an ob-
stacle to true understanding. “As soon as my age
permitted me to pass from under the control of my
instructors,” he wrote, “I entirely abandoned the
study of letters, and resolved no longer to seek any
other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the
great book of the world.” Books are the repository of
foolishness: “When I look with the eye of a philoso-
pher at the varied courses and pursuits of mankind
at large, I nnd scarcely one which does not appear in
vain and useless.”
He compares book learning to the experience of
travel and concludes that both forms of sallying forth
into the world of custom and opinion are largely a
waste of time. Instead, he “shuts [himself] up in a
room” during a cold winter’s night and proceeds to
investigate what he can know purely through skepti-
cal examination of his own empirical experience of
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reality. Famously, he concludes that he exists because
he knows that he thinks—a conclusion that requires
no consultation of books or culture, but only what
his own mind, stripped bare of all external inlu-
ences, can grasp.
n the chapter of Leviathan titled “Of Reason
and Science,” Francis Bacon’s secretary Thomas
Hobbes also rejects the counsel of those who
follow “the authority of books,” and instead
tells the learner to trust entirely his own expe-
rience and experimentation with the natural realm
and thereby make it possible for man to exercise con-
trol over the natural world and attain a condition of
“commodious living,” an echo of Bacon’s aspiration
toward “the relief of man’s estate.”
Centuries later, this line of argumentation would
be employed in the United States in defense of dis-
assembling existing curricula oriented to the study
of the great books. Widely regarded as America’s
most inluential educational reformer, John Dewey,
in books that continue to exert great inluence in
schools of education, argued that learning should be
accomplished “experientially” rather than through
an encounter with books. In his short work Experi-
ence and Education, he argues strenuously that an
education based in books transmitted “static” knowl-
edge to a citizenry that needed to be better enabled
to face a world of rapid change. Learning through
books is “to a large extent the cultural product of
societies that assumed the future would be much like
the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a
society where change is the rule, not the exception.”
Accordingly, he founded an institution in Chicago
called the Lab School. Laboratory was to replace
library, experiment would substitute for knowledge
gleaned from the past.
Not only was such an education the necessary re-
sponse to a society experiencing change, but it also
would lead to desirable acceleration of change. A
society based upon roiling change had two aims: to
actively displace cultural transmission as a norm of
education and thus unseat “authority” and the past
as guides to action, and to permit greater command
of the natural and human world and the growth of
human power. Dewey makes this case in pointed
terms in his book Democracy and Education, asking,
“Why does a savage group perpetuate savagery, and
a civilized group civilization?” He answers that “in
a sense the mind of savage peoples is an effect, rather
than a cause, of their backward institutions. Their
social activities are such as to restrict their objects of
attention and interest, and hence to limit the stimuli
to mental development.”
Even as regards the objects that come within the
scope of attention, primitive social customs tend
to arrest observation and imagination upon quali-
ties which do not fructify in the mind. Lack of
control of natural forces means that a scant num-
ber of natural objects enter into associated behav-
ior. Only a small number of natural resources are
utilized and they are not worked for what they are
worth. The advance of civilization means that a
larger number of natural forces and objects have
been transformed into instrumentalities of action,
into means for securing ends.
Dewey claimed that progress rests upon the active
control of nature and hence requires the displacement
of the “savage” regard for the past and, arguably, the
inclination to make a home in the world as created
rather than seek its transformation through human
mastery. The savage tribe does manage to live in the
desert, he writes, by adapting itself, and “its adap-
tation involves a maximum of accepting, tolerating,
putting up with things as they are, a maximum of
passive acquiescence, and a minimum of active con-
trol, of subjection to use.” A “civilized people” in the
same desert also adapts itself. But “it introduces ir-
rigation; it searches the world for plants and animals
that will lourish under such conditions; it improves,
by careful selection, those which are growing there.
As a consequence, the wilderness blossoms as a rose.
The savage is merely habituated; the civilized man
has habits which transform the environment.”
ewey traces his own thought back to
Francis Bacon, whom he considered
the most important thinker in history.
Bacon, he wrote in Reconstruction in
Philosophy, teaches that “scientific
principles and laws do not lie on the surface of na-
ture. They are hidden, and must be wrested from
nature by an active and elaborate technique of inqui-
ry.” The modern scientist “must force the apparent
facts of nature into forms different to those in which
they familiarly present themselves; and thus make
them tell the truth about themselves, as torture may
compel an unwilling witness to reveal what he has
been concealing.”
In Dewey, as in Bacon, a close connection is forged
between the modern project of the mastery of nature
and the rejection of an education focused upon the
teachings of the great books. Only by overcoming the
“static” teachings of those texts can progress be un-
leashed; only by extending human mastery over a tor-
tured nature can humanity achieve the true measure
of its potential greatness.
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Dewey’s arguments deeply and pervasively shaped
American educational institutions. While these in-
stitutions still offer an education in the humanities,
increasingly their main end is to advance the goal of
knowledge as power in the effort to secure a form of
liberty in which nature no longer is thought to gov-
ern or guide human life. They focus on the STEM
subjects—Science, Technology, Engineering, and
Mathematics—with a corresponding decline in com-
mitment to the humanities, in some cases disbanding
entire departments once devoted to the study of the
humanities through the reading of books.
At most institutions of higher learning, one can at
best see only the remnant of an older understanding
of the role of the great books to educate students in
the virtues necessary in a world to which we must
conform our actions. More in evidence is the effort
to “create new knowledge” and advance the aims
of the modern research university, a goal that one
can see on the home pages of most contemporary
universities. One needs to look harder to discover
the older understanding of education, often in the
symbolic inheritances of an institution—such as the
books (indeed, great books) emblazoned on the seals
of Princeton and Harvard Universities.
Once one begins to compare the content of these
older symbolic presences with contemporary claims,
one sees the profound change that has taken place—a
consequence of embracing the lessons of such authors
as Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes—particularly cap-
tured in contradiction between the seals and mottos
of older institutions and their more recent mission
statements. Consider, for instance, the motto of the
University of Texas at Austin. Emblazoned on its seal
are the words Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis, which
is translated as “A cultivated mind is the guardian
genius of democracy.” These words are drawn from
a longer statement of the Republic of Texas’ second
president, Mirabeau Lamar, which reads: “A culti-
vated mind is the guardian genius of democracy and,
while guided and controlled by virtue, the noblest
attribute of man. It is the only dictator that free-
men acknowledge and the only security that freemen
desire.” This fuller statement, with its stress upon
the relationship of virtue, authority, and liberty, and
with the overtones in the word disciplina not only
of “cultivation” but also of discipline, points to an
older conception according to which liberty was the
achievement of hard-won self-control through the
discipline of virtue.
Moreover, the seal itself portrays the image of an
open book on the upper neld of the shield, demon-
strating that the means by which this discipline of
liberty is to be won is an education in the wisdom,
the lessons, and the cautions of the past accumulated
on the pages of books that are deemed by an older
generation to be essential in the education and for-
mation of every new generation. The aim of such an
education is not critical thinking, but the achieve-
ment of liberty governed by the discipline—even dic-
tatorship—of virtue.
Contrast this seal, designed when the university
was founded, with the more recently devised mission
statement that is found on the main web portal of
the university. There, after some boilerplate about
a dedication to “excellence” in education (a word
embraced by every institution, which is about as
rich in content as the phrase “critical thinking”), the
university offers a statement about the purpose of
education at the University of Texas. “The university
contributes to the advancement of society through
research, creative activity, scholarly inquiry and the
development of new knowledge.” The stress here is
upon the research and scientinc mission of the univer-
sity, notably the aim of creating “new knowledge,”
not upon the effort to understand older wisdom. One
searches in vain for a modern re-articulation of the
sentiments of the older motto. Rather than declare
the importance of inculcating virtue, it emphasizes
research in the service of progress, particularly the
progress that contributes to the centuries-old ambi-
tion to subject nature to human will.
hus, two distinct and contradictory con-
ceptions of liberty have been advanced
in a long succession of great books. The
nrst of these commends the study of great
books for an education in virtue in light
of a recognition of human membership in a created
order to which we must conform and that we do not
ultimately govern. The other argues against the study
of great books and asserts a form of human great-
ness that seeks the human mastery of nature, particu-
larly by the emphasis of modern science. This latter
conception of liberty does not seek merely to coexist
alongside an older conception, but requires the ac-
tive dismantling of this idea of liberty and hence the
transformation of education away from the study of
great books and toward the study of “the great book
of nature” with the end of its mastery.
The older conception of liberty held that liber-
ty was ultimately a form of self-government. In a
constrained world, the human propensity to desire
and consume without limit and end inclined people
toward a condition of slavery, understood to be en-
slavement to the base desires. This older c onception
of liberty was displaced by our regnant concep-
tion of liberty, the liberty to pursue our desires
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ceaselessly with growing prospects of ongoing ful-
nllment through the conquest of nature, accom-
panied by the constant generation of new desires
that demand ever greater expansion of the human
project of mastery. The decline of the role of great
books in our universities today is not due merely to
nnancial constraints, or to the requirement of fed-
eral funding for scientinc inquiry, or even to science
itself. Preceding all of this was an argument that the
study of great books should be displaced from the
heart of education.
We are forced to consider whether the justincation
for studying the great books is sufncient: whether
simply presenting these books as general representa-
tives of “greatness” does not in fact contribute to the
undermining of the study of the great books. Per-
haps we even need to reconsider the very language of
greatness, and consider commending instead humble
books, or at least great books that teach humility, in
contrast to those great books that advance a version
of Promethean greatness, an aspiration that has un-
dermined the study of books.
Whether we study their ideas or not, inescap-
ably these books make a world in their own image.
Through study of these books we can at least un-
derstand the ideas underlying the world we inhabit,
and we might even achieve a kind of liberation from
the tyranny of our unconscious submission to the
ideas that dominate our age by considering others
that have been discarded. We ignore these books
at our peril—not because they will make us more
urbane and cultured, but because they shape us
whether we know it or not. Only by understanding
the competing teachings of the great books can we
reconsider the lessons that our age has embraced—
l essons that have led us to think that we can dis-
pense with reading the great books—and even
ponder whether it would be wiser to commend the
teachings of the humble books as we witness the ac-
cumulating wreckage amid our progress.
JnvnNr·r Mnv¡r i N JnNUni.
All spring she brushed aside my arguments
that it was cheaper and would make more sense
to nll the yard with hardy Yankee stock.
She bought her maple, junked the chain-link fence,
and tried to start a lawn; our crabby lock
of grackles grew too fat on seed to quarrel.
While masons tamed the mud with slate and rock,
she planted birches, hollies and a laurel.
New pickets kept our neighbors in their place.
October stripped the birches down to bone,
as if to warn the weak. Beside new stone
the pygmy loated with plum and amber lace.
As ice was making oaks bow, crack and groan,
her vision shimmered with a stubborn grace.
—A. M. Juster

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