The Grail Code 
Great books to the rescue

Sure, it’s easy to bash American education, you say. But what do you have to offer that’s any better?

Oh, you’re going to be sorry you asked that. As I hinted earlier, I have a whole lecture prepared on that very subject. I call it “The Great Books in Your School,” and I consider it a kind of subversive’s manual for turning American education on its head.

Sometimes I think everyone but me knows what a “great books” education is. Like Socrates, I know only that I know nothing. Unlike Socrates, I don’t think that makes me particularly wise.

Actually, I think I can propose a good working definition of a great-books education. A great-books education is any program whose graduates are likely to mention Socrates in the first thirty seconds of a conversation.

Yes, laugh if you like, but I mean it quite seriously. You’ll see why after I’ve had more to say about what a “great book” is and how we decide which books are “great.”

First, though, I have a lot to say about what a great-books education is, which of course involves knowing a lot about what it isn’t.

Before we go too far, you should know that there are many schools of thought on the subject of “great books,” and I come from one of the most radical schools. But I’m a pragmatic sort of radical. I think the methods I advocate are better, not because I have a theory that says they ought to be better, but because long experience proves that they work very well in practice.

“Great books” has become a popular academic catchphrase lately, and that has created a demand in the academic world for things that are called “great-books” classes. Many of these classes are taught the same way every other class is taught. Students are expected to absorb certain facts about certain books. They’re tested on the facts they absorb. So the students will be expected to name the chief ideas in Plato’s Republic, just as in geography class they’re expected to name the chief exports of Indonesia. We might call this the “read-and-regurgitate” method.

In practice, of course, this method forces students not to discover what the book really means, but to memorize what their teacher thinks it means. They’re not learning Plato’s ideas; they’re taking an intensive course in the political thought of their teacher. The problem with that is that the political thought of most teachers isn’t very important in the great scheme of things. There’s a reason why you and I aren’t as well known as Plato. We’re not as much worth knowing as Plato.

But even if the teacher interpreted the book absolutely correctly—whatever that could possibly mean—the whole exercise isn’t very useful. Being able to tell you that Plato said this and Hobbes said that is good vocational training for reference librarians, but it doesn’t do anybody else much good. The students would be better off learning something practical, like origami or jazz mandolin.

Another approach—what we might call the “historical-critical” approach—uses extensive research to prove that each book was an inevitable product of its time. Academics who think this way will make sweeping statements about what the Greeks believed, which is about as useful as making sweeping statements about what Pennsylvanians believe. In the end, the historical-critical approach usually concludes that the great thinkers of the past were ignorant goobers compared to us, because they lacked the benefit of our modern wisdom. Specifically, they lacked the historical-critical approach.

Students who learn to look at great books this way are probably worse off than the ones who just memorize the chief exports of Plato. All they learn is that the great books have nothing to tell us. Archaeology and historical criticism can explain why Plato wrote what he wrote, so there’s no need to worry about what he’s actually saying. If they’re smart (and students are often smarter than their teachers), they’ll figure out soon enough that our own current ideas must be just as much historically determined as Plato’s. That includes the idea of the historical-critical approach to literature, which then falls in a heap of wreckage at their feet, leaving them back where they started.

A third approach is the one used by great-books radicals like me. It’s what you might call the sitting-around-talking approach. Even the name sounds dangerously radical, doesn’t it? After all, if there’s one thing schools can’t stand, it’s students sitting around talking. We have rules against that.

But that’s what I’m going to be recommending. Yes, my solution to the problems facing our schools today is a lot of sitting around and talking.

I’ll bet you can’t wait to know how I intend to make that work.

2 Responses to “Great books to the rescue”

  1. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » The saboteurs of democracy Says:

    [...] Sitting around talking? Isn’t that what we send kids to the principal’s office for? [...]

  2. Buck Says:

    That’s way the bestets answer so far!

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey