Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Great Idea at the Time - Alex Beam

Before I went up to the woods, I was tipped off on a book that was something of a history of the Great Books by Alex Beam.  Beam was asked about the Great Books by someone (around 2006 iirc) but he had never heard of the set.  He decided to investigate and ended up writing this book from a skeptical angle.  It's  a good read and I highly recommend it.  I literally laughed out loud at a discussion group within a prison.
Most of the things that I've read about the Great Books has been fairly positive, this book being a prime counter example.  Now that I'm more than a third of the way through the ten year plan, I thought I'd respond to some of the criticisms.

  • The idea of a Great Books is out of step with modern education - This is both a) true and b) not obviously the fault of the Great Books folks.  It's becoming harder and harder to simply trust that modern educators have the better part of this argument.  
  • The main promoters, Adler and Hutchins, sold the Great Books idea as a universal education - It's not.  The Great Books approach won't work for everyone and may not work for the majority of students.  That doesn't mean it doesn't have it's place.  In fact, the exact same criticism applies with equal force to the more 'modern' approach, which also obviously isn't the best fit for everyone.  
  • It's disputable that the best works were selected - This is also both true and impossible to fix.  There is no set of works that would represent the Western Canon without arguably leaving out important works or arguably leaving in some that shouldn't qualify.  So be it.  It's not difficult for a reader to go with what is presented and look for other suggestions.
  • The Great Books were picked with poor translations and bad formatting - This is a tough one for me to judge since I've read so little from the actual books in the set.  Probably 90% of what I've read has been from my Kindle or from bound books.  But it may be true.  If you're reading along with, say, the Iliad, and finding little enjoyment, look for opinions on a better translation.
  • The works selected contain too many ancient science books - I agree with this one 100%.  A modern reader can get more out of reading about Newton, Farraday etc, than they can reading from them.  Try them if you'd like, but seek out some secondary reading to really understand why they were important.
  • A 'Western' canon has little use in our multi-cultural world - I'm not sure what to do with a meta concern like this.  It's easy to look at a Great Books approach as leaving out wisdom from the rest of the world but I don't know how true that is.  If I read Plato and Aristotle, there is nothing keeping me from reading Confucius and Buddha.  In fact, I'd be surprised if the average Great Books reader wasn't more interested in reading other ancient texts than a non Great Books reader.
  • Older works don't have anything to say to a modern reader - This is similar to the previous criticism.  I disagree (of course).  This isn't to say that I look to Plato or Aristotle to solve current political issues but I absolutely do use the methods of Plato and Aristotle to get a handle on them.
  • Adler wasn't a good person/The Great Books set was a money making venture - I don't know how good Adler was.  He was certainly flawed but who isn't.  The books themselves were obviously a labor of love from Adler and Hutchins.  There was a profit motive involved but that wasn't the main driver.
  • The set of books became some kind of impressive furniture rather than a useful tool - This may have been true and maybe for the majority of users.  I don't know that this is the fault of the set makers or the books themselves.  The computer can be an amazingly useful tool or it can be a window into hours and hours of 'Farmville'.  That isn't the computers fault.
  • The topics set up in the the Syntopicon are little more than a gambit, rather than a serious tool - This is hard for me to judge.  My father found them very useful but I haven't used them much.  The exact topics (102 in all) are certainly open to criticism of inclusion/exclusion but any set of topics would have been open to the exact same criticism.  (In the book he notes that around 1990, Adler said that if they did the list now they might have included 'Equality' as a topic.  It's very possible that the topics simply need updating as time goes by.)
  • Great Books readers are a little strange - This was the one part of the book that I thought was unfair. For example, a WWII vet in the book is labeled in a picture as loving two things, the Great Books and killing japs.  That's not a fair way to sum him up.  I'm sure that any group of readers (or any other hobby!) can be made to look weird from the outside.  In this book, it felt like a series of cheap shots.
As I said though, I'd recommend the book.  I highly enjoyed it.

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