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Some Introductory Thoughts on Great Books and America

1. The study of great books is usually contrasted with the use of textbooks and other technical books. It is contrasted, in other words, with study of the studies that show us what we most need to know as productive beings in a free, middle-class society.

2. It’s inevitable on our society that most people will think they don’t have time to read such books. They’ll even condemn, with some good sense, reading such books–like Plato’s Republic or Shakespeare’s Tempest–as a waste of valuable time.  Courses that feature the serious study of such texts continue to become more rare.

3. When busy and productive people read, they often want to be entertained, and that means that books should read like movies. That’s why they love John Grisham–whose charm disappears with careful or repeated reading. Or they want books to provide practical advice in a user-friendly form. The best-sellers are often self-help books–about achieving serenity or sexual satisfaction or a romantic connection now or how to avoid an audit or obesity.

4. Lots of people today want to read about celebrities, who are more psychologically accessible than great heroes. Celebrities reassuringly display the vices most of us might have if we had the money. (Good recent examples are Tiger Woods and Charlie Sheen. Admittedly the cases of Elvis and Michael Jackson, bizarre people with singular talent, are more complicated.)

5. These observations may seem condescending (because they are). But they’re not really critical. If you really are performing responsibly the duties given to you by middle-class life, there isn’t that much time to read. (I, for example, have been told, with justice and on behalf of charity, that I think I have more time to read than I really do.)

6. Even the author of the greatest book written on America, Alexis de Tocqueville, didn’t think most Americans should read the great books written by the Greeks and Romans. He even said there’s no higher education in America, because there’s no class of people freed from work for leisurely contemplation.

7. Tocqueville observed democratic middle-class people aren’t proud enough to believe that they’re essentially more than beings who work. So they don’t regard philosophy, science, poetry, and theology as intrinsically pleasurable and choiceworthy pursuits. Science, for example, they think of as useful for making work easier and more productive and for making lives more secure and comfortable.

8. In an obvious way, Tocqueville seems to have been wrong to say there could be no higher education in a middle-class democracy. In A Chronicle of Higher Education, you can read that more young people than ever are in colleges and universities–the education we call higher–today.

9. But you can also read that a higher percentage than ever of students have basically technical majors–from pre-med to exercise science to marketing or public relations to turf management–than ever. They’re reading boring but effective textbooks full of information reinforced in the class’s power point presentations, doing very practical group projects (often in labs), and being challenged by detail-driven objective tests.

10. Much of what’s left of the humanities seems based–in a postmodern way–on the allegedly candid self-awareness that what they teach is merely an assertion of personal identity.

11. Quantitative assessment dominates what’s called higher education more than before. It’s power or productivity that can be measured, and the people who come up with the measurements aren’t poets or even rocket scientists (most often they’re professors of education).

12. What about pure science or theoretical physics (as opposed to merely experimental physics–I was reminded of the deep significance of that distinction from watching The Big Bang Theory)? America has the cutting edge programs! That’s true, but there’s a real dearth of actual American students benefiting from those programs. For a real multicultural experience, walk around some physics building at MIT

There's more to come.

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