The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

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The Not-So-Great Books
Daniel J. Flynn - 04/20/09

Added to the Great Books’ offenses against multiculturalism, “There were no concessions to contemporary taste.” The books, then, are a slur upon our age and its diversity cult. Calling the kettle black, Beam complains that Hutchins “mocked (and of course, simplified) Dewey’s notion that education should conform to young people’s wants.” “All young Americans of a certain age now want to be cowboys,” he quotes Hutchins. “I doubt whether it would be useful for the schools to concentrate on cowpunching in its moral, social, political, scientific and intellectual contexts.” By ignoring last week’s New York Times bestseller list, the Great Books offends the man stuck in his age. It is anti-democratic elitism, Beam avers, for a small group of scholars to decide what books the masses ought to read without consulting modern tastes. But is it not anti-democratic to ignore, as the critics of the Great Books routinely do, the votes of Elizabethan England, Ancient Athens, and Medieval France? That a book is still read hundreds of years after its publication date, and in languages foreign to its author, is a clue that it just might be a great book. That it is prominently displayed near Barnes & Noble cash registers, or talked about at last year’s Modern Language Association panels, is not. Great books fuel a lasting conversation across millennia and cultures. Great books transcend the muck rather than descend into it.

A Great Idea at the Time sneers but doesn’t speak. “For a while, the Great Books were important enough to be made fun of,” Beam informs. His snarky indirectness always keeps open the plausible deniability that he’s really not saying what he seems to be saying. It is a writing style that’s all style, leaving a reader entertained but empty. There is a mood but not an argument. The cowardice in that should not to be overlooked: the latter can be refuted; the former cannot. It is the sucker punch from behind a football helmet.

A Great Idea at the Time is a silly book on a serious subject. A thoughtful critique of the Great Books movement could have been written. There are obvious drawbacks to education without the benefit of instruction. By applying the word “canon,” with its connotations to holy writings approved by a clerical body, the Great Books movement risks cultivating a cult that believes the subjective the sacred. The math and science books included have aged as well as the various popular books that contemporaneous critics thought merited inclusion. There are certainly great books outside of the Great Books just as there are certainly not-so-great books within. Might they have selected this text and not that one?

But such an investigation would require reading the actual texts, which would be quite a task in between newspaper columns on squash matches, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and headmasters addressing sex scandals at Milton Academy and Groton. And as his breezy broadside against the Great Books demonstrates, the provincial author is too preoccupied with what captivates his Boston neighbors today to enter into a discussion with dead white males from across the ocean.

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