Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Great Book Approach to a Liberal Arts Education

Patrick Deneen has a very interesting article called "Why the Great Books are Not the Answer" in which he argues that conservatives are mistaken in viewing this approach to education as inherently conservative.

At the risk of oversimplifying his excellent article (which I encourage you to read in full), I see him as advancing two main arguments against the Great Books approach: (1) that this curriculum embodies relativism and encourages the enthronement of individual choice as the basis for adopting a worldview and (2) the inadequacy of the faith in secular humanism that saw the Great Book curriculum promoted as the basis for Western civilization for a century or so following the decline of the 1000 year old acceptance of Christianity as the basis for Western civilization. In other words, the Great Books approach is relativistic except when pursued within the context of a university with a defined religiously-based worldview and apart from such a worldview base it does not suffice on its own.

I think Deneen is absolutely correct in these two arguments, but his article should not be taken so much as a dismissal of the Great Books curriculum as a call for Christian universities rooted in the classical Augustinian-Thomist worldview. In fact, it is my view that that such universities as Deneen describes will find the Great Books approach useful and effective when pursued within a coherent set of philosophical and theological commitments that allow the teaching and learning to move beyond a cafeteria style, individualistic mode into an immersion into a specific tradition.

I just want to quote a bit from his article to give the essence of his two arguments. First on relativism:
Thus, even as each student will be encouraged to arrive at a deeply informed and highly articulated "meaning of life," a deeper lesson is advanced by such a curriculum: the "meaning of life" is always highly personal and relative to each person. A person may arrive at a "philosophy of life" that is not itself relativistic - for instance, finding in the Biblical texts a religious basis for their beliefs - but overall, such a conclusion will take place within the context of a curriculum that is itself fundamentally relativistic, in which each student is encouraged to come to their own conclusion about the meaning of life, and thus to arrive at a personal set of criteria by which to evaluate all the respective arguments.

Indeed, such an approach in fact suggests that there is a single "meaning to life," and that meaning is fundamentally "decisionist." Most curricula in the Great Books offer the various philosophies as inherently coherent and valid systems, suggesting to each student that there is finally no basis on which to decide which philosophy to adopt other than mere preference. One must simply decide. This Nietzschean (or Schmittian) lesson is reinforced by the typical organization of such curricula (where they persist), which is typically chronological. Given that most students today have deeply ingrained progressive worldviews (that is, the view that history has been the slow but steady advance of enlightenment in all forms, culminating in equal rights for all races, all genders, and all sexual preferences), a curriculum that begins with the Bible and Greek philosophy and ends with Nietzsche subtly suggests that Nietzsche is the culmination of Enlightenment's trajectory. The fact that his philosophy is reinforced by the message that an education in the Great Books consists in exposure to equally compelling philosophies between which there is no objective basis to prefer only serves to deepen the most fundamental lesson of a course in the Great Books, which is a basic form of relativism. The choice of a personal philosophy is relative, and the basis on which one makes any such choice is finally arbitrary, the result of personal preference or attraction. De gustibus non est disputandam.
And on the failure of secular humanism:
This basic feature of Great Books draws attention to the curious feature of Kronman's chronology that goes unremarked upon. According to Kronman, religiously-affiliated institutions with a longstanding emphasis on a classical education (particularly Classics and Biblical studies) dominated the American landscape until the late 19th and early 20th-centuries. Then, he argues, there was a brief flourishing of "secular humanism," during which the study of the Great Books was a central component of the curriculum. This period marked the rise of a view that life's meaning was not regarded to be unified in a religious creed, but rather that meaning was to be increasingly fashioned by individuals in an age of "pluralistic" belief. This phase lasted less than a century, followed in the mid- to late-twentieth century by the rise of the science-dominated and politically correct research university.

If we extend Kronman's analysis chronologically into the past, however, we would need to acknowledge that in one form or another, the religiously-affiliated university has dominated the scene in the West since the Middle Ages, persisting roughly for a millennium or more. By contrast, the age of "secular humanism" lasted not even for a century, a scant blink of an eye compared to the longer tradition of the religious university. Seen in this light, we need to ask why the very ideal recommended by Kronman was so fleeting and unstable in the light of the longer history of the Western religious university.

The irresistible conclusion is that the age of "secular humanism" was a brief period of transition between the decline of the age of the religious university to rise of the age of the scientific and "politically correct" university. Secular humanism sought briefly to provide a different kind of "scripture" to that which had been displaced - now the Great Books - but lacking any kind of philosophical or theological principle by which to assess the competing claims advanced by those texts, this period was destined to usher in a period of philosophical relativism and the rise of the science as the only form of knowledge that could provide certainty and true knowledge.
Read it all here.

Conservatives of all brands, take note: only religion can be a sufficient foundation for a civilization. Only a revival of Christianity can save the West from decline and death. An revival of Christianity will not be significant unless it results in the reform and renewal of the religious-based university.

Joe Carter over at First Thought has some thoughts on the Deneen article and there is some dicussion going on in the comments.

No comments: