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You don't read the Great Books to "learn how to think"
You read them to develop your sense of taste
If you have taste, then you feel shy about behaving poorly or saying something stupid, simply because you know that other people can not only see through you, but that if they see your tasteless statement, then they can’t help but thinking you are either: a) tasteless; or b) a liar.
Freddie DeBoer used the term “deepity” in a recent post. Googling it led me to an atheist wiki, and browsing the wiki led me to the term “motte and bailey fallacy”. That’s where you link two positions—an easy to defend position (the motte) and a difficult to defend one (the bailey). And whenever someone attacks the bailey, you retreat to the motte and pretend like they’re attacking the motte instead.
This is very common in discussions of the Great Books. Polemics will often argue that a “liberal arts education” or “liberal education” is a really really really important thing. Christopher Rufo is particularly fond of invoking that phrase (though he adds “classical”, making it a “classical liberal arts education”). But they differ in their account of the nature of that education. At the first secular universities, during the middle ages, the seven artes liberales were grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, and one other that I’ve forgotten (arithmetic). A liberal arts education corresponded to what we’d now call both high school and college, with the graduation from the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) to the quadrivium (the other four) marking the passage from secondary school to college.
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Obviously Rufo doesn’t mean the trivium and the quadrivium when he defends a “classical” liberal arts education. What he means is a kind of Great Books program modeled on that of Hillsdale college, a small Christian liberal arts college, whose Great Books program is itself modeled on that of St. John’s College.
But that educational program is both ahistorical (it bears no resemblance to anything that existed prior to the 1940s) and it is open to quite a bit of critique on practical grounds.
Most importantly this program is simply not what the term “liberal arts education” means in 2023. The vast majority of liberal arts colleges do not follow this educational program, or anything like it. Liberal arts colleges are marked by small class sizes and a professoriate dedicated to teaching. They’re a rejection of some parts of the research university model imported from Germany in the early 1900s. But they still bear other hallmarks of the modern university: specialization (students pick a major) and a large number of electives.
These stand in contrast to the model that existed at most of the Ivy Leagues in the 19th century: a fixed curriculum marked by instruction in Greek and Latin literature, in the original, with all students granted the same Bachelor of Arts degree.
The “classical liberal arts” model championed by Rufo is new beast: a fixed curriculum marked by study of about a hundred Greek, Latin, English, Russian, French, German, Italian, and Spanish classics (all in translation). In its course structure, choice of texts, and its overt Christian undertones, this curriculum harkens back to a bygone time, but it mixes up the elements of that time in a novel way.
Whether this course of instruction provides a better education for students is debatable. Whether students want and are willing to pay for this course of instruction is also very much under debate. What should not be under debate is that this “classical liberal arts” model is simply not what most people, and especially most professors, mean when they argue for the value of a “liberal arts” education.
Personally, I could not care less what happens in college. College is for drinking beers and then vomiting up the beers. I doubt there exists a college in America where you can’t get a great education. I also imagine most students graduate from college without a very good education.
The main accusation against the secular university seems to be that it destroys eternal verities and inculcates nihilism. Students start to believe everything is arbitrary and socially-constructed. But the criticism also seems to be that graduates of secular universities are too committed to principles of racial, gender, and economic equality, and that they pursue these goals to the exclusion of fairness, free speech, and personal freedom (i.e. they graduate without a commitment to political liberalism). Christopher Rufo, on the other hand, is explicitly post-liberal. In a recent essay for Compact he argued that the right-wing should use state power to seize control of left-leaning institutions and forcibly turn them towards the right.He said we already live in a post-liberal society: the only choice is which form of unfreedom will win out.
All of the societies of the West, including the United States, are, in some ways, “post-liberal.” They have enormous state bureaucracies that engineer economic and social outcomes in a way Lockean liberals could never countenance….While we should continue to work toward a more limited government, there will be, for the foreseeable future, a large state that has power over family, education, and culture, and conservative political leaders are abdicating their responsibility if they don’t employ it to advance conservative aims.
But not every proponent of a “liberal education” is a post-liberal. Many argue that a liberal education, of whatever sort, will naturally lead to more respect for liberalism. Martha Nussbaum, for instance, argues that the open discussion that’s a hallmark of the liberal education (at least within the small seminars of a liberal arts college) models the free inquiry and diversity of opinion that characterize a liberal society:
“Socratic questioning is unsettling, and people in power often prefer docile followers to independent citizens able to think for themselves,” Nussbaum said. “Furthermore, a lively imagination, alert to the situations, desires and sufferings of others, is a taxing achievement; moral obtuseness is so much easier. So we should not be surprised that the humanities are under assault, now as ever…
To these proponents of the liberal education, the choice of text is less important than how we learn to think about and discuss the text.
This is very different from the end that Christopher Rufo is seeking, but it’s still positioned as being different from the modern secular university, which is often accused both of professionalization (it only teaches skills that are directly useful in renumerative work) and of stifling dissent (only certain political opinions are allowed).
And yet most of the woke professors and students are also probably in favor of small classes and open discussion. In fact, one major call by proponents of “decolonization” is that we respect students’ knowledge and respect local groups and practices. There should be more space in the classroom, decolonizers argue, for students to undermine the authority of the professor or the text and to present their own perspectives.Nothing about the liberal arts model as proposed by the philosophically liberal professor is going to offend the woke student, and even in Rufo’s model at least on paper it’s only the choice of text and lack of choice that will offend them—the small seminars and focus on the undergraduate learning experience should still be non-threatening.
Thus you have a motte (the liberal arts experience, characterized by small class sizes, open discussion, and professors focused on teaching) and a bailey (either decolonization, philosophical liberalism, or post-liberal Christian nationalism). The motte is agreed upon by all, the bailey (the objective each group really wants) is highly problematic to the other groups.
In this discourse, the specific choice of texts becomes a cipher. There’s nothing about the Great Books that lends itself intrinsically to the aims of philosophical liberals, decolonizers, or Christian nationalists. It’s all in how they’re read. If you are a Christian Nationalist, you can assign Frantz Fanon and show the kids how incoherent and violent it is, while if you’re a decolonizer, you can make it seem revelatory and liberating. The function that the texts serve in Rufo’s hands is as a wedge. Precisely because they trigger a certain group to cry racism (even though Rufo’s aim is indeed racist), and they divide a second group (the philosophical liberal hates Rufo, but they still have a certain affinity to a literary tradition that gave rise to liberalism), he can use them to gain power.
In this debate, everything operates at such a high level of abstraction that it’s impossible to tell what, if anything, everyone wants, because the truth is that whoever controls the institution can make sure it produces outcomes in line with their beliefs.
I assume that the philosophical liberals will win out in the end, simply because whenever there is intractable disagreement, the result is either violence or liberalism.
Where does this leave me, however, with my advocacy of the texts? I’m a philosophical liberal, obviously—something I have in common with the vast majority of the writers and thinkers in America. I don’t think that these texts read in isolation, without a guiding hand, are likely to inculcate any sort of illiberalism.
In my newsletter I am really concerned with something different than with the broad-strokes political outcomes of a certain course of reading. I take it for granted that anyone who sees the world rationally will be a liberal, simply because there is no other way we can all live together in peace. Only those who desire violence can be both rational and post-liberal.
A philosophical liberal who was involved in undergraduate education might say, “Yes, and a liberal arts education teaches people to think rationally.” But I don’t know if the evidence quite exists on that front. Many liberal arts colleges seem to be bastions of leftist post-liberalism. And Rufo, of course, wants to use the liberal arts model to create post-liberal outcomes. Rufo uses exactly the same rhetoric as Martha Nussbaum when in a NYT op-ed he outlines proposals that he says “would honor the principles of liberal education, encourage a culture of open debate and cultivate a ‘community of scholars’ with a wide diversity of opinions and a shared commitment to truth — something that both liberals and conservatives can and should support.” He wants open debate, just like Nussbaum!
The atheist blogs like the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this post used to be very committed to the idea of inculcating rationalism in people: if only people were rational, they’d see that that God clearly doesn’t exist. But of course “rational” has both a lay and a philosophical meaning. Its lay meaning just means “internally coherent”, while in philosophy “rationalism” is the attempt to reach metaphysical truth through pure reason, without resort to empirical observation. For many people, their empirical experience is “I feel deeply that there is a God.” And why should they ignore that point of evidence?
My main concern in this newsletter is not with how other people think, but with how I think, and with making sure my own work has an internal coherence (i.e. is “rational” in the lay sense). That’s precisely why, in defending the Great Books, I decided to defend a specific corpus of books (noted here). I wanted to defend specifics, rather than abstractions. Moreover, it’s why I don’t use terms like “liberal arts education”, because an independent course of reading in the Great Books is not a liberal arts education, as the term is used.
I think an independent course of reading in the Great Books cannot be defended on the grounds that it teaches people to be “rational”. Most of my Great Books list consists of imaginative literature. What specifically is rational about Willa Cather, Henry James, or Lady Murasaki? The only connection to rationality is through the argument that their work has a subtle internal coherence that, through their example, teaches people to be rational.
This is what Terry Eagleton called “the ideology of the aesthetic”—the notion, deriving first from Kant and then from a legion of his followers—that the appreciation of beauty conveys a kind of higher-order awareness of how the world works.This is closely related to philosophical rationalism: with our human reason, we can construct the way things ought to be, and then make the world more like that. The ideology of the aesthetic loads that work onto our aesthetic sense: we can create a beautiful world, just as an artist creates a beautiful work; the same aesthetic sense that we use to evaluate art can be used to evaluate society or a person’s conduct.
On a concrete level, this is a fairly empty thing to say, because to the extent we can put that aesthetic sense into words, we no longer need it. If we could simply say, as critics used to attempt to do, that greatness consists of clean lines, a certain proportion of elements, and an overall structural uniformity, then we would no longer need taste at all. We could simply turn that understanding of greatness into a set of concrete measures and then apply them to society. But because that inevitably leads to absurdity (either because our strictures turn out to be unquantifiable or because they lead to ugliness), we instead retreat into the aesthetic and say, you know, if someone has taste then they just, like, know how things ought to be.
It’s true that taste does convey a sense of how things ought to be. And it’s even true that people with taste often have surprising amounts of agreement about which works of art are most beautiful. But it’s unclear if the tasteful have a coherent vision for how society ought to operate, or if that society would indeed be a society that most people would want to live in.
Personally, I’m sure society would be improved if everyone (or even just every member of the professional-managerial class) had great taste, but I don’t know if the improvement would be worth the time people would need to put into acquiring that taste.
What makes taste unique, on a personal level, is that it provides its own rationale. The value of taste isn’t contingent on anything else. Other virtues need to be practiced to be valuable: kindness isn’t valuable, kind acts are valuable, etc. Taste doesn’t need to be practiced—you practice it unconsciously, constantly. Nor is taste ever subject to a test. You cannot ‘fail’ a taste test. Taste is simply something that inheres inside you, becoming a part of you.
Taste, I think, emerges in odd ways. My last post, on the ethical responsibility of the writer, was I think, inspired by my sense of taste. There are certain things I simply cannot imagine anyone with taste doing. I cannot imagine anyone with taste attacking the conditions needed to create great works of art. Similarly, I cannot imagine anyone with taste going on a random shooting spree—given that such sprees always end with the killer’s death or lifetime incarceration, the tasteful person would simply kill themselves preemptively and save everybody else the mess. I do not think a tasteful person would, like Christopher Rufo, argue in the New York Times one day that DEI is bad for left-liberal professors, and then the next day say in Compact that his aim is to create in universities the conditions under which left-liberalism might be extinguished. It’s just tasteless in the extreme!
Taste is characterized, not by good morals, but by a certain kind of propriety. It’s not so much the instinct to create beauty, as it is the instinct to avoid ugliness, the instinct to avoid saying something absurd, untrue, or barbaric. I think that’s why taste seems allied to rational thinking, but I think people with taste aren’t better thinkers, they’re merely less likely to openly lie.
Taste, I think, connects you to other people. To have taste means to accept that it’s something other people can have too. Taste is a feeling that certain properties are inherently beautiful, and that anyone who could appreciate those properties couldn’t help but finding the object beautiful as well. That means if you have taste, you accept that other people have at least one objective standard to measure the world by. If you have taste, then you feel shy about behaving poorly or saying something stupid, simply because you know that other people can not only see through you, but that if they see your tasteless statement, then they can’t help but thinking you are either: a) tasteless; or b) a liar.
I don’t know how taste measures up against all the other virtues a person might have. There’s really no objective way to measure it. But I don’t think taste is merely a matter of judging art-work. I do think good taste makes the rest of your life better, gives you a sense of proportion, a feeling of rootedness and a sense of what’s important (beauty, mostly).
It’s in the context of developing a sense of taste that I think it’s important to read the Great Books. Because the books on my GB list were, above all, selected for their literary value. They are all works of beauty. Many of them are in translation, but even in translation they are beautiful. If you learn how to read and genuinely appreciate these works, you’ll develop good taste, and that is a fine thing to have.
This is also why I am suspicious of college. I am not convinced that professors select their works on the basis of taste. College professors get their job on the basis of their research and/or teaching abilities, neither of which is necessarily a marker of taste. Moreover, I am certain that class discussion is not the way to develop a good sense of taste. Taste isn’t democratic. Listening to twenty eighteen year olds with bad taste and one college professor with questionable taste will not give you better taste. It’s not that discussion can’t improve taste—if it didn’t there would be no point to criticism—but taste is still an unspoken attunement. You can have good taste even if you can’t discuss exactly why you think something is beautiful, and you can have bad taste even if you know how to say all the right words. When it comes to taste, the number one most important thing is the choice of object: it doesn’t matter how you study the object or with what political slant or what discussions style, you absolutely cannot learn good taste from studying things that are not beautiful.
I don’t think the Great Books are the only beautiful things in the world, but they’re reliably beautiful, which is why they function the best, out of all the world’s literature, as calibration for your taste.If you can’t see the beauty in one of the GBs, it is your taste that is out of whack, not the book’s beauty.
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Epictetus attended philosophical lectures and around 79 ce, when he was in his late twenties, he would have been able to hear the teaching of the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus, who welcomed everybody, even women and enslaved men. A year or so later, Epictetus was set free from enslavement and became a philosophy teacher himself. He probably left Rome during the reign of Domitian, who forced philosophy teachers out of the city on suspicion of anti-imperial sympathies. He moved to Nicopolis, in western Greece, where he continued to teach for the remainder of his long life. He died around 130 ce.
That is why I described the change in campus culture as a shift in the way students attempt to wield power, rather than as a symptom of students’ weakened constitutions – their putative evolution into ‘snowflakes’, easily triggered and fearful of difficult ideas. This is the thesis popularised by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind (2018). Granted, my students are more likely than we were to interpret their stress (rightly or wrongly) as a mental health issue, not just as part of what it is to be a student. (Then again, my generation, in the UK at least, wasn’t saddled with crushing amounts of student debt, and our job prospects, which seemed dismal at the time, retrospectively look good compared with theirs.) But, in the main, what I detect in students’ demands for syllabus reform, or the no-platforming of trans-exclusionary feminists, or even (perhaps especially) for professors to be fired, is not an expression of weakness, but an attempted assertion of power. Or, more precisely, their self-description and sometimes self-understanding as weak, disempowered agents has become, for them, itself a form of agency.
A funny tweet about real-life cases of literary yellowface.
Yes I subscribe to Compact. Like it or not, this is the only intellectually coherent right-wing journal operating currently. Every other right-wing or center-right journal seems to ignore the fact that the Republican party belongs to Donald Trump now. Compact is the only journal that both openly supports Trump and attempts to intellectually justify that position.
If you’ve ever wanted to know, in concrete terms, what decolonizing the curriculum amounts to, you should refer to this paper. It is a major survey of decolonization efforts worldwide. If you read it, you’ll see the decolonial rhetoric really exceeds the practice. There is a lot of rhetoric about de-centering knowledge and questioning the positionality of knowledge (i.e. the idea that Western science and thought form a system for providing truth about the world at large), but, rather amusingly, this de-centering is primarily accomplished through critical interrogation: Comparatively, critical self-reflexivity as a process of self-examination and exploration of one’s privileges, in relation to others, was generally written about in Europe and the United States. Checking your privilege is decolonization. But the process of checking privilege looks in practice a lot like open seminar-based discussion: e.g. Within curriculum development, educators questioned whose and what knowledge qualified as dominant and more legitimate. Such actions “can set the stage for students to question fundamental assumptions about knowledge and power, and engage questions such as what counts as knowledge, who produces knowledge and how, and what/who are absent. It’s also clear that in the US context, curricular decolonization was basically accomplished through increased diversity, not by “de-centering the positionality of European knowledge systems” (e.g. a “broad” approach to decolonization through their curriculum that foregrounds the experiences of “race-, gender-, and culture-based alienation”).
The best primary source for the ideology of the aesthetic is Schiller’s The Aesthetic Education of Man, which is a favorite of mine. I have Eagleton’s book sitting on my shelf but I haven’t yet read it.
This is why, I think, when the GBs are subjected to critique, it’s inevitably Aristotle that comes in for the most abuse. He is the least beautiful of the authors from antiquity who are still read. Allegedly, his own prose was quite clear, but his own prose is lost. What we have now are lecture notes compiled by the students at his academy, which might explain their obtuseness. Kant, too, is astonishingly unbeautiful, though I do think there’s a certain beauty in the way he thinks. Early Great Books lists were full of unbeautiful philosophical writers, represented more for the influence of their arguments than for their beauty as writers. Those primary sources are largely dropped in the list I’ve given. I’ve gotten a lot from reading Kant and Hegel, but I am not sure they’ve developed my sense of taste.