Books, they’re Gr-r-reat!

Humanities, Great Books, Classical Education, Liberal Arts

Maximus Planudes
9 min readDec 10, 2021
Tony the Tiger holding a copy of Alan Bloom’s translation of the Republic of Plato.
@kataplexis photoshopped image for me

Edit: a few days after I wrote this, Louis Menand wrote his own review of Great Book and Montás in the New Yorker (link). It is, as one would expect, better than what I wrote here, which is more about my personal estrangement from the Great-Books pedagogy.

Reading through the overwhelming literature on the failures of the contemporary university, I find myself in sympathy with analyses that highlight problems caused by social and structural issues: the student debt crisis and public disinvestment, the casualization of faculty labor, the power of endowments, and donor money. Many problems stem, to use a common if imperfect short-hand, from the application of neo-liberal economic and managerial principles to higher education. I do not believe, however, that we can return to some prelapsarian utopia. Not only is the utopia imaginary, but the social world in which universities are embedded has also changed. Indeed, that new social world creates some problems as we ask universities to do too much. Education must, for example, solve social inequality and the current crisis of democracy. These problems are aggravated by universities overpromising: We can solve social inequality and the crisis of democracy. Although none of these critiques are particularly deep or novel, they differ from another major critique of the contemporary university: undergraduate teaching is fundamentally flawed.

Those who begin from this premise (contemporary pedagogy has failed) often propose some form of Great-Books teaching as the solution. They do not all use the same language. Jonathan Marks (Let’s Be Reasonable) advocates old books, while Eric Adler (The Battle of Classics) proposes Babbit’s new humanism as the solution. Others call for a return to Classical Education, though the meaning of “Classical” often remains vague. By far the best of these books is Roosevelt Montás’ Rescuing Socrates. Rescuing Socrates is more than Great-Books advocacy: Montás has written a complex and moving book interweaving confessional and intellectual autobiography, discussion of literature and pedagogy, a defense of Columbia’s core curriculum and advocacy for a Great-Books core. The four chapters weave Montás’s life, education, and teaching in a way that illustrates how his learning, teaching, and life are integrated and embedded in a continuing project of self-knowledge. They attempt to show, that is, the result of the kind of education he favors. Like Augustine’s Confessions, the subject of his first chapter, the confessional narrative dynamic subtly urges readers to finish the book as converts, as Christians for Augustine, or as Great-Books teachers for Montás. I’ve read Augustine’s Confessions several times (starting in an undergraduate Latin tutorial), yet I’ve failed to become the ideal reader since I remain stubbornly not a Christian. I similarly fail to be Montás’ ideal reader since I’m not a convert to Great Books.

There are many reasons why I should be a convert. I love old books and regularly teach them. I share, as well, some skepticism on the way disciplines in general education work. When Montás notes that “many colleges now think about liberal education simply as exposure to a range of academic disciplines, turning their general education requirement into a recipe for how many and how varied a set of academic disciplines a student must sample before graduation,” he rightly challenges us to think about what general undergraduate education should be. And yet, I remain a Great-Books skeptic.

One reason is, probably, just the kind of nit-picky pedantry that similar authors lament: much of this discourse imagines itself, unconvincingly, into traditions going back to Greece and Rome. Great-books discourse seems to begin in the late 19C, where the focus is on canons that educated people should know. In other words, it begins outside the university. What defines much of the Great-Books pedagogy today would probably begin in the early 20C, in the 1917 War Issues Course and John Erskine’s General Honors course in 1919 (Mentioned by Montás in chapter 1, but see Beam 2008 for a general history of Great Books). What defines a Great-Books approach, I would suggest, is a particular pedagogy (small group discussion) and a set of ideas about the nature of books and the goals of learning (specific books can, in the context of non-specialized teaching, inculcate a habit of self-reflectivity that is a good itself).

Instead of this more recent genealogy, Great-Books advocates tend to present their activities as THE liberal educational idea, an idea going back to Ancient Athens (or Rome). This assumption causes oddities like this early paragraph:

“The idea of liberal education goes back to the ancient democracy of Athens, where it was conceived as the education appropriate for free citizens. Aristotle described it as an education “given not because it is useful or necessary but because it is noble and suitable for a free person” (Politics VIII, 1338a, 30–31). All Athenian citizens, the sort of “free persons” Aristotle had in mind, participated in government by voting directly on the adoption of laws, holding political office, deliberating on juries, and serving in the army. The point of liberal education was to prepare citizens for these civic responsibilities. To this day, democracies depend on a citizenry capable of discharging the duties for which a liberal education prepared Athenian citizens. Indeed, the possibility of democracy hinges on the success or failure of liberal education.”

Aristotle, of course, was a metic and could not participate in Athenian Democracy. I struggle to imagine that Aristotle, Plato, or Socrates would have seen themselves as educating people for Democracy. Unfortunately, Aristotle does not, as he promises, discuss later what a free and noble education (ἐλευθέριον καὶ καλήν [scl. παιδείαν]) is and how it should be pursued. We must, therefore, remain open to the possibility that should Aristotle return and examine the Columbia core course, he would say, “this is what I meant by liberal education for Democratic purpose.” I’m not sure he would.

This perspective makes it strange when Montás chides those who think a liberal education is elitist.

“Many people today, even academics, take the approach to liberal education based on the study of classics to be elitist and exclusivist, with little understanding of the democratizing impulse behind it, or the democratizing function it continues to serve — not only for students like me, who desperately needed an introduction to the tools of public discourse and action, but for all college students.”

Many, even academics, might rightly assume that the aims of Aristotle are elitist, not democratic. In this way, the tendency to trace a tradition back to Greece and Rome mystifies more than elucidates. There are, in fact, two traditions of 20C Great Book education. Because of the popularity of Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, many associate it with Bloom’s explicitly elitist pedagogical ideas. But there is another tradition of Great-Books pedagogy, associated with Mort Adler and Robert Hutchins, which advocated Great Books for everyone (Beam 2008). Montás rightly rejects the idea that Great Books are necessarily elitist, but calling up the ghost of Aristotle and his liberal education tends to obscure the issue.

And so, I remain unconvinced by the frequent claims to a long tradition for Great-Books pedagogy, whether looking to Athens, Rome, or Florence. But that habit is more of an annoying tick than a substantive problem. Also annoying but not substantive are tendencies to overpromise “life-altering” pedagogy that forms students’ souls. Not that it cannot do this; it seems an unreliable outcome and not one that is limited to Great-Books pedagogy.

More substantive are the problems with canon formation, and this problem cannot be avoided. What makes some books Great? Montás, who has spent years debating the Columbia syllabus, has much of value to say on canon formation, though it is scattered throughout the book. He defines it as “works that, over a long period of time, have proved especially potent catalysts for reflection on the fundamental question of the human good” and (not the same thing) “works of major historical and cultural significance.” He prefers books that can illuminate modernity but wants to hold the phrase “western civilization” at arm's length. He also favors books that “work well in the classroom — books that are teachable.” I was particularly struck by the idea of constant revision of the teaching canon. Some of the difficulty in making teaching cannons can be seen in passages from Beam’s book, where committees try to decide what counts as great. I cannot imagine trying to reach a consensus with my colleagues!

It is less the problems and difficulties of canon-formation that estranges me from the Great-Books discourse. It simply seems so limited. Despite the talk of liberal arts, liberal education, or classical education, the pedagogy is basically small-group discussion of literature in translation. Even I do that. But I orient my literature in translation teaching along Sheldon Pollock’s Three Dimensions of Philology: the importance of the original context (historicism), moments of later reception (traditions), and how it may help understand our current situation (presentism).

Only this last element overlaps with the Great-Books teaching, where the goal seems to be primarily self-knowledge. The focus on the individual students' self-knowledge explains why subject experts are neither required nor necessarily wanted as teachers. The best Great-Books teacher should have “the ability to draw students into an honest and open discussion of fundamental issues and to maintain an atmosphere in which a full range of opinions can be expressed and examined.” While I am sympathetic to an unscholarly approach to literature in translation that aims to encourage habits of self-reflection through reading, I’m not convinced it should be the main way we teach books, let alone stand at the center of university education.

I do not think, moreover, that it should stand at the center of university education because it impoverishes liberal education to limit it to non-scholarly discussions of literature in translation. The humanities offer so much more than just literature in translation. Languages, history, and art history, for example, are fundamental humanist ways of knowing, even if they do not necessarily “shape students’ souls”[1]. Archeological and anthropological research underpins Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, a book that puts forward relevant arguments for understanding ourselves. What of the arts and music?

The Great-Books advocates seem likewise blind to the importance of science in the educational project. Montás recognizes the importance of science but confusingly limits it to research and accumulating inert knowledge. Andrew Delbanco and Eric Adler (see this post for quotations) also make this move, setting themselves as proponents of liberal arts humanities teaching against materialist science research. I currently teach at a small liberal arts college. My science and math colleagues would be very confused to find themselves excluded from the teaching of the liberal arts. They firmly (and rightly in my view) believe that sciences and math are liberal arts subjects.

The exclusion of science is strange to me because scientific research and teaching are so important, indeed essential, for self-understanding, the main goal of the Great Books. I would argue that Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Francis Su’s Mathematics for Human Flourishing, Meanie Challenger’s How To Be Animal, and Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Rooted, to mention some recent books, are essential for self-understanding. Any approach that cannot recognize the importance of science teaching for liberal education and our self-understanding seems unnecessarily limiting and just wrong.

In the end, I do not find anything objectionable about Great-Books classes nor core courses modeled on Columbia’s. I would happily teach in one. I do not, however, think it represents what humanities education, let alone all that a well-rounded university education can provide. It seems that those in favor of some flavor of Great Books are those already convinced that current pedagogy has failed. I am not. For me, the material problems discussed in the opening paragraph are more pressing than any supposed failure of pedagogy.

[1] Eric Adler’s criterion: “humanists either believe that their subjects can help shape students’ souls, or they are not humanists.” Much depends. upon. what soul shaping. is. Do Great Books shape students' souls?

Some Bibliography

Beam, Alex. 2008. A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books. PublicAffairs.

Pollock, Sheldon. 2014. “Philology in Three Dimensions.” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 5 (4): 398–413.



Maximus Planudes

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.