I recently began reading Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, picked up on a whim from the library. Menand makes an excellent point in passing about so-called “great books” curricula (aka “general” or “liberal” education, and possibly “common core“), a point which I had not previously seen made explicit in the various blog posts, book excerpts, etc. that I’ve encountered on the subject. Here goes, in my own words:
The teaching of traditionally revered texts may be justified in at least two ways:
- The books/ideas comprising the canon of western higher education are, in fact, better than those which are excluded. We continue to teach them because a good education exposes the young to “the best which has been thought and said” (Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy).
- The books/ideas comprising the canon should continue to be taught simply because, historically, they have influenced society so much. Like it or not, students need to be made familiar with these texts in order to more fully engage with other pieces of culture, and broader segments of society. As such, this bank of common social knowledge opens up opportunities and ways of life that would not otherwise have been available or salient to students who don’t receive a thorough cultural education outside of formal schooling.
I’m going to name these the de jure and de facto (respectively) justifications of great books, for what I hope are obvious reasons. Menand associates the de jure justification with Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, and the de facto justification with E.D. Hirsch in Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know (making me much more sympathetic to the latter author, who I had previously – and apparently erroneously – taken for a snobby elitist).
N.B. that the de jure justification of great books seems prima facie to commit its proponent to some sort of objectivist view about value (and at least rules out thorough forms of subjectivism about value, including even aesthetic value). The de facto view is agnostic in this respect, and is compatible with both objective and subjective theories of value regarding the cultural artifacts at issue. For this reason, the de facto justification of great books curricula can probably attract more supporters than the stronger, narrower de jure justification.
So the really interesting question becomes: In practice, is it really possible to teach great books the de facto way, presenting them to students not as possessing any magical intrinsic goodness, but simply as constituting useful gateway to cultured life? If so, then a major objection to de facto-justified great books curricula – that they are implicitly racist, sexist, classist, etc. – can be at least partially dispelled. However, if in practice students do not or cannot fully grasp that great books are merely a kind of sociocultural currency, or if great books tend to edge out non-traditional texts from the curricula, then even the de facto justification may be in trouble.