“great books”: de jure or de facto?

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.


  • I’m not a philosopher, so apologies in advance if this is a naive point – but doesn’t the de juro approach also implicitly assume something about what is valuable? Suppose I argued that every high school student need to watch Lethal Weapon. It would allow them to engage with other pieces of our culture (namely, Lethal Weapon 2,3, and 4) and to engage with broader segments of society (I suspect that more people are interested in discussing Lethal Weapon than Macbeth, so that if you had to learn about one of these and not the other, as far as engaging with society goes the former seems like a safer bet).

    There seems to be a hidden assumption in the argument that a certain type of influence is more valuable to learn about ( namely influence on other works of literature). If, instead, one went only by influence on the development of our society, than I suspect much of the cannon would have to be re-evaluated. Many works of literature had little practical impact on the world.

  • Hi Pamela,

    I want to throw in just a bit more support for the assignment of de facto to E.D. Hirsch on this one. A few points that may interest you: 1) Hirsch’s argument for a core curriculum is not dependent on what that core is. Because he takes that de facto approach, Cultural Literacy actually spends considerable time talking about why “a” core is important. 2) The core, according to Hirsch, is real and exists in implicit form. In fact, he argues that the true “liberal” (US politics) position requires that we explicitly teach this core because students of color and members of the lower class are those most likely to miss a core of knowledge that is implicit and culturally determined. 3) Hirsch’s background is as a literary critic and a lot of his reasoning is an extension of ordinary language philosophy/Wittgenstein.

  • I see it more along the lines of “none of them matter” in a sense. I think people tend to be drawn to the books they consider great because they are drawn to them.

    I just got done reading Dante’s Inferno, the other day, and you’d have thought that the guy in the preface practically had an orgasm where Dante was concerned.

    It’s rather like the book “House of Leaves”. The academic commentary goes on and on about the work somewhat vacuously–reading into certain passages things that likely don’t matter. Once a book crosses some event horizon, and enough people consider it “Great” then it becomes that whether it actually is or not.

    To the extent that a field is defined by such work, then I suppose the work has to be included, although I’d say a lot of good work came without reading whatever it is in the field. The danger of defining seminal books is that is indirectly frames the field, but the field is never done growing, it keeps evolving.

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