What About the Great Books

I believe the author of the blog Quid Est bears the name Jennifer, and she generously quoted an earlier post from a blog I had written while adding some of her own refreshingly thoughtful reflections.

Here’s what she quoted from my earlier blog:

“Are there any schools that self-consciously regard themselves as carriers of that tradition, who deliberately set aside the relative trivia of the modern curriulum, and who teach their children deeply to contemplate those few masterpieces that sustain civilization and nourish our souls?

What am I dreaming about? A school that teaches its students only a few books and teaches them how to read them with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength. They read them, they translate them, they discuss them, they imitate them, they write about them, they live in their wisdom.”

And here’s how she replied:

Here Kern addresses the question of canon and “Great Books,” about which I have mixed feelings.

To me, setting up a select few works as “great” literature involves claiming an absolute standard that is, in its relationship to literature, vague and imprecise. Like it or not, these definitions are also closely linked to systems of power, and focus almost exclusively on the literature of the western world.

It seems to me that if great literature is based on great truth, that truth will not emerge only in the West, or, to quote the cliche, in the writings of “dead white males.”

On the other hand, without some judgment of what is true and valuable, meaning becomes generic, nothing more than an arbitrary construct; and I find that conclusion no more satisfying than the first.

I wonder if there is a place for acknowledging the presence (and absence) of quality writing, truth, and beauty in literature without categorically eliminating works that range outside the traditional canon.

As usual, my next question is, if so, what would that look like?

 I love a reply like that because it opens up so many avenues for discussion, each one I’m sorely tempted to go down. But I have to preprare for my trip to TX next week with Andrew Pudewa, so I need to discipline myself and indulge only in what time and duty permit.

So why not start by addressing the suggestion that I have addressed the question of the great books.

She’s right; I have.

I didn’t mean to, actually, but I did.

I said that some masterpieces sustain civilization and nourish our souls, and the implication is that there are great books that we should read.

However, I am thinking about this question of the great books in what I believe to be a significantly different way from the way I normally hear it addressed.

For one thing, I’m suggesting we think about requiring kids to read a lot fewer books.

In my opinion, we tend to read out of curiosity or the teacher’s fetish or the curriculum producer’s priorities, or some other inadequate reason for presuming to control what enters a child’s mind.

For the ancient Greeks, to some extent the Romans, and completely to the Christians, literature was directed to the nurturing of the soul. It was Paideia.

For us, it is oriented toward specializing in literature. God save us.

I want young children to never hear that Dick ran or that Jane stumbled or whatever they did.

I want them to hear that Pinochio became a boy when he loved and obeyed his father, that the princess couldn’t sleep because a pea seventeen mattresses down disturbed her, that Rumpelstiltskin ripped himself apart because he was found out and because that’s just the kind of person he was.

I want the needs of the soul to be attended to again; not just the most superficial productive activities of the mind.

So I’d like to see younger children read a decent number of really excellent, psychologically healthy (unlike, say, Barney or Veggie Tales) fairy tales, folk tales, fables, myths, etc.

I want their imaginations stored with morally useful metaphors.

I’m not contending for a closed canon. I’m contending that our age is so decadent that only by sheer grace will anything arise from it that is worth preserving for our children for the long term.

Also, now that I’m on children’s literature, I don’t believe that great children’s literature can be developed by an individual. It takes time, retelling, and a genius to summarize it. My bias, therefore, in children’s literature, will always be away from anything contemporary and toward things ancient and refined.

But my earlier post wasn’t so much about children’s literature as about what students start reading around, say, 6th grade.

Here my contention needs to be understood in the context I set. I said:

Literature, in the classical tradition, never had a class of its own and it certainly was never taught as a historical phenomenon. Both the class and the historical approach seem to have developed during the 19th century in Germany, where the modern school was born and nurtured in the short-lived incestuous relationship of Enlightenment and Romanticism.

In the Christian classical tradition, children were taught grammar, which was a rich vein for the intellect.

Grammar comes from grammatikos: letters. It included what we mean by grammar, but that was considered a rather small, though foundational and important, portion of it. However, the word literature itself, which comes from the Latin litera: letters, is probably a better translation of what they meant by grammar.

My blog was about the use of the word grammar and where it came from originally. And my argument was that it is an “art” not a “subject.”

This makes all the difference in the world. If it’s a subject, then I would seem to be contending for a conventional great books curriculum.

If it’s an art, that point becomes somewhat irrelevent. What I want is for the students to master the art.

That means finding a few models that they imitate and translate and paraphrase, etc. etc.

It doesn’t close the curriculum to the west or to the works of dead white men, like, say, George Eliot or Jane Austen, Booker T. Washington or Confucius.

It also means that the teacher has to be a master.

So what do I think of the Great Books Program?

I like that people are reading Plato and Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. I’m disappointed that people are corrupting their souls with Hobbes and Machiavelli and Rousseau. I wouldn’t burn them, but as long as their ideas are welcomed into people’s minds, civilization will be that much harder to renew.

I don’t like its more or less Hegelian approach to literature as primarily a historical phenomenon with no essence of its own (which is what the art would focus on).

I don’t like that most of the books selected are from the 16th century onward, that there is nothing from the eastern Empire, that they don’t include any of the works of Athanasius or the Cappadocian fathers (whose historical importance transcends almost everything else in the set they publish), and a lot of other stuff.

I don’t accept the neutral approach it seems to think it has taken.

I don’t think it will help people become great writers because they use pretty rotten translations sometimes, people tend to want to read the whole set or to be overwhelmed by its size s0 they don’t imitate the masters, and the books selected are only occasionally well-written.

So it seems I would entirely agree with she whose name I believe to be Jennifer! I have mixed feelings.

The idea of a closed canon would be ridiculous, but I don’t know of anybody outside of the caricatures who would argue for that.

My concern in this discussion is practical: I want children to follow the path that will lead them to greatness as writers.

To be a great writer one must have a great soul.

A great soul is perceptive, silent, receptive, appropriate.

None of these qualities can be developed without nourishing the child’s soul on the true, the good, and the beautiful.

But what about this question of a standard for greatness?

Jennifer (I think) rightly points out that such a standard would be imprecise. That is such a great point that I’m going to simply state it here and stew on it for awhile. I’ll write about it tomorrow or later if I should get a chance.

In sum, Jennifer, if you should ever stop by this blog again to read this one, and if you are in fact Jennifer, let me commend you for your wonderfully thoughtful post. I can’t wait to read more of your thoughts on your blog and I can’t wait to reflect more on this one.

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Andrew,

    Yes, my name is Jennifer (the name of my blog is actually Literati in the World, though Quid Est – the title of the post – would be an excellent idea). Thanks for your thoughtful response to my post.

    I’m fascinated by the idea of literature as an art not a subject, particularly as “integration” is becoming more popular in the academy.

    (To me, that type of veering from subject-ivity seems to propagate the same disregard for the art of writing and simply blurs the content that is taught.)

    Teaching instead the true, the good, and the beautiful seems like a noble goal, but one that would be difficult to define. How much truth (versus doubt) must a work have to be classified as “good”? How much ugliness/real pain can a novel portray before it is no longer beautiful?

    Thanks for giving me more ideas to mull over…

    ~Jen

    • Jennifer,

      Thanks so much for stopping by again. I hope you will feel very welcome here – I will certainly be visiting your blog in the future!

      In your comment you posited two dyads that I want to challenge: first, truth vs. doubt. Do you think these are opposites? They seem to me different orders of things. Truth exists ontologically. Doubt is a state of mind. For a work to be good, therefore, it has to embody a high proportion of truth, for which I would suggest we use, in this context, the word reality.

      Then you posited the dyad of pain/beauty. I don’t know what it is like in heaven, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything really breath-takingly beautiful that wasn’t the absorption and – what, redemption? transformation? – I don’t know what the fitting idea is – of that pain. Even in heaven, it seems to me, the beauty of our Lord will be known to us through His pain.

      So I wouldn’t pair up ugliness with real pain. I also wouldn’t sentimentalize pain or beauty. I just don’t know how beauty can exist, in this world at least, without pain. That’s why I dislike Thomas Kincade’s works so much – it’s spiritually destructive in its sentimentality. Picasso, on the other hand, is probably spiritually destructive in his cynicism, which is a shame because man that boy could paint.

      The quest to define or to encounter or share or contemplate (or whatever) the true, the good, and the beautiful is education. That they are difficult to define underscores how important they are and how humbly they must be encountered.

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