“We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment. ” –Ralph Waldo Emerson Self Reliance

Yesterday we started the series, “Objections Against the Great Books,” (https://thehistoryofwesternthought.wordpress.com/2015/06/15/objections-raised-against-a-great-books-curriculum-i-anachronistic/) with a look at a typical and common argument that Great Books in some way lack modern relevance. With that objection answered, today, we are going to ask the question: are the Great Books simply too difficult to teach, and is the point of a Great Books curriculum knowledge about the books themselves or something else? We will begin with the first part of this objection and move from there.

The Great Books are difficult to teach for a teacher. On the one hand, at the secondary school level, and likely even at the post-secondary level, there is no such thing as a “Great Books” expert or magnus liber organi PhD per se. There may be experts in the fields of certain of the books: philosophy, literature, mathematics (Euclid), et alia. But what a teacher is asked to do at the secondary or post-secondary level is, essentially, to give up on being a specialist in order to find intertextual connections between traditions, time-periods, genres, and thinkers. This task seems impossible to do at all, and especially to do well, even to the dauntless–unless part of the theory of the Great Books is actually that experts are not required in order “to teach” the books at all (https://thehistoryofwesternthought.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/what-is-the-theory-behind-teaching-great-books/). What exactly does this mean?

The basic idea is that Great Books–simply by virtue of being read, engaged with, and discussed–will have value, even if the teacher is not a brilliant and erudite scholar on each and every one of them. Surely better knowledge of a text and its tradition might help for basic comprehension of a text, but part of the Great Books theory is that “ready-made” thoughts and interpretations are not as helpful to learning as those thoughts which are struggled for and hard to attain during the course of study–for both students and teachers. Therefore, it is not simply the thoughts one has had, but the thoughts that one has each and every time one teaches or learns from a Great Book.

The second aspect of this difficulty is also a practical one. A teacher is going to find far fewer resources at his or her disposal when first teaching such a course. Since Great Books curricula are far rarer than more conventional curricula, say a typical English 9 course in California, the reading selections, lessons planned, and daily activities are largely going to have created, vetted, and edited by any teacher who chooses (or is chosen) for such a seemingly difficult task. Beyond that, the professional community which exists to help such a new and enterprising teacher is at best small, and at worst divided and esoteric. Given, however, that the students who will be learning the material are themselves being thrown into the deep, though, it only makes sense that a teacher share such intrepid and courageous qualities that he or she wishes to engender and develop and expect from his or her students.

Onto the next part of the objection: If the teacher himself or herself has difficulty teaching the Great Books, surely students will not be able to grasp the Great Books in any meaningful nor enduring way. For what could a student learn from the travels of Odysseus if his or her teacher is not versed in Ancient Greek and therefore knows little about the Ancient Doric, Ionian, or Aeolian dialects. Or perhaps the teacher does not know the oral tradition, Homer’s disputed existence, or the location of the earliest preserved manuscript which currently resides in Athens. And surely a teacher cannot claim knowledge of the text without having at least sampled Parry’s The Making of Homeric Verse. True, all this information might at some point be useful, at least in a post-secondary educational situation, but it is not the facts about a text at all that make a Great Books education worthwhile. Nor is it even the knowledge about the texts which is worthwhile. Ralph Waldo Emerson offers some insight on this paradoxical mode of thought in his The American Scholar:

“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although, in almost all men, obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates. In this action, it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man. In its essence, it is progressive. The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they, — let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man hopes: genius creates. Whatever talents may be, if the man create not, the pure efflux of the Deity is not his; — cinders and smoke there may be, but not yet flame. There are creative manners, there are creative actions, and creative words; manners, actions, words, that is, indicative of no custom or authority, but springing spontaneous from the mind’s own sense of good and fair.” (http://www.emersoncentral.com/amscholar.htm)

Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that is not the books themselves, or their content or knowledge, which makes them valuable–it is their capacity to act as lightning rods to our own thoughts which gives them value. It is precisely this “active thinking” which Emerson suggests is the essence and purpose of a Great Books education. One reads these books not necessarily to grasp all their divine and difficult mysteries within, nor to show one’s great summary ability in learning everything about their content, historical place, and the history of their transmission (though all these activities have tremendous value). One reads these texts, most essentially, due to the simple fact that Great Books spark one’s own imagination and intellect best. Just as Emerson says that one’s eyes are in the front of one’s head and not the back, one learns from the past in order to create the future by means of living and acting and being virtuous in one’s present. It is not the purpose, therefore, of a curriculum of Great Books simply to teach a student about what has been, but rather to furnish a student’s intellect with a creative spark which will shine forth through the darkness of the present and bring light to an indefinite future. For the Great Books are not benefited by being read; rather, it is the students who read them that receive the benefits.


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