Finding Dignity and Excellence in the Great Books

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1985, a few days before my 12th birthday, I left the Dominican Republic for New York City. The flight was only three and half hours, but the distance I traveled that day was in many ways incalculable. I didn’t speak English and had never even been close to an airplane. The city that greeted me and my older brother was the menacing New York of the 1980s, and like many other Dominican immigrants, we arrived poor, disoriented and with little notion of what would happen next.

I also traveled a great distance from learning English as a second language in the overcrowded classrooms of Intermediate School 61 in Corona, Queens, to enrolling as a freshman at Columbia University in 1991. Besides a fervent immersion in biblical exegesis, and what I had picked up as a child from my father’s self-education in Marxism, I was probably as ignorant of the world of letters as any student in Columbia’s nearly 250-year history.

What helped me make sense of the world and my place in it was the social and intellectual initiation provided by the university’s famed Core Curriculum. At the time, I couldn’t have suspected that I would go on to become a professor at Columbia and direct the Core from 2008 to 2018.

Sometimes described as a Great Books program, the Core Curriculum is a required set of courses in literary and philosophical classics—as well as art, music and science—in which all students study and discuss a prescribed list of works that begins in antiquity and moves chronologically to the present. Authors like Plato, Dante, Shakespeare and Woolf are semi-permanent fixtures. Legendary for its rigor, the Core is a kind of intellectual baptism that goes back more than a century, to a time when an introduction to the Western tradition of learning was recognized as a self-evident good.

Today, Columbia’s Core Curriculum stands as a kind of relic, with no other major university requiring a common course of study in what used to be called “the classics.” Liberal education has always been a hard sell, and with higher education increasingly seen in transactional terms—with students paying exorbitant amounts of money to gain a leg up in a fiercely competitive job environment—it is easy to see how liberal education might be regarded as a waste of time.

In particular, many people today, even academics, take the study of the classics to be elitist and exclusive. Of course, a curriculum weighted toward the past and therefore toward “dead white males” invites questions about diversity and inclusion. Such questions are integral to liberal education, not a distraction from it; they are, as computer programmers say, a feature, not a bug.

. . . .

The most important thing I tell students is that while a liberal arts education doesn’t have to center on Western civilization, Western texts and debates underpin today’s global culture. Contemporary notions like human rights, democracy, gender equality, scientific objectivity, the free market, equality before the law, and many others cannot be adequately accounted for without studying the Western tradition. That tradition does not contain the only important contributions to these notions, but it does contain decisive ones.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link. If it doesn’t work, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

5 thoughts on “Finding Dignity and Excellence in the Great Books”

  1. Apropos of this post, may I recommend to those of you who, like me, did not get a “classical education”, that you sample Spencer Klavan’s Young Heretics podcast, which aims to “fill the gap”: https://youngheretics.com

  2. Classics, arguably class driven education, though I follow Bret Devereaux at who hosted this argument for the necessity of classics: https://acoup.blog/2021/09/10/meet-a-historian-michael-taylor-on-why-we-need-classics/

    Which left me more convinced that the only people who are able to meet the educational requirements for classics (classics, in principle, I agree is a good thing to know) are those who come from a the class of people who can afford to send their children to educational establishments that teach Greek and Latin.

    In short, the elite moneyed class so, not generally not available at the average school.

  3. You don’t need credentials to be truly educated and cultured. I made an effort to read many of the classic English novels after college, and most of the history, philosophy, theology, etc I’ve read was on my own time (note that my major was in the hard sciences).

    Today there is a small but growing classical revival, including classical schools and homeschools. These typically require Latin but not Greek. However, for the rest of us, there are translations. There are also a number of Great Books colleges and programs (such as Thomas Aquinas College and the University of Dallas; Hillsdale probably qualifies too and I know there are more).

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