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Famous Intellectuals And The Great Books

June 20, 2007

On Monday I noted here that Richard Rorty experienced a great books education, in the 1950s, at the University of Chicago.

I also observed a few days ago, in Eric Arnesen’s review of Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison, that Ellison educated himself with the great books. This came via the “autodidact” culture that surrounds the history of the great books idea. The phenomenon is covered well in Jonathan Rose’s Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes.

It’s interesting to me how many biographers observe the great books-based educations of so many prominent folks, particularly intellectuals. And if these biographers do not explicitly call it a “great books education,” then they utilize a sort of analogous contact-with-the-masters-of-literature-history-and/or-philosophy paradigm.

Many times these great books educations occur with people that are known to be sensitive to class, cultural, and race differences – such as in the case of Ellison. Their extensive contact with traditional great books seems to have prepared them quite well for understanding contemporary differences in all three areas of analysis.

If our biographers are too be believed (meaning they are not engaging in simplified cliches), then why is the same intellectual class so hard on great books educations? If they’re not hard on them today, in 2007, why were they so hard on them in the 1980s and 1990s?

I’m obviously speculating here. I haven’t read every biography out there. But pondering the Ellison review and reflecting on Rorty have put me in this frame of mind.

Thoughts? Who else should we include in considering effects of the great books? – TL

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