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Great Books and “The Modern Conservative Tradition”

October 9, 2014

I was recently asked the following question: “Is there a simple way to explain how the Great Books/Classics became part of the modern CONSERVATIVE tradition, both educationally and politically?” My short answer is “No!”—replying to the “simple way” part of the inquiry. But my longer, more considered, and more polite reply follows.

Before answering, I must make two clarifications. First, if we think of the “modern conservative tradition” as existing in the post-World War II time frame, you might divide conservatives’ relationship with the great books idea into three periods—two of which primarily involve affinity, and one which is mixed, or maybe even leans toward skepticism. Of course these three periods are somewhat arbitrarily constructed. Each involves intersections with notions of ‘dignity’, ‘tradition’, ‘individualism’, ‘fear’, ‘the common good’, ‘relativism’, and ‘identity’. Second, for the purposes of this essay and in my other work, I use ‘great books’ as distinct from ‘the classics’. The latter, to me, focuses on ancient Greek and Roman texts, as well as Medieval and some Early Modern works (Descartes even up to Locke). The former includes moderns and recent works—think Emerson and Whitman on up to Freud, Hemingway, and Woolf (though we could push that up to the 1980s, if wanted). Of course conservatives and liberals view these chronological boundaries differently, and use the terms without nuance (e.g. to conservatives Tocqueville is a “classic” author). Anyway, I’ll avoid using “the classics” or “classics” for the most part.

The first period of the “modern conservative tradition,” which existed from the 1940s until the 1960s, involved what historian George Nash called the “paleoconservatives.” For them the enemies were *primarily* external, though internal ones were on their radar. The paleoconservatives mixed a fierce anti-communism with tradition, identity, anti-relativism, and a little Western individualism. They were Western cosmopolitans who saw the great books a means to buttress democratic capitalism and individualism against communism and socialism. The great books, to them, offered an elite, dignified curriculum that protected learners and the old liberal arts ideal from crass professional-business concerns that had been infiltrating the curriculum, via student demand, since the 1920s. In this context the great books idea was an innovative updating of the older classics curriculum because great books proponents championed high-profile texts up through Freud. And the great books idea fronted a dialogue-focused teaching style that involved students rather than disciplining them through classics-based lectures. Through Britannica’s great books set, non-college-educated adults could also imbibe some measure of the great books idea such that, as citizens, they too absorbed and protected Western democratic capitalism. But to elitist paleoconservatives that was a secondary concern in relation to educating the nation’s leadership class in Western ideas. The enemies were primarily outside the United States.

In the second period, which existed from the 1960s and through the 1990s, the enemies were primarily internal. This stage began in higher education when students revolted from prescriptive college curricula (which involved great books in certain courses) and oppressive in loco parentis policies. The neoconservatives, alarmed at the emerging changes in cultural mores, carried forward the paleoconservative affinity for great books forward as a means of holding on, in education, to older stable ideas. Great books were now representative of a safe Western identity rooted in deep values opposed not only to communism but also a Dionysian relativism symbolized by race liberals, hippies, drug users, and dropouts. Now the “common good” takes some prevalence over individualism (esp. personal expression and satisfaction), and in this way linked great books to both moderate liberals and conservatives. In this period the increasing influential and powerful Religious Right became allies with neoconservatives and paleoconservatives against both that Dionysian element and the power secular state. And as “The Sixties” progressed the Civil Rights Movement transformed into a deeper cultural movement, forwarding new questions about race, ethnicity, gender, and identity.

This volatile mix of topics evolved into the now-familiar (for those of us say 40 and older) Culture Wars, between so-called ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’. The great books idea was intensely questioned in academia in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, especially in literature departments. That debate spilled into public sphere as a hot-button issue during the late 1980s, underscored by the so-called “Stanford Affair.” Unfortunately the public conversation was reductive, consisting of rather simplistic questioning, by all factions, about the identities of great books authors (e.g. they were dead white males) as opposed to the relevant content and deeper ideas in respected books. Conservative and moderate liberal champions of the great books idea saw, or recast, the controversy in terms of ‘excellence’. To them, which included public figures such as William Bennett and Allan Bloom, the older lists represented established ‘excellence’—even though conservatives used that criterion to repress and suppress uncomfortable questions about racial, sexual, ethnic, and gender identity. Critiques of great books idea were, to them, mere exercises in “political correctness.” In terms of the extreme and reactionary left, they were correct

Against these conservatives, thoughtful left and left-liberal critics of the great books idea argued—correctly in my view—that older established lists of excellent books had become irrelevant because the great ideas of race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity were not properly considered in relation to a changed American cultural and intellectual climate. Older versions of the great books idea didn’t speak to late twentieth-century readers. These critics did not argue against ‘excellence’ as much as they promoted a diversified excellence that included the best literature in relation to identity exemplars and questions. To paleo and neoconservatives, however, relevance was a mere disguise for relativism. To them race was just skin color, gender was taken for granted as male-female, sex was for the bedroom, and ethnicity was merely a matter of clothing and food tastes. For the left, right, and middle, economic class issues in the great books idea were either left behind or secondary to questions of identity.

In the third period, which one might say has been the state of things since around 2000, the paleo and neoconservative domestic cultural critique has diminished in importance to foreign affairs. The opposition is now again external, though internal/domestic issues remain.

The Bush administration used the great books idea in Iraq when they built American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), in 2007. William Bennett disciple John Agresto was a founder and former provost. John Dolan, a former professor at AUIS, argued that the whole institution was a kind of great books-based tool of empire. For the Bush administration and Agresto, the great books idea supported a liberal arts curriculum that would both promote democracy and transform an authoritarian culture. Others, however, who I term “neo-paleoconservatives,” have developed a critique of the mid-twentieth-century great books idea. These new paleos see the great books idea as too liberal, too open-ended, and too susceptible to relativism and interpretation. The old great books reading group method, promoted by Mortimer J. Adler in his bestselling *How to Read a Book*, can be manipulated by leftist and liberals as a too-easy critique of ‘tradition’. The political scientist, Catholic, and small-scale/localist Patrick Deneen is a neopaleoconservative. He has championed the aforementioned critique of the Adler and Robert Hutchins-inspired Great Books Movement.

In a March 2010 piece* titled “Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer,” Deneen sees the great books idea as too secular, or secular humanistic, for both his tastes and the goals of conservatism generally. He objects to the unquestioned teaching of Nietzsche, Freud, Machiavelli, Marx, and others as exemplars for thinking about the good life. Deneen views the great books idea as a breeding ground for philosophical or moral relativism—both of which are deeper and more pernicious problems than even identity-based cultural relativism. The great books curriculum, to him, is “a potpourri of conflicting views” and a sadly “ferocious and ongoing set of disagreements about the most basic human beliefs.” This is all “moderate liberalism,” or what I call ‘great books liberalism’, to Deneen. He stands against moderate liberal promoters of great books curricula, such as Anthony Kronman, Harold Bloom, and John Searle. He added that a “reinstatement of the Great Books would accomplish little in the contemporary academic context.” What’s needed—and here Deneen confesses to a Catholic conservative perspective—is a “more serious and potentially contentious” discussion about hard philosophical views in modern great works. Students need to be directed and led into the texts in order that students might learn “how they should live.” Given this, you can see how Deneen probably would’ve opposed the neoconservative great books instrumentalism evident in AUIS (though I haven’t seen a direct Deneen critique of AUIS). For what it’s worth, Deneen has stood by his critique, updating and expanding it in an 2013 piece for First Things. He maintained therein, in accordance with this 2010 argument, that the great books idea, as taught through most of the twentieth century, has contained the relativistic seeds of its own destruction. Conservatism must come to terms with this.

In relation to conservative ideals, I believe that’s Deneen’s critique has merit. The “great books approach” is about intense questioning, or “shared inquiry” as the Great Books Foundation folks call it. A great books course or discussion group should not, at base, forward any singular view of “the good life.” Adler and Hutchins would say, were they alive, that through each great book one enters “the great conversation” about the good life.

It’s hard to say just how representative Deneen’s view is in terms of recent conservatism. I will say, however, that I have encountered, in writing, few to no libertarians or neopaleoconservatives championing the great books idea as a solution to problems in public, private, or higher education. Today the discussion is about lowering cost, disrupting the entrenched education establishment, and promoting basic skills, via the Common Core, for the workplace. Although the Common Core has a great books component in terms of teaching literature, the implementation of Common Core (by moderate liberals and conservatives) seems to be about international competition, test scores, and the global economy. Conservative and neoliberal leaders want makers and creators, not takers. If the great books idea helps them form that new leadership class, fine. But the great books idea is merely instrumental—a means to an end—rather than a dignified, traditional, and excellent end to itself.


* Deneen, Patrick J. “Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer,” Minding the Campus, March 31, 2010, He continued similar arguments in a second piece, for First Things, titled “Against Great Books: Questioning Our Approach to the Western Canon” (January 2013),

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