Molly Worthen’s Great Books Prescription: A Rebuttal
In yesterday’s New York Times, Molly Worthen prescribes the great books idea as an antidote to the ills of liberalism in the Age of Trump. She raises some good points, but fails in her overall goal. Below is a list of some problems with the piece. I apologize for the simple list format. This rebuttal has been composed in haste. It follows the presentation of topics and themes as presented in Worthen’s piece. Perhaps I’ll shape it into something artful later.
– First, Worthen conflates learning, and respect for, the history of ideas with learning great books. Those efforts can correspond, but in practice they don’t.
– Second, and related, which ideas? You can read the same books and authors, but come away with different takes on those ideas (e.g. de Tocqueville).
– Third, training in the history of ideas is not the same as “ideological training.” It’s not helpful to confuse learning about ideas with learning to implement those ideas in the praxis of ideology.
– Fourth, reading great books and getting comfortable in the history of ideas is not *the best* way to fight Trump and Trump supporters. Trump appeals to emotional needs and desires. He appeals to certain ideals, not ideas. Worthen circles back to this point at the end of her piece, but doesn’t acknowledge the emotional reasons for their fears, which undercuts the appeal to reason and history of ideas that is the main thrust of her piece.
– Fifth, Worthen is speaking to liberals, but forgetting that many left-leaning people do appreciate great books and great authors, or at least have no fear of engaging in that realm of intellectual discourse.
– Sixth, we need to know more about how these conservative courses are set up before we laud them as examples for liberals and left-leaning people who oppose Trump’s agenda. Are they reading excerpts or whole works? If excerpts, then it’s easier to turn those courses into indoctrinations into a particular ideology. Worth seems to be conflating the notion of reading so-called great authors with reading actual whole great books.
– Seventh, and related to six, Worthen is precisely right to say that “The appeal here is aesthetic and psychological, not just intellectual.” This psychological appeal goes toward the point about indoctrination in an ideology, but also about intimacy and a personal appeal. Small venues make students feel special, and enable real conversational engagement. Her next para in the piece goes to this point when Worthen speaks of the participants being whisked away.
– Eighth, the criticism of what higher education has become today is real and true. I mean, with regard to large lecture halls and students who can remain in silos or retain large chunks of inherited belief when tests are just checking the box properly, or short answers that don’t require long, complex engagement from students. Being in higher education is no intimate retreat from credentialism to learning.
– Ninth, mass higher education, even if reformed, is not the proper place for liberals and left-leaning folks to begin to create a new politics to combat Trump. That effort must necessarily occur after higher ed, or separate from. It does not follow that fostering critical thinking and a liberal arts-inspired sense of complexity will necessarily result in liberal-left voters. To do that, liberals and left-leaning people must create political reading groups for adults that properly explain the appeal of their policy. That effort can involve great books and authors (I think it will), but it doesn’t have to. These groups can be made to appeal to young, college-aged adults, but they shouldn’t be integrated in university life.
– Tenth, Worthen’s admiration of a kind of elitism and high culture in relation to great books. Her conflation of “the canon” or even “a” canon with great books efforts is unfortunate. By invoking “the canon” she imports a religiosity and sacredness about the best books that misses important aspects of the history of the great books idea. And then she makes that reverence worse by referring to groups of discussion as an “elite debating society.” The great books idea was about “great books” and debate, of course, but also about close reading, hard discussion, citizenship, and democratized culture. The last point is important. Discussion of those books was for everyone. That discussion could also be irreverent—i.e. not treating those books as full of truth only. An important strain of great books supporters believed those books to be accessible to all, at varying levels, and that there could be different lists of books, flexible according to “student”/participant interest.
– Eleventh, even Worthen’s characterization of political science seems out of tune. I don’t teach in that discipline, but I read some work of political scientists. It is my understanding that the profession is split among scientists who study polling and pragmatic issues, and those who do look at political history and the history of political ideas. Perhaps that is a false dichotomy, but I think there’s more to the story of the place of the history of ideas in political science departments.
– Twelfth, the line about “the reek of dead white men” imports old culture wars battles. It unnecessarily inflames the conversation. One can read progressive and ideologically left great authors that are comprised of a fine mix of great non-white authors. For instance, an excellent course on the idea of equality/inequality could be constructed using Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., with some American Founding Fathers, Aristotle, Aquinas, Marx, and others.
– Thirteenth, the anecdotal use of John Halpin and his course as a stand-in for objections is also unfortunate. Worthen quotes Halpin, with tacit approval, on the left being “anti-philosophical” and “not as committed to the application of deductive philosophical ideas.” But then Halpin cites the application of the idea of equality/inequality being used in programs and movements such as populism, Progressivism, and the New Deal. Halpin then claims that, because of the novelty of this application in the United States, that this was all experimental and antifoundational. Well, yes, because few societies have attempted to form more nation states where citizens are equal! And, in the context of U.S. history, Halpin leaves out that these movements followed the exacerbation of inequality during the Gilded Age by what became known as the “Robber Barons.” He also leaves out that these movements, operating the context of a democratic representative government premised on compromise, that these movements for equality left democratic capitalism intact. This is important because it means they were experimenting, in a way, in a particular context. That doesn’t mean those movements were antifoundational and opposed to great ideas, but rather trying to apply one great idea practically in a complex circumstance. Deductions about the extensiveness of equality (i.e. the progressive tradition’s “firm ideological commitments,” in Worthen’s words), then, had to operate inductively on the ground.
That’s it for now. This rebuttal, in its thirteen-point listicle form is not artistic. But it’s the best I can offer before the day’s activities and chores take over. – TL