In “Can I Go to Great Books Camp?” which recently appeared in the New York Times, Molly Worthen provides an historical account of the development of the “Great Books” program and related curricula inside American universities. It is a report about the present deployment of such “canonical” works in various right wing fora inside and outside American universities and a policy argument to the effect that liberals would do well to learn from this conservative model but cannot and do not because liberals “think of themselves as empiricists, experimenters who follow the evidence wherever it leads.”
Having had the privilege both to study and teach at the institutions where a “Core Curriculum” interdisciplinary version of higher education was created and disseminated — Shimer College, St. John’s College and the New School for Social Research — I am sympathetic to Worthen’s piece. I especially appreciate her claim that liberals cannot “afford to dismiss Great Books as tools of white supremacy, or to disdain ideological training as the sort of unsavory thing that only conservatives and communists do,” though I would add that this holds for anyone serious about the desirability of an educated public in a thriving democracy. I find, however, a number of fairly serious misrepresentations in her account, both in its historical aspect and its current policy implications. Here I hope to correct the record concerning the relationship between American progressivism (or liberalism, if one prefers) and the “Great Books” and kindred “canon-focused” curricula.
The most serious misrepresentation, I believe, is in the notion that “many” progressives are “anti-philosophical.” On this, she quotes John Halpin, a fellow at the Center for American Progress who started the Progressive Studies Program. Worthen follows Halpin’s conclusion that: “If you look at the history of populism, progressivism and the New Deal, you see this level of experimentation and the social science mentality that denies there are foundations.” This distorts the historical record tremendously. John Dewey, to cite one central instance among many, spearheaded the development of higher education curricula that focus on the history of ideas in just the way Worthen advocates. Dewey was dedicated to understanding the history of philosophy as integral to (if not necessarily “foundational for”) the kind of empirically minded experimental thinking Worthen associates with the progressive tradition. Nor is this only an historical phenomenon — many people of the left today consider themselves inspired by the example of Dewey and his colleagues and continue to work in that vein. Worthen is right that too many people on the left or associated with the left ignore the resources held within the history of Western thought for contemporary political identity in a pluralist democracy. However, it does not seem well founded to say that this is either the result or the cause of a distaste “on the left” for the history of ideas, which does not seem to me nearly so prevalent as her presentation would have it.
It is right, I think, to call attention to the way in which “for all its relativism and wonkishness, the progressive tradition grew from firm ideological commitments: a faith in human equality and empathy; the rule of law; the scientific method.” But, bearing in mind the specific stress that progressivist thought placed on the pragmatic truth norms that rest behind the ideological commitments Worthen notes, is it true that educational programs today don’t reflect this? It seems to me rather that the real problem is that most of us who work in the Academy do not leave the Academy often enough. Specifically, we do not bring the works from the tradition that move us with us when we engage in life outside the university. But what if we look at programs like the Bard Prison Initiative (discussed favorably by the Editorial Board of the New York Times in July 2015 and featured again in the Times just last month), Yale’s Citizens, Thinkers, Writers, or the Clemente Course in the Humanities (like the Harlem Clemente Course in New York City)? In these efforts, I believe one can see the real promise of bringing the experimental and forward-looking style of progressivism together with a deep respect for, and joy in sharing, the enduring works of the history of ideas outside of conventional university spaces.
In sum, I call for something that is unpopular on both the right and the left: education that promotes uncertainty. Reading great books should not be reduced to a tool of activism on either the right or the left, since we destroy the real power and value of these books when we try to make them fit any activist agenda. A great “Great Books Camp” would be one that refuses to weaponize these books and embraces the risks associated with cultivating uncertainty as the entry fee to thoughtfulness. Both the books and our students deserve to be taken seriously in this way.