Do The Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?

A selection of the 60 volume Great Books of the Western World.
Image source.

A “proper education” changes with its times.

In the days of America’s founding a true education was a classical education. An educated man was not simply expected to be familiar with the great works of Greek and Roman civilization; the study of these works was the foundation of education itself. Thomas Jefferson’s advice to an aspiring nephew captures the attitudes of his era:

It is time for you now to begin to be choice in your reading; to begin to pursue a regular course in it; and not to suffer yourself to be turned to the right or left by reading any thing out of that course. I have long ago digested a plan for you, suited to the circumstances in which you will be placed. This I will detail to you, from time to time, as you advance. For the present, I advise you to begin a course of antient history, reading every thing in the original and not in translations. First read Goldsmith’s history of Greece. This will give you a digested view of that field. Then take up antient history in the detail, reading the following books, in the following order: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophontis Hellenica, Xenophontis Anabasis, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, Justin. This shall form the first stage of your historical reading, and is all I need mention to you now. The next, will be of Roman history (*). From that, we will come down to modern history. In Greek and Latin poetry, you have read or will read at school, Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles. Read also Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakspeare, Ossian, Pope’s and Swift’s works, in order to form your style in your own language. In morality, read Epictetus, Xenophontis Memorabilia, Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Cicero’s philosophies, Antoninus, and Seneca…. 

Having ascribed proper hours to exercise, divide what remain, (I mean of your vacant hours) into three portions. Give the principal to History, the other two, which should be shorter, to Philosophy and Poetry. Write to me once every month or two, and let me know the progress you make. Tell me in what manner you employ every hour in the day. The plan I have proposed for you is adapted to your present situation only. When that is changed, I shall propose a corresponding change of plan. I have ordered the following books to be sent to you from London, to the care of Mr. Madison. Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon’s Hellenics, Anabasis and Memorabilia, Cicero’s works, Baretti’s Spanish and English Dictionary, Martin’s Philosophical Grammar, and Martin’s Philosophia Britannica. I will send you the following from hence. Bezout’s Mathematics, De la Lande’s Astronomy, Muschenbrock’s Physics, Quintus Curtius, Justin, a Spanish Grammar, and some Spanish books. You will observe that Martin, Bezout, De la Lande, and Muschenbrock are not in the preceding plan. They are not to be opened till you go to the University. You are now, I expect, learning French. You must push this; because the books which will be put into your hands when you advance into Mathematics, Natural philosophy, Natural history, and will be mostly French, these sciences being better treated by the French than the English writers. Our future connection with Spain renders that the most necessary of the modern languages, after the French. When you become a public man, you may have occasion for it, and the circumstance of your possessing that language, may give you a preference over other candidates. I have nothing further to add for the present, but husband well your time, cherish your instructors, strive to make every body your friend; and be assured that nothing will be so pleasing, as your success, to, Dear Peter. 

(*) Livy, Sullust, Caesar, Cicero’s epistles, Suetonius, Tacitus, Gibbon. [1]

Mr. Jefferson’s ideal education was more than a close reading of Herodotus, Sophocles, Caesar, and Cicero. A proper education was incomplete without a strict exercise regime, a study of the leading scientific and mathematic minds of the day, and a mastery of multiple foreign languages, both living and dead.

These would be the hallmarks of  ‘proper’ education for the next century. The general contours of the classical education changed very little — the emphasis on mastering multiple languages was reduced as time went on and (for Americans) the subject of oratory and rhetoric was added to the list. In addition to studying the “Great Books” of the Western world most Americans would study the great speeches of English-speaking world; compilations like The Columbian Orator were a cornerstone of 19th century education. [2]  

During the 20th century things changed drastically.  Several weeks ago Michelle Togut wrote a thoughtful overview of these changes for the League of Ordinary Gentleman’s Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. [3] She notes that controversy over and opposition to the hallowed place the Western cultural tradition had at the center of American education (embodied in the study of the “Great Books”) came in two waves, ultimately resulting in the system of general education found in America’s 21st century universities. Conservatives alarmed by these changes have thus fallen into two groups, each raising a different objections to the modern system. Their arguments can be summarized succinctly:

  • 1. The Western cultural tradition is dying on campus because post-modernism, gender studies, area studies, and multiculturalism generally have replaced them. This is bad. (The primary argument from the 1970s to the 2010s). 
  • 2. The Western cultural tradition is dying on campus because social science and statistics has conquered the humanities and specialization has made general education irrelevant to the average student’s education. This is bad. (The primary argument from the 1930s to the 1960s).

Of the two, I find the second both more convincing and alarming.

Mortimer Adler was one of the founding members of the second group. (He is most famous today as the first editor of the 60-volume Great Books of the Western World.) Professor Adler and his kin often talked of the Western cultural tradition as a “great conversation.” Said he:

“What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways” [4]

As Adler saw it, understanding Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Conrad requires a knowledge of what came before them. Their words, ideas, and works were inspired by the good that came before, written in response to the bad which they deplored, and full of allusions to both. It is hard to appreciate or engage with these authors in isolation.

The multiculturalist objection to all of this is easily resolved. How can we support a “great conversation” that excludes so many voices? The answer: what stops us from including them? This has been the course I have followed in my personal education, and have found it rewarding. I have learned more from Sima Qian and Ibn Khaldun than I ever did from Herodotus or Plato. The Great Conversation has excluded the view points of women and minorities? Then let us add Sei Shōnagon and Kālidāsa to it! This cross cultural approach has deepened my appreciation for and understanding of the Western canon. [5] Moreover, in a world as interconnected as ours now is, almost any argument for attaining cultural literacy in the Western tradition can (and should) be applied to the Indic and East Asian traditions. Cultural literacy in the 21st century reaches far beyond Athens and Jerusalem.[6]

The second argument is more worrisome. The eclipse of the Western tradition has just as much to do with specialization as it does multiculturalism, though some habits of the newer humanities – such as the general distaste for studying “great men” at all – have contributed. The general expansion of college education from an elite endeavor to career-prep for the masses is another part of the story. I think so many critics of the university ignore these things because multiculturalism is an easier target. Changing a reading list is easy; changing the structure of higher education is not.

The consequences are the same, either way. There is something to be said for education that has coherence; there is something to be said for seeking to learn from lives long gone. I fear that we are cutting ourselves off from the past. When we do not leave room for the “great conversations” in our studies, it dies. Thousands of years of human endeavor and emotion are found in the Western tradition. And unlike our predecessors, we have the option of adding to this tradition, to expand it from Western to human. I find that exciting. Alas, the academy does not. “Tradition” is not a word worth much there.


[1] Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr. Paris, 19 September 1785. Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy. Accessed 25 May 2013. 

[2] Frederick Douglas eloquently testifies to the power the English oratorical tradition.    The Columbian Orator was one of the first books he ever read; he described its influence in the following terms:

The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts which had often flashed through my mind and died away for want of words in which to give them utterance. The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth penetrating the heart of a slave-holder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue; and from the speeches of Sheridan I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man. Here was indeed a noble acquisition. If I had ever wavered under the consideration that the Almighty, in some way, had ordained slavery, and willed my enslavement for His own glory, I wavered no longer. I had now penetrated to the secret of all slavery and all oppression, and had ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power, and the avarice of man. With a book in my hand so redolent of the principles of liberty, with a perception of my own human nature, and the facts of my past and present experience, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether white or black,—for blindness in this matter was not confined to the white people.

Frederick Douglas. Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / My Bondage and My Freedom / Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Library of America). (New York: library of America). 1994. p. 226.

[3] The series is in three parts:

 Michelle Togut. “G-d and Man and Sex(!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part I “. League of Ordinary Gentleman. 10 April 2013.

 Michelle Togut. “G-d and Man and Sex(!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part II“. League of Ordinary Gentleman. 15 April 2013.

Michelle Togut.  “G-d and Man and Sex(!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part III”. League of Ordinary Gentleman. 19 April 2013.

This entire post is an expansion and reworking of a comment I left on Ms. Togut’s concluding entry,

[4]See his introduction to “The Great Books of the World: Author-to Author Index.” The Great Ideas Online. No. 692. November 2012. p. 1

[5] For example, consider the insights found in my earlier essay: “Whence Springs a Strategic Canon?” The Scholar’s Stage. 9 April 2013. 

[6] This is something most non-Westeners understand. At sundry times and places I have been friends or colleagues with Chinese men and women. I was very surprised at how historically grounded the Chinese are – Chinese popular culture, even at the level of the uneducated layman, is saturated with its history and literature. It took some getting used to (and it presents a very practical language learning problem!) Among educated Chinese, I have been very impressed with their desire to learn about and absorb Western history and culture. They value that of their own world, and seek that of the new, thus beating out Americans twice over, who do neither.

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Yes, the specialization and fragmentation of knowledge is a problem.

There's no easy solution, but one attraction of Darwinism is that it offers some basis for coherence or consilience.


IMHO, the search for "consilience" and broad based theories to unite all disciplines is a fool's game. It is a little too much hedgehog, and not enough fox. The hedgehogs are usually wrong.*

What united men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin was not the unity or idealogical coherence of their individual ideas, but the broad base of knowledge all were expected to acquire. A learned man in the 18c century was a man who knew his classics, who knew his mathematics, could shoot a gun (Thomas Jefferson's advised form of exercise in the letter above), and was up to date on recent political events and scientific discoveries. This was expected.

And it was expected for a reason. Education of this age was not designed to merely inform, nor to equip learners with the ability to create stunning analysis or grand theories. Those were secondary goals. The moral advancement of the learner was the main object of education in those days. The moral pretext for education can be seen pretty clear in the letter quoted above. To see how Jefferson introduces the topic:

" When your mind shall be well improved with science, nothing will be necessary to place you in the highest points of view, but to pursue the interests of your country, the interests of your friends, and your own interests also, with the purest integrity, the most chaste honor. The defect of these virtues can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind. Make these then your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you.

Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly. Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises; being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual. From the practice of the purest virtue, you may be assured you will derive the most sublime comforts in every moment of life, and in the moment of death….

It is of great importance to set a resolution, not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible; and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.

An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second…."

This is the coherence that academic – and education is general – has lost. Call it character, citizenship, or whatever, but in the days of the Great Books an education was for something. The disparate branches of knowledge were just as fragmentary then as they are now – but their study was unified, as it was all in the pursuit of one goal. This goal is now diminished and the branches have been cut loose one from another, each pursued in its own sphere for its own reasons.

And that is truly lamentable.

* I do agree that if any theory is to provide "consilience" to bridge the social and natural sciences, evolutionary theory is it. (With the study of trophic levels and flows of energy at a close second).

I agree with all you say about the ideal of a liberal education (as those 18th century greats articulated it): broad base, moral advancement. We seem to have lost both the goal and any good understanding of how to pursue it.

I certainly don't see evolutionism as able to unite all disciplines. Specialism is here to stay. Still, it does seem have some potential as bridge and link.

Personally, after spending many years and a small fortune on an "education" which included several years of engineering school and an MBA from a respected research university, I realized that, while I had received plenty of training my education was far from complete. I had huge areas of ignorance about my own cultural and literary heritage. Now I am in my mid thirties and have begun seriously studying (and blogging about) the Great Books. I truly think it's a travesty that our culture is now more concerned with teaching young people technical skills–which will be obsolete in a few years and may or may not apply to a future jobs–than their own history and culture or how to write and think.