Death of the Classics (?)

If you have never had a chance to peruse the website of Taki’s Magazine, you might want to take a look. It features a number of iconoclastic writers who for one reason or another aren’t welcome in bien-pensant circles.

Last week Dr. Paul Gottfried of Elizabethtown College posted on the site an article titled “Death of the Classics” about Mortimer Adler and the publication of the first edition of the Great Books of the Western World series in the 1950s. I have met Professor Gottfried and have corresponded with him once or twice; he is a perceptive social critic and always entertaining to read.

Gottfried casts Adler and Hutchinson’s project as an opportunistic attempt to profit from a postwar “craze for the classics” in American culture. He describes the “shameless marketing” of the GBWW series and a constant playing up of the “snob value” of owning classic works, many of which were never opened by the purchasers.

Let’s grant that all this is true. Should we think less of the Great Books or the people who promoted them? I don’t think so. Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, and if people never read the books they bought, at least they recognized that the works were significant, which is more than can be said for too many of the affluent in the 21st century. I’m sure that a fair number who bought the books for the “snob value” did end up reading some of them at some point, and that’s all to the good. Gottfried himself recognizes this, writing, “During my adolescent years, we made fun of all the ‘culture vultures.’ But for all their posturing and tasteless decor, these nouveaux riches look admirable in retrospect.”

The other interesting thing about Gottfried’s piece is his discussion of colleges that adopted a Great Books curriculum. Although there quite a few of these at first, the number dwindled over the years:

Why did this popular passion for “great books” eventually dwindle? I believe it did not suit most educators, who were narrowly specialized or fixated on political agendas. Why should a professor who knows zilch about the humanities have to teach something he never studied? During my graduate-school years at Yale in the mid-1960s, foreign-language students were more into Marxist or postmodernist theories than the received national literatures they were supposed to be absorbing. If you read the Hungarian communist Georg Lukács, it advanced your career more than reading Goethe, Racine, or Cervantes. An English professor of deep Southern origin once explained to me that while teaching Shakespeare, it dawned on him that we learn more about social justice via Maya Angelou than Elizabethan texts. Core curricula at most colleges no longer provide any serious exposure to the humanities. To the extent that modern instructors present anything other than writing mechanics, it is typically about popular entertainment or designated victim groups’ suffering.

Gottfried also writes that most programs that still provide a Great Books curriculum are deeply influenced by Leo Strauss, who taught at the University of Chicago, the center of the postwar Great Books movement. Strauss was a political scientist who continues to be a major influence on the neoconservative movement, and his approach to interpreting the Great Books was, shall we say, problematic. For example, Strauss continually hinted that all great authors are religious skeptics, even St. Thomas Aquinas.

I’m happy to say that the Great Books programs of which I’m a part do not advocate Straussian readings of texts. We’re doing what we can to postpone the death of the classics that Gottfried writes about.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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7 Responses to Death of the Classics (?)

  1. Dr. T says:

    I’m trying to figure out if I’m part of the bien-pensant circles, but my guess is that if you are drinking a PBR whilst watching SNF the circle’s border is drawn not to include you.*

    *Use of the word “whilst” is meant to be a signal to those who draw the bien-pensant circle that I can use words that sound like they came from a medieval hymn.

  2. Dr. J says:

    PBR? You’re definitely outside.

  3. Pingback: On the Web (October 15, 2011) « New Testament Interpretation

  4. Thank you for the kind words. As an hated outcast from the authorized conservative movement rapidly approaching his 70th birthday, I can use all the favorable comments I have found on your website. By the way, my book Leo Strauss and the American Conservative Movement is being published by Cambridge next month. Despite the prestige of the publisher and the advance promo, I expect this work will not be widely reviewed because of my reputation as a rightwing lunatic. I clearly do not fit into the narrow space of approved leftist-neoconservative opinion.

    • wow…that’s a new one leftist-neoconservative! I suppose you mean Straussians or Secularists or even former leftists. I find Leo Strauss interesting to read but I never found him as interesting or erudite as Werner Jaeger or Gilbert Highet. Paideia remains to me one of the great classics and the greatest series of books on Greek classical culture, literature and art I have ever read. Strauss, by comparison, is a narrow ideologue. Good for one or two readings and for another perspective but not worth placing next to Cervantes, Dante, Goethe, Moliere, or Shakerspeare.

  5. Pingback: On the Web (October 18, 2011) « New Testament Interpretation

  6. Pingback: Resurrection of the Classics? - The Imaginative Conservative

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