The Great Conversation

Since education is long, and since it is indispensable, we should begin it right away.

The Great Conversation by Robert Hutchins is the introductory volume to the 1952 edition of the Great Books of the Western World. Its thesis is that a liberal education is necessary for all citizens of a democratic society.

Hutchins argues that one of the defining, unique features of the West is its spirit of inquiry; it is a “Civilization of the Dialogue.” Liberal education is an attempt to identify and understand basic problems and how one problem bears on another through the major contributions to that Dialogue. The liberally educated person is conversant in all fields, although he may not specialize in any of them.

Historically, liberal education was reserved to those with leisure and political influence, i.e., the upper class. Hutchins argues that in the modern world, where all have leisure (through technology) and political influence (through democracy), it is necessary for all to be liberally educated.

Hutchins notes that although liberal education is the historic norm (for those who were educated at all), since the early 20th century there has not been much of it taking place in educational institutions:

The object appears to be to keep the child off the labor market and to detain him in comparatively sanitary surroundings until we are ready to have him go to work. The results of universal, free, compulsory education in America can be acceptable only on the theory that the object of the schools is something other than education, that it is, for example, to keep the young from cluttering up homes and factories during a difficult period of their lives, or that it is to bring them together for social or recreational purposes.

Sixty years since Hutchins wrote these words, the situation he describes is, if anything, worse than when he wrote them.

What if schools were to educate the young and adults were to continue educating themselves? Hutchins says simply, “We could talk to one another then.”

Hutchins stresses the ideal of “interminable liberal education” throughout one’s life. With propaganda (both private and public) beating on us all day long, independent judgment is more difficult to maintain than ever before, but it is also more necessary because of our responsibilities as citizens. Thus we need “constant mental alertness and mental growth”; the best way to achieve this is through participation in the Great Conversation.

I believe Hutchins makes a great case for liberal education. Later chapters make it clear that he was preoccupied  with the issues of his own day (e.g., fear of nuclear war), and he makes one or two unfortunate statements about the “necessity” of world government, but these do not detract from the relevance of his argument. After reading this book-length essay, I am more motivated than ever to embark on this project of reading the Great Books.

For next week, it’s Volume 1 of the Gateway to the Great Books series. This is also an introductory volume, and the majority of it is index material, so I plan to get through it in just one week. For our purposes, the important sections are the “Letter to the Reader” (pp. 1-15) and the “Introduction” (pp. 15-108). I’ve been unable to find the full text of these essays online, but beginning next week I expect to be able to post links to all the reading material.

[This post is part of my seven-year plan to read through the Gateway to the Great Books and Great Books of the Western World sets. The original post describing the plan is here.]

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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13 Responses to The Great Conversation

  1. Garret Myhan says:

    Good synopsis, Jason. I also found The discussion of the East/West dialogue very interesting. Hutchins argues that in order for us to have any meaningful “meeting of the minds” with those possessing an Eastern worldview, we must first have a deep understanding of how we arrived at our own Western worldview. Attempting to know and relate to our Eastern neighbors is useless, and can even be distructive, if we don’t first know ourselves.

    As you mention, Hutchins wrote this around 1950, but it seems very relevant to the present, especially in light of the War on Terror and the modern amalgamation of East & West.

    I too found the discussion of the world state, community, and law very interesting and disturbing, especially since Hutchins seemed so high on these ideas. No doubt he would be impressed with how far we have progressed down that particular road.

    I picked up a used set of the Gateway volumes on eBay, so I will be reading along with you. Happy New Year to you and your family.


    • Dr. J says:

      Yes, I thought the section on East/West dialogue was good, too. We must know our own tradition before being able to interact meaningfully with another. It’s very Socratic: “Know thyself.” So much of the “dialogue” today is on a purely commercial basis and does not address many of the important underlying issues.

      Maybe we can forgive Hutchins for his world-government musings. In the aftermath of World War II, it was the only way many people could envision preventing World War III and a nuclear holocaust. Even some of the great classical liberals like Ludwig von Mises wrote things at certain points favoring an ultra-liberal world state to perform basic police functions.

      I’m glad you got hold of a Gateway set. Keep the comments coming.

  2. Garret Myhan says:

    Oh, and sorry about the typos/misspellings in my comment. My meaty fingers are still getting used to this iPhone keyboard.

  3. Pingback: The Great Conversation | Through the Great Books

  4. Andrew J Overton says:

    I am joining this late, but will look through the blog posts and catch up at my speed if that is allowed. I haven’t met you Dr J, and all I know about you is that your pretty good with a basketball (wrong Dr J?), but thanks for leading the charge with a project that gives a clear direction to the readings.

    I too was a bit off put by all the one-world world government. It seems that a paranoia existed then that still permeates through the culture. One thing I found interesting about Hutchins is in his explanation of which works made the cut-off. There is always debate about the “best books ever” or whatnot, but Hutchins puts forth a convincing argument that makes it hard-pressed for me to contribute a forgotten work.

    Lastly, I appreciate how he casts the first stone against teachers who profess to have a superior Liberal education, but have never really read most or any of the original works. Recently I made the mistake of going back to the university at the age of 31 for a Masters in Economics; doing so because of my passion for economics knowledge. To my surprise, there was more than one teacher who openly said in class that they had never read Smith or Keynes or Ricardo. They were more concerned with p-values and correlation than basic deductive principles. Thank you Dr J for bringing this project to light and thanks to Hutchins for putting together a true Liberal education.

    Now I just have to play catch up.

    • Dr. J says:

      I have a few thoughts on books that should have been included . . . when I get them into order, I plan to make an independent blog post about them.

      It’s great to have you on board for this journey!

  5. Just getting started on your program. Thank you for putting it together in bit size portions so we can make it fit into a daily schedule. Finished Week 1 and on to the next. 🙂 I owned a set of GBWW many years ago and read portions but never set up a program of daily reading. Hoping and expecting to be successful this time. I’m now 73 so should be finished by the time I’m 80.

  6. John says:

    Another latecomer to your site, Professor. Thank you for the excellent resource.

  7. I learnt about your project from, and I am more than exited to begin following your blogs. Thank you in advance professor.

  8. Glen Sprigg says:

    This is an exciting project! I’m coming to it late, but since I have the Gateway series, as well as the original 1952 series, I’ll be joining in now.

    I read the Great Conversation a few years back, and I agree that the East/West discussion is one that we can’t have until we’ve understood our Western culture first. As for the one-world government idea…let’s wait until the rest of the world has a better idea of what would actually work.

    I also have a bunch of the Great Ideas Today annuals, which include new additions to the Library (including most of the additions to the second edition), so it will be interesting to read them as well. I was actually toying with doing a chronological reading of the combined series (1952, 1990, Gateway, and GIT), but I do believe my brain would explode when reading Aristotle.

  9. rpowell2014 says:

    Just starting out. Made my local library locate and dig out GBOTWW from the storage where they had it hidden, orginal version. Brings home the statement Hutchins made: To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that characterized the West it is not necessary to burn books All we have to do is leave them unread for a few generations.

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