The Great Books Are Diversity

Anyone who claims to appreciate diversity should enjoy reading the Great Books. In the past week we read one of the world’s greatest historians, a philosopher who thinks history is for little minds, and authors who variously interpret life as a effort to serve fate, a relationship to God, and a channeling of negative entropy. If that’s not diversity, I don’t know what is.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Aeneid of Virgil, Book II  (GBWW Vol. 12, pp. 99-118)
  2. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book III (GBWW Vol. 5, pp. 417-446)
  3. Experience and Education by John Dewey, Ch. 2 (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 101-104)
  4. My First Acquaintance with Poets” by William Hazlitt (GGB Vol. 5, pp. 264-279)
  5. Measurement” by Norman Robert Campbell (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 204-221; Chapter VI of What Is Science?)
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book III (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 208-229; in the linked text, it’s the material under the heading “The external calamities of Rome” and its subheads)

You may have noticed that this is the second time to read a work of St. Augustine parallel to a work of John Dewey. That juxtaposition was not intentional, but it’s turning out to be illuminating.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Aeneid of Virgil, Book I: The influence of Homer is seen in nearly every line of this work, and were it not for the references to the Roman people, Caesar, etc., you could almost believe that Homer wrote this as well. Poor Dido . . . almost from the moment she appears, you know she’s doomed. In this vision, no one can overcome fate; even the gods struggle in vain against it.
  2. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book II: Pericles’s funeral speech is a masterpiece of propaganda; you can easily imagine it coming from the mouth of any U.S. president of the past 60 years. “We’re the greatest in the world; everyone wants to be like us.” It’s such a contrast to the speech of the Athenian embassy to Sparta in Book I: “We’re not going to defend our actions; just think twice before you cross us.” I got creeped out when Pericles said that by praising Athens he had sufficiently praised those who had fallen in its defense.
  3. Experience and Education by John Dewey, Preface-Ch. 1: It’s kind of funny to see Dewey of all people posing as a moderate in educational theory. I suppose it’s a comfort of sorts to read his insistence that we shouldn’t jettison everything traditional simply because it’s traditional. I’m interested to see where he’ll end up in this work.
  4. “On Some Forms of Literature” by Arthur Schopenhauer: Clearly, Schopenhauer was a man with strong opinions and not afraid to voice them. Of course I’m going to disagree with him on history, but I see where he’s coming from; too many “history buffs” are much more interested in minutiae than in the big picture of what history can teach us. Schopenhauer tells us what he thinks are the four greatest novels; what’s your top four?
  5. What Is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger, Chapters 3-7: This piece had some twists and turns. After all the discussion of mutation, I thought that would play a central role in Schrödinger’s conclusions, but then he went off on negative entropy and ended up at free will. A bit confusing, but I appreciated his sense of wonder at the mystery of life, even though he seemed to be confident that eventually science would explain it all.
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book II: Theater buffs, this section probably will not endear Augustine to you. I wonder what he would have thought of Christian efforts to redeem the theater from the Middle Ages onward. I think there’s much to be said for dramatic representation, although I’m the first to acknowledge that the arena is too often a moral cesspool.

I’m knocking on wood to keep up with the readings this week. We’re putting on a conference this weekend at my university, and I have a presentation to get ready before then, along with all the other preparations. I hope that your week will not be as busy as mine!

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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5 Responses to The Great Books Are Diversity

  1. Dr. T says:

    Diversity, schmiversity. All your book writers are “authors.” If you were really diverse, you would have books written by people who are “not authors.” Now that would be diversity!

    • Vickie says:

      Hmmm – I wonder if St Augustine considered himself an “author”. Or Virgil, for that matter. I’m pretty sure the scientists whose papers we have been reading would never refer to themselves as “authors”. I doubt even Shakespeare used that term to descrIbe himself. So what are you really trying to say?

  2. Jane says:

    Schopenhauer, On Some Forms of Literature: I wish this essay would go mainstream now and help people escape the increasing flow of manipulative “news” stories that are cementing biases and warping political processes. It was bad enough that “all journalists are…like little dogs; if anything stirs, they immediately set up a shrill bark.” Even in the early 19th century news cycles were fueled by fear and shifting constantly to the next event, and in the 20th C.S. Lewis advised against reading the daily paper because if you put it aside for 2 weeks, would you even care to read it then? No – it would be old news – there’d be a new conflagration to consider. Better, Schopenhauer says, to avoid most history and its collection of cyclically repetitive events and read philosophy and literature instead for their lessons about human nature and our common experience which mostly persist over time.

    Meanwhile, those of us who lament short memory of our reading should appreciate this: “… to require that a man shall retain everything he has ever read is like asking him to carry about with him all he has ever eaten. The one kind of food has given him bodily, and the other mental, nourishment; and it is through these two means that he has grown to be what he is. The body assimilates only that which is like it; and so a man retains in his mind only that which interests him, in other words, that which suits his system of thought or his purposes in life.” Regrettably, though, this brings us back to the problem of cognitive bias and the way “fake news” can take root…

    Dewey, Experience and Education: The biggest take-away for me here was the importance of gearing classroom teaching to the actual previous experiences of students and making content relevant to their cultural and social milieus. It reminded me of an example from a teaching internship I did in Jersey City in 1982. My 2nd-grade class was completing a worksheet where they were given pictures of various items and they had to write the corresponding words below them. Student after student – all black or Latino inner-city residents – came up and pointed to the same picture, asking what it was. “A lawnmower,” I said. Living in aging tenements and rarely if ever going to parks with grass, they had never seen one.

    Unfortunately, the public education system in the U.S. has ignored Dewey’s wisdom and entrenched itself in teaching rote material for tests. This article from The Atlantic describes how reading comprehension is on the decline, particularly among lower socioeconomic groups, and though the author never mentions Dewey, she employs similar reasoning: the subject matter of the texts they are being asked to read is often outside of their personal experience, whereas wealthier children enjoy much broader access to the world through travel, sports, exposure to the arts, etc, so are more apt to be interested in and retain the information conveyed:

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