Sunday, April 24, 2011

Rethinking the Great Books


As a graduate of St. John's college, it's practically sacrilegious for me to suggest that there might be some flaw in the curriculum of the college.  "The Program" may not be sacred, per se, but it is founded upon the thinking of philosophers that the modern world - though perhaps not philosophy departments - largely ignores, and therefore there's a kind of internal sanctity to the whole thing.  You see, St. John's is an academic institution that shuns modern academia, a place where research - the modus operandi of every University in the world - is not frowned upon so much as regarded with a bemused detachment.  That is, it's taken very seriously, in a certain sense, but also challenged on the grounds that it cannot answer all of the questions it asks.  Where modern academia believes that the best questions are the ones that can be answered with rigorous experimental design and good implementation, St. John's rather tends towards the view that the best questions are the ones that cannot be answered, and, furthermore, that the process of dialogue around those questions might be more valuable to students - and to the world at large - than the more "practical" aims of research.

Perhaps "more valuable" is too much, there.  I should say, instead, that we live in a world overrun by research, largely devoid of dialogue (in its root sense*).  As Husserl might say - if he weren't such a terrible writer - we have plenty of answers, but we don't really know what any of them mean, or why they are important.  Perhaps we can't know, but at least we can ask, and we rarely do that anymore, either.

* OK, a parenthetical isn't enough here.  Dialogue comes from Greek, dia meaning through, logos meaning all kinds of stuff, such as language, words, logic, ratio, and so on.  So dialogue is kind of talking through, but also thinking through, or logic-ing through.  We do plenty of talking in the modern world, but how often do you see two (or more) people talk through the logic of a question, try to analyze it together and really build an answer, or at least a framework from which to understand that question?  I certainly don't see it often.

Not surprisingly, given its anachronistic concern with meaning, St. John's has been largely misunderstood by most of the academics I have met since my graduation.  Unfortunately, that misunderstanding has been for reasons I would never have guessed.  Rather than objecting to its philosophical purposes, I've heard time and again that the problem with St. John's is the Great Books, the hegemonic, conservative, rich-white-maleyness of the whole endeavor.  It matters not, it seems, what the books Johnnies read are about, or even the way in which those books are read, but rather what matters is who wrote the books in the first place.  Context, to the modern researcher's mind, is more important - or at least easier to pin down - than meaning, so St. John's is attacked on the basis of context.

It would be foolish to discount the criticisms of the Great Books, however, simply because they misunderstand the purposes of the college.  No, it is my belief that while St. John's itself may not be in need of any drastic reform, any program based on the principles of the college might benefit from an infusion of some of the modern research on learning, for one, and some of the great - or at least very good - works of the last hundred years.  With that in mind, I want to discuss the two distinct parts of the St. John's program, including whether they are interdependent or not, and what might be done differently.

The Great Books

It is certainly true that there is a preponderance of work from white males in the traditional Great Books curriculum, but that owes more to the vagaries of history, I would argue, than an innate bias from the founders of the program or the current faculty and administration at the college.  It is an unfortunate truth that, for much of the history of the western world, it has been only wealthy white males who have had access to the resources and means to print and distribute works widely and effectively enough that those works had a chance to survive to the modern day.  It is inevitably true and extremely frustrating that there were great thinkers who never had an opportunity to write among the oppressed women of Europe or the many foreign cultures that the Europeans subjugated, from the Islamic Northern Africans to the Arabic civilizations of the middle east (who did, incidentally, produce plenty of writing, much of which was lost to marauding crusaders) to the various islanders and tribal societies crushed under foot during the age of imperialism.

The fact of oppression, however, does not mean that we ought to ignore the works that are available to us, written by the oppressors though they may be.  Indeed, it is among what we now consider the "Great Books" that the most vocal opposition to said oppression can be found, where writers like Montaigne dare to suggest that the "savages" of the New World might be just as civilized - or moreso - than their European counterparts.  That, I know, does not excuse Europe any more than, say, American citizens who objected to Japanese internment camps during World War Two, but that's not the point.

No, the point is that history is valuable, and not just history as a retelling of the past.  The history of ideas is important, the history of science and philosophy and art and music and literature.  I, because I have read the Great Books, because I am white and male, have been accused of being a part of the hegemonic, oppressive culture that is still, in many ways, at work in the modern world.  But I would argue the opposite.  Because I have read Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Hume, and so on (and so on), I actually know that "oppressive" world from the inside out, and I can tell you that despite the context, the meaning was, more often than not, valuable.  Tracing the philosophical history of a patriarchal and oppressive West may come across as a worthless (at best) or even evil (at worst) project to the staunch multi-culturalist, but in fact it is remarkable and too easily overlooked how deeply, and often subtly, influenced by the authors and thinkers that comprise the Great Books curriculum our modern world is.*

* I don't have anything to add, here.  This is just a ploy to get you to re-read that sentence, especially the final clause.

The real distinction here, then, is the same as I mentioned above.  As a reader of the Great Books, I may have all kinds of hidden (or not so hidden, but potentially "dead white male" inspired) biases - like my insistence that meaning matters - but as a St. John's student I was never asked to read books from the perspective of a dead white male, or a European conquistador, or, for that matter, from any subaltern perspective either.  No, I was asked to read the works sans context, sometimes to the point of absurdity (ignoring, for example, collecting knowledge or interpretation of American colonial history while reading the Federalist Papers).  We were never asked to think about how Aristotle wrote, about what the condition of his Athens was, about who was oppressed and who wasn't, about his place in history.  While some of these things inevitably would come up, from time to time (and depending on the author), they were never the focus.  No, instead we were asked to think about what Aristotle was saying, why he was saying it, and why it mattered (or didn't).

Now there is a legitimate argument to be made that what St. John's tries to do is flawed, that meaning cannot be separated from context.  But I guess my argument is that context cannot be separated from meaning either, and that in a world where we are much better trained to think about context, thinking about meaning is more valuable precisely because it is rare.  To talk about context alone is to talk about nothing, and while I am amenable to discussing the flaws in the Great Books curriculum as a list of books worth reading, the perspective that something is wrong with the inherent process behind the way those books are read and discussed is, to me, a deeply flawed argument.

Unfortunately, the arguments I have heard against the Great Books do exactly that: they throw the whole thing out simply because it challenges the context-centric thinking that dominates modern academia, refusing to acknowledge that there might be something to be gained in such an education, at least for some students.  Without a hint of irony, the modern academic does to the Great Books curriculum exactly what they accuse the European authors of the Great Books of doing to other cultures throughout history.  I know, not a fair comparison, but worth pointing out because it underlines the main point: the kind of thinking that the St. John's curriculum is after is the kind of thinking that sees and understands how and why we think about questions and problems in the ways that we do.

The question is, where does that thinking really come from?  The Great Books themselves - the vast reading list - is only a part of the story.  Perhaps more important is the approach, which is much more than just the focus on meaning over context discussed above.  No, in spite of what is perceived as an anachronistic, conservative, and just generally stuffy curriculum, there's a pedagogy at St. John's so radical that it inspires the most progressive of educators.

A Dialogic Pedagogy

In the St. John's classroom there is no Professor.  Each class is led by a Tutor, a faculty member who is responsible for guiding and facilitating a conversation, but not for having mastery over the material or the ability to answer difficult questions about the reading in question.  Students and Tutors, in fact, use the same naming conventions, calling each other by "Mr." or "Ms." even when the Tutor holds a Doctorate.  Whereas the modern academic environment in the broader world, then, is extremely hierarchical, St. John's is not.

In addition to the somewhat superficial - but very telling - nomenclature of the college, there are other pedagogical policies that truly make St. John's radical.  For example:

- Instead of hiring experts in various fields and assigning them to Professorships in those fields, every St. John's Tutor is made to teach classes in every subject.  A Tutor with a PhD in Political Science will, in time, lead courses in Ancient Greek, Music, Science, and Math.  The result is that Tutors are often learning as much (or more) than the students in their classes, operating functionally as another member of the class - "model learners" - instead of teachers.

- All classes are discussion based.  There are no - or at least only very rarely - lectures at St. John's.  There is also, however, no hand raising.  The Tutor does not call on students, either.  "Discussion based" classes at St. John's are different from discussion based classes everywhere else I have been in this regard, because they depend upon the focus and listening of the members of the class, the experience that makes it possible to hold a dialogue with over a dozen people without some artificially imposed system to stop everyone from talking all at once.  While this may seem crazy in our modern world (on a political television show it's a miracle if three people can have a conversation without constantly interrupting each other), after the Freshman year actual interruption is fairly rare.  As much as Johnnies are learning to think about meaning, they are also learning to listen.

- There are no tests, no worksheets, few papers, and only superficial grades at St. John's.  Assessment remains the job of the Tutor, but only as a way of helping the student to learn to assess his or her own learning.  Tests would serve no purpose in a college where the effort to understand the material is more important than the material itself.  Moreover, tests notoriously do a better job assessing student ability in taking tests more than content knowledge anyway.  Instead, St. John's assesses based upon classroom participation and by means of the occasional writing assignments, which emphasize good ideas over good writing.  In the end, grades are awarded, but only because graduate schools demand that they be.  Philosophically, St. John's would not award grades if it did not have to.

- The classroom is only the beginning of the conversation.  While there is no requirement that Johnnies carry their philosophical musings outside the classroom, in inevitably happens.  In a small academic community where every single student shares the same reading list, the same pedagogical style in their classes, and many of the same questions about what the books they are reading mean, it is only natural that the conversations permeate throughout the life of the student.  Oh, college students are still college students, but there's something to be said for the drunk 21 year old who's arguing about Kant at a party.  Even conversations about things that are not on the reading list take on characteristics of the classroom conversation, and ideas are put through the same intellectual ringers.  In short, St. John's is a community of learning, a place where thinking, reading, and conversation happen constantly.  I have heard it compared to a military academy in terms of the level of discipline and the amount of single-minded focus on the curriculum that the students generally have.  The difference is, at St. John's that happens without students being required to have that discipline and focus.

The pedagogy of St. John's is unlike the pedagogy of any other school, university, or academic program I have encountered.*  Obviously there are a great many preconditions to creating such a culture: it has to be institution wide, it helps that students are old enough to take responsibility for their own learning, etc.  Nevertheless, the unique approach of the college towards how learning ought to happen contains lessons that are more widely applicable.  Particularly, it turns out, in multi-cultural, progressive classrooms.  Indeed, I was stunned to read Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, only to discover that, ironically enough, the pedagogy he describes as being ideal is almost exactly what St. John's does.

* The closest thing, strangely enough, is the at Stanford, which holds many of the same philosophies about academic hierarchy, group participation, and learning assessment, despite the very different end-goal of producing things.

Curriculum and Pedagogy in the 21st Century

As much as I love the St. John's curriculum and its attendant pedagogy, I feel as though there is room for improvement.  Two areas, in particular, afford a great deal of potential for the college's approach to education, namely 1) a re-imaging of the curriculum with an eye towards incorporating more works from the last eighty or so years, and 2) incorporating appropriate technologies, where appropriate, to enhance what is already going on in the classroom.

A Multi-Cultural Great Books Curriculum

The first of these two possibilities is almost too obvious.  Of course St. John's should incorporate more works from the last eighty years!  How could they not?  Because the still in-use Great Books curriculum was founded and shaped around the 1930s, it has changed little since that time.  At its inception, then, it was modern, including works that were then contemporary and influential.  The core of the program has always been historical, but the finishing touches, I believe, were never meant to stagnate in the way they have.  The Great Books, in any time, ought to span from the earliest available writings to the most recently available, as long as those works are, by some measure, great.  That's a sticky distinction, of course, and difficult decisions have to be made at every turn (for example, focusing on the West in the core program of St. John's means that the great works of China, India, and Japan are largely ignored, though the college also offers an Eastern Classics Master's program).

Any re-imaging of the St. John's curriculum, then, would require sacrifices and compromises, which is unlikely to occur as long as faculty and staff each have their own and separate favorites.  When arguments for staying the same and for changing are equally valid, we tend to resist change, and so St. John's is slow to adapt to the modern world because there is - as seen above - a compelling case for the status quo.  Nevertheless, I do believe there are things which could be cut which would not ruin the curriculum or rob it of its heart, and which would allow for the inclusion of more modern works.  I won't bore you with details, especially because any one personal opinion need not be decisive in reforming or recreating the St. John's curriculum.

Instead, I see a new Great Books curriculum as a backwards design challenge.  If the ultimate core goal of St. John's is to produce critical thinkers, and the secondary goals are to acquaint students with the history of Western thought, to encourage students to learn to dialogue, and to ensure participation in a community of learning, then there are many legitimate curricular choices that might lead to those end goals.  Indeed, my argument boils down to this: I believe St. John's could actually do a better job acquainting students with the history of Western thought.

The danger of making the Great Books curriculum more multi-cultural is, of course, tokenism.  When you add, for example, a book by Toni Morrison, are you adding it because it's great, or because it was written by a black woman?  Even if the answer is the former, the problem remains in the perception of people looking at the program.  So it is even now, as when I tell people we do, in fact, read W.E.B DuBois and Virginia Woolf  (among a few other non-white men) at St. John's I'm told that we're just engaging in tokenism, and not really taking seriously the subaltern viewpoint.

What's more, in the multi-cultural world there are a preponderance of cultures and sub-cultures, so much so that the very notion of greatness has lost its perceived legitimacy, or at least its practicality.  It is simply impossible to read the seminal works of every single sub-culture of American society (much less world society), because there are just way too many sub-cultures with way too many seminal works.  To me, however, this is a challenge that a modern Great Books curriculum ought to rise to, rather than ignore.  If it is impossible to read the great Japanese-American, Korean-American, Chinese-American, Phillipino, Hawaiian, American Indian, African-American, Afro-European, Polish-American, Czech-American, Arab-American and so on and so on (and so on) great works, at least we can raise the question by picking those particularly influential academic works like the famous Can the Subaltern Speak? or by choosing (and even rotating?) important literary works like The Woman Warrior or Their Eyes Were Watching God (or so many others) from among the many wonderful options.

The explosion of excellent, provocative, and maybe even great writing in the modern world is not something that the Great Books should ignore.  There's an opportunity to shape an even better curriculum, here, if only the few people who are shaping such curricula would rise to the challenge.

Dialogic Pedagogy in the Digital Age

Perhaps even a bigger opportunity than reshaping the Great Books curriculum, however, is the chance to use technology to further the goals of the dialogic pedagogy of St. John's.  I do not believe that technology can significantly improve the classroom experience and discussion at the college - though certainly there are times when a quick Wikipedia check for factual information would be beneficial - but that does not mean that there's no place for it in the Great Books education.  Even when I was a student, the Internet had already become a source not just of news, but of contextual or biographical information.

"Now wait," you're saying.  "Didn't you say that you're not supposed to talk about context at St. John's?"  I did say that, but only because I was contrasting a focus on context with a focus on meaning.  Inevitably questions about context do arise, not as a central talking point, but as aids to understanding meaning.  Sometimes it is useful to know context not because it can explain, and not because we want to hide behind contextual connections between texts as a way to ignore talking about more difficult and more profound matters.  Rather, the value of context is in coloring meaning, in resolving a dispute about who came first, or who studied with whom.  The easy availability of something as simple as a timeline can radically transform a conversation not because era and meaning are innately interconnected, but simply because era does sometimes explain away things like simple lexicographical differences.

Beyond merely making more information available, however, I think there's another dimension to what St. John's could do with the Internet.  As social media have become increasingly prominent on the web - with Facebook (a social site) occasionally outranking Google (an information site) - it has become clear that we, as a society, need to understand how human interaction translates to the web.  Unfortunately, it seems to translate fairly directly; that is, where most person-to-person interactions are rife with people refusing to listen to each other, willfully misunderstanding, and generally being pigheaded and closed-minded, the same is doubly true on the Internet thanks to the added veil of anonymity and the security that affords.  It's all too easy to come to an Internet forum (whether a literal forum or a networking site like Facebook or Twitter) with an agenda and an opinion that never gets revised.  True, the availability of information means that opinions based upon faulty factual information can be easily proven wrong, but even then the pigheaded will not change their minds.

Now, obviously not all denizens of the net are guilty of closed-mindedness.  Like in the real, material world, there's a range, and some people use the Internet precisely because it's a way to expand one's exposure to ideas and cultures and ways of thinking.  I just think that's relatively rare, because it's much easier to use the Internet for pleasure of various kinds, whether carnal, social, or intellectual.  Technology easily fools us into thinking that everything should be easy and fun.  But good thinking is still hard, even with technology to help (though perhaps it is more fun), and doing things that are hard requires a certain discipline of mind.

So where does St. John's - or some other dialogic Great Books-y curriculum - fit in this picture?  Well, I believe that it can shape - perhaps only for its students, but perhaps more broadly - a more dialogic mode of digital interaction.  Perhaps true dialogue is impossible on the web (perhaps it's impossible, period), but a place as committed to dialogue as St. John's ought to at least explore the possibility that some of the ways of communicating that it holds dear might be transferable to an online space.

What does that look like?  That's a difficult question, the answer to which would require a careful effort to understand what good dialogue really is, and how it might be recreated in a web space.  Maybe, in the end, that looks like Twitter or a Facebook wall?  Maybe - and this is what I would guess, but can't know - it looks unlike anything currently available on the web.  The thing is, in order to get there someone needs to make the effort to design and create a real web (or other technology) based tool for real dialogue.

If such a thing existed, in whatever form it might take, the role in a modernized St. John's is at least partially obvious.  The classroom could be supplemented, yes, but the more valuable use would be in reaching beyond the 800 or so enrolled students at the college.  If the world desperately needs to learn to dialogue, why not make it possible to learn - at least in part - with technology


Not surprisingly, my suggestions and analysis here are based upon processes and not outcomes.  If I were tos summarize this essay, I'd say that the St. John's (or any other program with similar goals) could stand to reevaluate not what they do, but the way they do it.  How might St. John's better fit itself into the modern world, keeping its fundamental strengths intact?  How might St. John's reshape its curriculum to encompass Western thought not just from 1000 BC to 1935, but to 2011?  How might St. John's use technology to support its dialogic goals, both in the classroom and beyond?  Given that St. John's does do a good job - in my opinion - preparing it's students for life, how might St. John's do an even better job preparing its students for the modern, networked, distributed, changing, technological world?  In the end, the answer might be "stay the same," but it's a question worth asking, nonetheless.


  1. Hey Paul, great post, as always. I was especially interested in your treatment of the pros and cons of expanding the Great Books curriculum to include works from different (to use a word...) contexts, especially as it often begs the question of whether or not you're just engaging in some sort of tokenism. You talk about the opening for inclusion of more subaltern works, but you fold those into the modern great works also lacking in the current Great Books reading list. What about just great works from the great non-European civilizations? And while I'd hazard a guess that you didn't mean it quite like this, you do seem especially dismissive of the great works produced in the Middle East.*

    *(In fairness, I WOULD point out the Middle East, because my studies/life has been geared toward many things Middle Eastern....)

    I probably wouldn't call you out for it if you had just not picked out which regions/fields you specify as ones you thought were underrepresented. BUT you did mention Arab/Islamic works in this post once, and the one time was a bit of a throwaway. Of the societies in North Africa and the Middle East you say they "did, incidentally, produce plenty of writing, much of which was lost to marauding crusaders" without acknowledging that much of it was most definitely not lost. (Though even if most of it were lost, does that make what survived any less great?)

    I think you know that it is in fact from Arab philosophers that Europeans got their first translations of Aristotle, and many of the other most renowned Greek thinkers, during the Renaissance. Europe had lost most of its own connections to those first Great Books during the Dark Ages. More importantly still, vast tracts of dynamic and new thinking were coming from the likes of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina (to name only the most famous Arab thinkers), much of which survived the Crusades. Why not include those in a Great Works program also?

    Finally, there is the issue of tokenism. I think what you implied is that importance and the utility of whatever the tokenized works are outweighs the appearance of seeming to be engaging in some kind of intellectual affirmative action. Because the purpose is the learning after all. Is being called tokenist (if that is actually a word?) any worse than being called a hegemonic intellectual cultural imperialist (or whatever)? I think not.

    As you said, an unfair number of the great works we have today come predominantly from white men, and that historical iniquity should not detract from the power of their ideas. In that sense their context need not be considered. But in acknowledging that subaltern--be they modern or ancient--writers, as well as thinkers from the so-called civilizations that did not dominate the past three hundred years of world history, their seems to be an implication that context is in some ways irreplaceable. Coupled with the weight of their intellectual contributions on their own, there seems to be an argument indeed that the Great Books curriculum deserves some Middle Eastern authors (not to mention all the other Asian, African, and South American ones too). Who cares if their tokenist also, if you get the ideas they introduced?

  2. Excellent points, D.C.

    I certainly didn't mean to be dismissive of Middle Eastern works. Indeed, the most glaring holes in the St. John's program - if you include the "Eastern Classics" as a part of the program - are in the Middle East. Johnnies do read Maimomides (a Middle-Eastern, Jewish interpreter of Aristotle), but don't read the Koran, Hafiz, Rumi, the thinkers you mention, or any of the other many great writers and thinkers from the Islamic, Sufi, and other middle eastern traditions. This is an important shortcoming of the Great Books program in particular, but, I would even argue, mutli-cultural education in general as well. As you well know - probably better than me - even the most devotedly multi-cultural academic programs tend to under-represent Middle Eastern studies. There's a larger cultural thing going on in America that, I think, is probably to blame, but that only goes to show how important it is that we pay better attention to the works of the fertile crescent.

    As for tokenism, I ultimately come down close to where you are. Sometimes it's impossible to get conservative elements at any institution - like St. John's - to infuse works from other cultures on their own merits, meaning you almost have to engage in a little bit of tokenism to make any progress at all.

    Then again, there's also the challenge of crafting a coherent curriculum. That can be done by picking works from a variety of cultures, but in doing so you might also need to change the core goal of the curriculum (something St. John's will not do). For my part, were I to create a St. John's-like program, I would strive to do something more multi-cultural (with an appropriate curricular focus, of course), but I can also understand why my alma mater does not. Every work from outside of the traditional Western tradition - for better or worse - potentially undermines the goal of acquainting students with the history of western thought. Is that goal a worthy one? Maybe, maybe not, but as long as that is the goal, they're unlikely to change the curriculum radically.

    As an educator, then, the onus is on me (and people like me) to take to heart the lessons of the St. John's curriculum and to apply them in ways that are, perhaps, a bit more appropriate to the modern multi-cultural, globalized world.

    Thanks for the reading, and for the well-written and well-thought-out comment!

  3. I read all 60 volumes of the 2nd edition and the 4 extra books contained in the 1954 edition. It took me 8 years, particularly because the math texts are extremely time-consuming. Along the way, I also read hundreds of other texts by the same or similar authors. Those 8 years significantly transformed my life. I also completed the Eastern Classics Master's Degree at the St. John's Santa Fe Campus. You may enjoy my blog: