Friday, January 23, 2009

"The Great Conversation Revisited"- Critique pt 2

Section Three- Why a Second Edition of Great Books of the Western World and How Does it Differ from the First?

For those bracing for a dry discussion about selection methodology, Adler does not disappoint completely. The 20th century receives some kind of Easter morning reprieve as Adler opens the section by invoking Hutchins’ ecumenical observation that, “the Editors don’t think that the Great Conversation came to an end before the 20th century” [32]. The reasoning, he explains, in 1950 when the first edition was assembled, was that the editors lacked the distance to meaningfully separate the good from the great, if only in terms of eventual influence. By the late 1980s, when the second edition was being created, the new editorial team felt enough of a consensus had been reached regarding writings of the early 20th century to extend the series’ contents up through the end of the 1950s.

After four pages of faintly praising the updated material (including a more genuine enthusiasm for improved translations of material from the first edition), Adler cannot resist one last psychobilly freak-out worthy of reproduction.

"What Jose Ortega y Gasset called ‘the barbarism of specialization’…had its first impact on our culture in the years just before WWII. The books published in the first three decades of this century were, for the most part, written by authors who were born and educated in the 19th century and who had not succumbed to the rampant plague of specialization. Only books written after WWII are likely to have been written by authors who were born and educated in the 20th century, and who, because of the academic posts they occupied, were also more susceptible to the spreading infection.

That is another reason why we set the middle years of the 20th century as the cutoff date for the selection of authors and titles to be included in this set. Unless the barbarism of specialization is somehow transcended, it is unlikely that, in philosophy, the natural and social sciences, and history, truly great books will have been written in the closing decades of this century or will be written in the century to follow." [35]

Section Four- Questions and Replies

Adler opens the final section with a short history of the Great Books movement, beginning at Columbia University in the early 1920s and spreading to other reputable institutions like the University of Chicago where both he and Hutchins taught. By the late 1940s, the Great Books movement began its push out of academia and into the community with the establishment of the Great Book Foundation. Given the anti-anti-establishment bent of the Great Books movement, every success was met by vocal critics with concerns about the efficacy of the liberal arts education model as well as charges of elitism and exclusionary tendencies in the reading list itself. Adler separates the series’ critics into two camps, conveniently tied to the two differing editions of the Great Books collection and separated, thus by the four decades between editions.

The first wave, Adler suggests, are critical, in fact, only of misunderstandings about the Great Books series. It is notable that Adler provides his rebuttal to these critics in the form of a speech he delivered in 1948, a full year before the Great Books of the Western World and the accompanying editorial material were published. One might rightly assume that much of what Adler was responding to were criticisms of the curriculae adopted by various schools that reflected the movement’s core values. Before clarifying what is not true to about the Great Books movement, Adler does succinctly outline that core belief, saying that “our claim, then, for the great books program, conceived as a lifetime undertaking, is that it is…certainly the best way for the individual to acquire understanding and wisdom” [37].

With that done, Adler boils the critical reaction (in 1950) against the Great Books program down to five essential misunderstandings that, he asserts, do not represent the critical or ideological position of its advocates.

1. The Great Books are the only books worth reading.

2. Reading and discussion of the Great Books are all that is required in order to give an adult a complete and well-rounded education.

3. Reading the Great Books, absent of other formative influences, will make better human beings and, therefore, better citizens.

4. No knowledge of current events and ideas are necessary in order to function in modern society.

5. Only ideas from antiquity are worthy of careful consideration.

I find this conciliatory tone surprising considering the vehemence with which both Alder and Hutchins attack the modern education system, composed of the same critics they address and with whom they now share only semantic misunderstandings and no differences. Surely those same critics could respond by saying that their criticisms of the “barbarisms of specialization” are founded on misapprehensions of what specialization stands for? Aren’t all arguments over abstractions to some extent, arguments over semantics and definitions?

If Adler is duplicitous in responding to his first wave of critics, he’s completely dismissive of the second, describing the “intense controversy” that accompanied the publication of the second edition in 1988 as “irrelevant” and waged by critics who “appeared to be uninformed about the discussion that had occurred in the first part of the century.” Nonetheless, he includes the heart of the critical response in passing noting that, “objections were raised to the whole idea of a canonical list of books. The narrow parochial interest in Western European culture, excluding the literature of the Far East, was challenged, as well as sexist and racist prejudices that appeared to ignore or dismiss the writings of authors other than white males—European and American” [36].

While the bulk of these concerns go unanswered, Adler does address the lack of material from the Far East, suggesting that the task of delineating and presenting the landmark contributions of that tradition should fall to those better educated in its intricacies. He goes on to say, though, that “with one or two exceptions the great books in these Far Eastern traditions do not enter into the great conversation that occurred in the literature of the West”[37]. It is tempting to extend the logic of that statement into assuming that Adler meant to suggest that the Far Eastern written tradition was silent on the Great Ideas that make up his Syntopicon but, whether that extension represents Adler’s own beliefs falls into the realm of conjecture and not criticism. He may have intended only that the writers of the Mediterranean/European/American tradition wrote in ignorance of what was happening in the literary traditions of China, India, and the Middle East at the same time. But, considered in context with this quote from Hutchins’ essay that Adler included in an earlier section, that willingness to overlook the Eastern tradition begins to look more like willful ignorance than pragmatic deference to Eastern scholars.

"The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is like that of the West in this respect. No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. No dialogue in any other civilizations can compare with that of the West in the number of great works of the mind that have contributed to this dialogue. The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race…" [Hutchins, 48-9]

Conclusions about “The Great Conversation Revisited”

There is a marked difference in tone between Robert Hutchins’ “The Great Conversation” and this essay from Mortimer Adler and I was continually led to extra-textual speculation to pinpoint the reasons for this disparity other than just differences of style. Hutchins was writing in a time when the full effect of the changes in education had yet to be fully realized and the generational impact fully measured. Much of what he rails against, he opposes in theory, essentially prophesying about the eventual failures of specialization. His defense is more focused on the liberal arts method than on this specific set of works. Adler, in contrast, is writing in an environment where the effects of specialization were well known and, in most cases, embraced with the zeal of democracy or religion, regardless of the mounting evidence that it was, historically, in many ways deficient. His advocacy for the material presented cannot be faulted for its lack of sincerity or academic rigor but his critical defense is too often dismissive and comes to rest on a slippery either/or slope when contrasted with the modern education system.

I've given Dr. Adler quite a rhetorical work-out here because, ultimately, I recognize the wisdom of what he is telling us even as I question the articulation of his vision. That is the heart of the Great Conversation as each new generation reconsiders the wisdom of its ancestors through the prism of new information and new understanding. Whether or not he found my viewpoint hopelessly tainted by the evils of post-post-modernity, I'd like to believe that Dr. Adler would appreciate that some 90 years after the Great Books movement began, it continues to reach out, inspire and educate.

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