Those of us aiming to impart a classical education at home to our children are familiar with the idea of "great books." Homeschool classical curricula are awash in literature and living book titles and classical homeschoolers retain an appreciation for the ancients. Although the professionals might find it uncomfortable, the classical homeschooling movement truly does bring "great books" to the common man.
There have been other attempts to do so. On Monday the Wall Street Journal carried a book review on A Great Idea at the Time, by Alex Beam, a book which briefly gives the history of a marketing attempt made mid-century to sell sets of "Great Books" to ordinary people. All in all, the attempt wasn't successful and perhaps not entirely admirable either. Still, the book reviewer, retells an anecdote that Mr. Beam relates in the book:
Given what has happened to the study of the humanities in the past two decades -- with theory and politics playing a larger role and fewer people reading the traditional canon -- it is hard not to feel a bit nostalgic for Great Books earnestness. In academe, there is only what might be regarded as a saving remnant: "Among major universities, only Columbia, where the whole idea began" -- around the time of World War I, long before the mania erupted in Chicago -- "still force-feeds a much-abbreviated version of the Great Books curriculum to its undergraduates," Mr. Beam notes. "Tiny St. John's College, created by disciples of Hutchins and Adler, still devotes all four years to teaching the Great Books, as Hutchins vainly hoped the University of Chicago would do."
Molly Rothenberg, a student at St. John's in Annapolis, Md., told Mr. Beam of comparing notes when she was a sophomore with a fellow graduate of the public high school in Cambridge, Mass. St. John's sophomores study works by such authors as Aristotle, Tacitus and Shakespeare. Her friend was attending Bates College in Maine. "She told me they were studying Rhetoric," Ms. Rothenberg said, "and they would be watching episodes of 'Desperate Housewives' and listening to Eminem. They were going to analyze it. I just laughed. What could I say?"
I mourn for our culture that so gleefully cuts its ties with great thinkers of the past. For more on this subject, see the book Climbing Parnassus (by Tracy Lee Simmons), and other posts I've written on the subject:
Higher Learning? (Oct. '07)
Mrs. Edwards Reviews The Dumbest Generation(June '08) A review of a book that examines the impact of our digital age on education.
Fighting Without Ammo (Oct. '08) Is it possible to intellectually defeat your enemies when you've given up on the idea of truth?
Give An Answer (Oct. '08) Can a Muslim faithfully lead the United States?
Election Reflections (Nov. '08) This post touches on the impact of a new President educated after this major shift in higher educational focus.