Patrick Deneen makes a fine point. In a recent First Things essay, he argues that “great books” programs can be the source of their own demise, and for that matter, the demise of civilization. This article caught my attention for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that The College at Southeastern requires all baccalaureate students to take four seminars in “History of Ideas,” a program which focuses on the so-called “great books.”
Deneen begins the article by noting that the uppity-ups in higher education these days tend to focus on “critical thinking” as a goal upon which educators can agree even if they cannot come to any consensus regarding the content of their curricula. As Deneen sees it, proponents of “Great Books education” wish to teach the great books to their students as a way of teaching their students not only a way of thinking (i.e. critical thinking) but also a specific and substantive set of conclusions. They believe that a great books-based education prepares students for citizenship because these books are “the sources from which we have derived such concepts as human dignity, equality, individual liberty, constitutionalism, democracy, and so on.” In a nutshell, these proponents believe that these books have shaped not only certain individuals but indeed Western civilization as a whole.
Deneen doesn’t deny that the books have shaped Western Civilization, nor does he urge the academy to stop exposing students to the books. However, he does warn that the so-called “Great Books” contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. Many of these books actually argue against the type of learning goals conservative colleges would want to assume. “In recent years,” Deneen writes, “I have come to suspect that the very source of the decline of the study of the great books comes not in spite of the lessons of great books, but is to be found in the very arguments within a number of the great books” (p. 33).
In building his argument, Deneen begins by noting that many of the great authors (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Dante, Aquinas) seek to conform humanity to the natural or created order. For these authors, the overarching goal for education is virtue. Virtue is modeled and nurtured by way of learning from the ancients. However, other authors (Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes) sought to conform the natural or created order to humanity’s power. Francis Bacon, for example, who is known as the father of the scientific method, “sought to justify a new kind of science that had as its aim the expansion of human control over nature.” Bacon castigated the older authors and their virtue-based approach, and argued for a new approach to knowledge. Deneen then offers Descartes, Hobbes, and Dewey as further examples of authors whose approach to education involves discarding the virtue-based wisdom of the ancient and medieval thinkers.
Dewey in particular is an exemplar of this approach. As Deneen recounts, Dewey “argued that learning should be accomplished ‘experientially’ rather than through an encounter with books . . . Laboratory was to replace library, experiment would substitute for knowledge gleaned from the past” (p. 36). Deneen evaluates this shift: “In Dewey, as in Bacon, a close connection is forged between the modern project of mastery of nature and the rejection of an education focused upon the teachings of the great books” (p. 36). This shift is prominent in the American academy and can be seen in its focus on the STEM disciplines (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Mathematics).
Deneen shows how prominent private (e.g. Princeton, Harvard) and public (U. Texas-Austin) universities illustrate this drift. These universities each have open books emblazoned on their university seals, and yet their recent mission statements undermine book-based and virtue-based education by promoting scientific research as the preeminent goal of the university. Rather than encouraging and modeling virtue, these schools now hold intellectual discovery and diversity as the ideals of education.
Deneen further argues that these two divergent views of education arise from (and foster) equally divergent notions of humanity and human liberty:
Thus, two distinct and contradictory conceptions of liberty have been advanced in a long succession of great books. The first of these commends the study of great books for an education in virtue in light of a recognition of human membership in a created order to which we must conform and that we do not ultimately govern. The other argues against the study of great books and asserts a form of human greatness that seeks the human mastery over nature, particularly by the emphasis of modern science (p. 37).
Deneen concludes with some advice: “Perhaps we even need to reconsider the very language of greatness, and consider commending instead humble books, or at least great books that teach humility, in contrast to those great books that advance a version of Promethean greatness, an aspiration that has undermined the study of books” (p. 38). So read Bacon, Hobbes, and Descartes but know that they are not arguing the same thing as Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine. One group (Aristotle’s) encourages learning to understand the past for wise living in the world, while the other (Bacon’s) encourages learning to gain “new knowledge” for human mastery over nature.
Deneen is “spot on” to note that the Great Books contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. For this reason, they are best taught in a confessional environment in which the faculty members and students draw upon the Christian tradition as they seek to understand and critique the ideas in those books. In this type of environment, the student is able to discern (1) God’s creational design for human life and thought; (2) the idolatrous misdirection of God’s design which is evident in many of those great books; and (3) the ways in which the Christian community can redirect human life and thought away from idols and toward the living God.
The point, therefore, is not that we should not read or teach the Great Books but, rather, that we should not teach the Great Books as an end in and of themselves. Only Christ can be such an end, and so we read the Great Books as those who are under submission to the Lord’s commanding authority and within the framework of his revealed written word.
 Patrick J. Deneen, “Against Great Books,” in First Things (Jan. 2013): 33–38.