Book Review – The Great Conversation


The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education by Robert Maynard Hutchins

I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.

Thomas Jefferson, p.82

The Great Conversation is a compelling piece that challenges 20th and 21st century educational recipients to question the quality and purpose of the education they received. In 1952 the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica published 54 volumes they titled the Great Books of the Western World. The Great Conversation is the first volume in this series and presents the case that both the concept and quality of a liberal education has been lost to the world.

  • What should be the goal of education?
  • Does modern education teach students how to contribute to the conversation about our history, philosophies or ideas?

First, let me confess that when I hear the world “liberal” in America today my muscles immediately tense up. The word is most commonly used to refer to the almost insurmountable rift in the American political system between Democratic “liberals” and Republican “conservatives.” That’s okay though, because what’s really meant by “liberal” in this context is a willingness to be open to new ideas and engage in conversation with opinions that may not reflect your own. I hope most of us are “liberals” in this sense. I can’t help but think that this misnomer connection may have helped speed up the demise of formal liberal education in America.

I’ll be honest, I was an English major, but I have never really read any of the proposed “Great Books of the Western World” in full. Personally, I always felt that I was missing out on the opportunity to read what I knew were classics —Aristotle, Plato, Kant, etc.—but I only ever came accross summaries and excerpts in my formal education. What little I did read of the classics came largely from my university years and nothing from my high school memories.

My professors were telling me the the same story as Hutchins brought to light in the 1950s in the early 21st century. Academia had decided that the great books were too complicated and unnecessary for a formal education. To help put this in perspective, 90% of my undergraduate work for a B.A. in English came from 20th century literature. If something was written before 1900, we talked about those books as ideas and read excerpts rather than the full text.

Alternatively, the definition of education has also fundamentally changed in the last 150 years. At one time the goal of a formal education was to create leaders by teaching people how to think for themselves using the historical legacies of our written Western traditions for perspective. Today, the goal of education is largely to provide vocational training or perhaps just to babysit young students while providing rudimentary technical skills in reading, writing, math, etc. In the end, I think we’re left with people who have elementary technical skills, but little ability to actually problem-solve or innovate.

  • Do we really teach people how to think and draw independent conclusions or do we teach students to regurgitate information for state exams?

I don’t know the answers, but this is a fascinating read from 1952 that rings just as true in 2021. I think that suggest something is still broken in the American educational system. Personally, I’m taking Hutchins up on his challenge to own obtaining a liberal education as an adult by reading these volumes and participating in the Great Conversation of the Western World.

Cultural Disclosure: To be fair, this volume is dated and fairly ethnocentric as it focuses exclusively on the Western World. The editors responded to this criticism by stating that they are not implying that there are no Great Books from other parts of the world, but that their focus is limited to the Western tradition. They look forward to others continuing the Great Conversation by adding traditions and works from other cultures.

I gather that [we should be] interested in correcting the economic and social injustices that distort present civilization, that [we should wish] to see the vast power which modern technology has put in our hands used intelligently for the common good. All this is in line with the best philosophical and religious thought of our western tradition, when properly understood. I gather further that … we should be open to suggestions from alien sources. This also is thoroughly in line with what is best in our own tradition.

Professor John Wild of Harvard on educational proposals by Professor Howard Jones of Harvard, pp. 69-70

Great Books of the Western World

  1. The Great Conversation
  2. The Great Ideas I
  3. The Great Ideas II
  4. Homer
  5. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes
  6. Herodotus, Thucydides
  7. Plato
  8. Aristotle I
  9. Aristotle II
  10. Hippocrates, Galen
  11. Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius, Nicomachus
  12. Lucretius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius
  13. Virgil
  14. Plutarch
  15. Tacitus
  16. Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler
  17. Plotinus
  18. Augustine
  19. Thomas Aquinas I
  20. Thomas Aquinas II
  21. Dante
  22. Chaucer
  23. Machiavelli, Hobbes
  24. Rabelais
  25. Montaigne
  26. Shakespeare I
  27. Shakespeare II
  28. Gilbert, Galileo, Harvey
  29. Cervantes
  30. Francis Bacon
  31. Descartes, Spinoza
  32. Milton
  33. Pascal
  34. Newton, Huygens
  35. Locke, Berkeley, Hume
  36. Swift, Sterne
  37. Fielding
  38. Montesquieu, Rousseau
  39. Adam Smith
  40. Gibbon I
  41. Gibbon II
  42. Kant
  43. American State Papers, The Federalist, J. S. Mill
  44. Boswell
  45. Lavoisier, Fourier, Faraday
  46. Hegel
  47. Goethe
  48. Melville
  49. Darwin
  50. Marx, Engels
  51. Tolstoy
  52. Dostoevsky
  53. William James
  54. Freud

Book Review – The 5 AM Club


The 5 AM Club: Own Your Morning. Elevate Your Life by Robin Sharma

“On the day [I finished this titan’s masterpiece] more doves and butterflies took flight over the historic center of [my hometown] than ever before. There was even a double rainbow that extended all the way from [Burger King] to the [Public Library]. You would have been impressed, if you had been there to see it” (Refer to Epilogue for comparison text).

Okay, I’ll leave the narrating to Sharma, but it’s finally time to tell you what I think about Sharma’s 5 AM Club and the book he wrote to describe it.

I was clearly not a fan of the narrative style in this piece. I didn’t see the value in being told when, where, how and what to believe on every step of this journey. I’d rather have been presented with more facts and science (not “magic”) to help me improve the quality of my life. I felt like I was being indoctrinated into a cult of personality at times.

To be fair, the actual ideas, charts and formulas for success that comprise the 5 AM Club are legitimately valid approaches that could help the reader maximize the return on their investment of time for improving the quality of their life. If the storytelling were removed and we were presented quick tips or FAQs in a 15 minute read or video, we may have had a winner. I know I’d be willing to watch the TedTalk.

In the end though, there’s nothing really new here in either the philosophy of the 5 AM Club or the narrative. The storytelling led me down a path of resistance rather than intrigue. Overall, I was disappointed. I felt that a second reading of Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People would better accomplish the same goals presented here, but in a clearer more approachable way.

With enough money, doesn’t everything look and feel like magic? Was it the 5AM Club that made life a dream for the entrepreneur and artist or was it the happenstance meeting with someone who had unlimited resources that opened the door to create a rare but attainable opportunity for these two to thrive?

Maybe I’m just as jaded as the entrepreneur in the beginning of the story. Perhaps, I just need a billionaire to take me under his wing and show me how this “magic” really works. Would seeing the wonders in the world through the lens of the One Percent’s vast estates and wealth have made this journey attainable for me? I don’t know. I don’t know any billionaires to ask.

Anyhoo, as Riley would say, if you’re a billionaire and you think I have it all wrong, I’m willing to open my mind and give you a chance to mentor. Until then, I’d recommend trying something by Stephen Covey or Ryan Holiday for your next read. I think you’ll find a greater return on the investment of your time.

Book Review – A Field Guide to a Happy Life

⭐️ ⭐️⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living by Massimo Pigliucci

You don’t go around being careless about nails getting into your shoes, and you walk in such a way as not to sprain your ankle. So why are you so careless about your ruling faculty [your mind or thoughts]? Why do you let it be offended and polluted by all sorts of garbage, instead of guarding it against assaults from without, and taking care from within to sharpen it as much as possible?

Massimo Piggliucci, A Field Guide to a Happy Life, Lesson 38

I’ve read several versions of Epictetus’ classic Handbook, and this is the first time I’ve been able to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. Coincidentally, I was actually writing my own interpretation of this text to use in my personal meditations when I came across this new edition. Maybe I’m just too lazy, but I found Piggliucci’s version met all of my needs and I ended up setting aside my little project. But I digress, the point is that before I found this version, I was stumbling over archaic translations or struggling with cultural bias from millennia ago. This book was the solution to those problems.

For the first time I found myself reading not just a new translation but an exciting interpretation of the Enchiridion. For those readers familiar with virtue ethics, you aren’t going to find anything truly new here. The lessons are timeliness. The principles unchanging, however, it’s still an excellent reminder of how perception frames everything in this life.

At the end of the day, I think this one is a keeper. After a long day of work when I find myself a little overwhelmed with my day, a quick glance at a couple of pages reminds to focus on what I can control. I let go of pretty much everything weighing on my shoulders. After all, most of our pain and frustration are the result of wanting something that’s beyond our control. Once we understand that trap, we can avoid the headaches and disappointment we experience when things don’t go our way.

If you’re looking for an introduction to Stoicism or maybe just some Reason and Common Sense, here’s an excellent choice whether you’re gifting it to friends or adding it to your own collection. It’s light, fun and practical. So pick this one up at your local bookstore and tell me what you think.