Book Review – The Great Conversation

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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

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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.

What Should We Value?

How many things are superfluous we fail to realize until they begin to be wanting; we merely used them not because we needed them but because we had them. And how much do we acquire simply because our neighbours have acquired such things, or because most men possess them!

Seneca

I think we fail to realize how many of our possessions are really pretty extraneous. Our parents and grandparents enjoyed their youth and middle years without many of the conveniences we enjoy today—cellphones, the internet, on demand streaming services, endless varieties of food, Amazon, Google, and now everything is available for delivery straight to your home—the list goes on for quite some time. The point is if we were born in a different era all of these things obviously wouldn’t have mattered. None of them were necessary for our parents to enjoy life and find their place in the world. So, why do you allow them to matter to you?

Have you ever noticed how at one moment we can be enjoying our latest purchase and telling our friends all about some new feature and two minutes later we can suddenly be overwhelmed when we discover something doesn’t go as we planned. Maybe our credit card won’t scan correctly at the checkout line or perhaps we find a ding in our new car’s door. The truth is that many of the things we let exasperate us don’t really matter on their own when we separate what happened from how it impacted our plans.

We’ve given these objects the power to upset us because we lost track of what’s really valuable. We stopped looking for value in ourselves and now we’re left with an unsatisfiable desire for something “more” that can’t be fulfilled by the material world. So, we ignore our feelings and go on buying “more stuff” and being disappointed when everything doesn’t turn out the way we wanted.

The truth is that there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying the conveniences and luxuries of the modern world. I mean we all understand that an object can’t be good or bad. An object is just an object after all. It’s a collection of molecules arranged by nature and tempered by men to serve a purpose—nothing more. So we have to look at how we value and use those objects that determines if our decisions add value or inhibit our personal growth and development.

Is our sense of purpose and fulfillment really something we can measure and buy? Why do you work all day—every week—for decades? Is it to afford the latest fashions and gadgets or are you searching for your place in this world? We all have bills to pay, but are we working just to pay those bills or do we use our careers and salaries to help us fulfill a deeper human purpose? I think that’s the unspoken struggle we face. Objects and possessions are tools. How are you using yours? Are you using your resources to improve your mind or to distract it?