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