dimanche 27 novembre 2016

A Brief History of the Great Books Idea by Tim Lacy 2005

North American culture has embraced, rejected and, in recent times, re-embraced the idea of reading the “great books”. Allan Bloom’s “first volley in the culture wars” with the now infamous “Closing of the American Mind” published in 1987 was far from the beginning of the debate.
We can thank English Victorian poet and culture critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) for laying down the notions that eventually lead to the establishment of  liberal arts colleges and reading groups that read “canonical” texts that disseminate “universal principles” to the “common reader” in order to promote the “common good”. If this language sounds familiar and if a little background to the debates is welcome, then I recommend a thoughtful little essay by Tim Lacy called “A Brief History of the Great Books Idea”.
Lacy’s essay takes us on a chronological journey starting with the England of Matthew Arnold and ending with the New York educator and social critic Earl Shorris (1936-2012) and his ongoing Clemente Course which has national (and now international) chapters that brings great books to the disadvantaged, exposing them to the edifying impulses “inherent” in great poetry, logic, history and moral philosophy.
As part of his overview, Lacy quickly and efficiently lays out the academic hesitations and shifts in public opinion that have led to serious but sometimes absurd and naive debates over appropriate content. Unsurprisingly, ideas of political economy authored by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are mentioned more than once: Lacy tells us that in the early 1930s, Charles Walgreen, founder of the drugstore chain threatened the University of Chicago with funding cuts if “subversive works”, which were “forced” on his niece were not removed from the curriculum. Walgreen lost out to the idea of open inquiry and Das Kapital is still taught at the university today.
Also on the lighter side is Lacy’s description of Dr Charles Eliot’s colourful career. He tells us, for instance, that Eliot (1868-1909), president of Harvard and editor of a “five-foot shelf of books” which contains the classics of Western thought,  believed that the set could offer a full liberal arts education to any adult willing to read from them for ten minutes a day. 350,000 sets were sold to households from 1909, when they were first issued, to 1930. Today, the set is available to download for free.
Finally, and on a more serious note, Lacy describes how the term “plurality of excellences” has in recent times, been substituted for the older idea of “excellence”, a shift that has necessitated a reassessment of “greatness”. Where “excellence” used to be found in largely Western, European and Victorian thought, the category has in the past 30 or 40 years expanded to include Eastern and contemporary texts. But what happens, Lacy asks, if “no central standard of excellence is imposed to construct the list (of necessary reading)”?
The debate over the very existence of “permanent, universal values and the persistence of the dream of a common culture” is of course ongoing and deep, and while Lacy’s essay only hints at the fractious nature of the dialogue, it is up to the interested reader and both friends and foe of Allan Bloom to thrash it out.


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