Friday, 22 March 2013

America and the Great Tradition

Faith in the Western Tradition
"The trials of the citizen now surpass anything that previous generations ever knew. Private and public propaganda beats upon him from morning till night all his life long. If independent judgment is the sine qua non of effective citizenship in a democracy, then it must be admitted that such judgment is harder to maintain now than it ever has been before." (Preface)

Readers may be familiar with the 54-volume set called Great Books of the Western World. Women are entirely absent from this history, which was published in 1952. The choice of texts is based primarily on the ancient Latin and Greek classics; renaissance and enlightenment philosophy and literature, and some of the key texts on politics, history and science from the nineteenth century. Despite its American roots and sponsorship, only Herman Melville, William James, the "American State Papers" and "The Federalist" are featured from the native seats of learning.

From the start the editors are quite explicit in their 'liberal' male ideology:

The aim of liberal education is human excellence, both private and public (for man is a political animal). Its object is the excellence of man as man and man as citizen. It regards man as an end, not as a means; and it regards the ends of life, and not the means to it. For this reason it is the education of free men. Other types of education or training treat men as means to some other end, or are at best concerned with the means of life, with earning a living, and not with its ends.

The authors proclaim the aspirational goal of adult education and they outline a 10-year reading programme that will address the real needs of citizens in a democratic and enlightened society. Considering that this set was published seven years after the end of the second world war, this didactic project is undoubtedly a highly optimistic enterprise.

So far as I can determine, none of the editors or academic advisor was female. Curiously and perhaps ironically, the final volume is dedicated to Sigmund Freud. This provides an opportunity to reflect on the dangers of a patriarchal society. Toward the end are short essays by Freud: "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" and "Civilisation and its Discontents."

But perhaps the seeds of destruction were there all along? In Plato's utopian-totalitarian state; in Homer's epic culture of warfare; in the chaotic and random world of Lucretius; in the tragic vision of Greek drama; in the wicked psychologies at work in Machiavelli and Hobbes; in Swift's bitter satire on enlightenment and rationality; in the raving ideology of Karl Marx.
Plato - Philosopher

The Preface takes up arms against experiential, vocational and work based learning. In this regard the demon is John Dewey's psychology of learning, quoted as follows

"An occupation is a continuous activity having a purpose. Education through occupations consequently combines within itself more of the factors conducive to learning than any other method. It calls instincts and habits into play; it is a foe to passive receptivity. It has an end in view; results are to be accomplished. Hence it appeals to thought; it demands that an idea of an end be steadily maintained, so that activity must be progressive, leading from one stage to another; observation and ingenuity are required at each stage to overcome obstacles and to discover and readjust means of execution. In short, an occupation, pursued under conditions where the realization of the activity rather than merely the external product is the aim, fulfills the requirements which were laid down earlier in connection with the discussion of aims, interest, and thinking."

Nonetheless, as the quotations that follow suggest, the issues present are just as relevant today, as they were some 60 years ago:

"If leisure and political power require this education, everybody in America now requires it, and everybody where democracy and industrialisation penetrate will ultimately require it. If the people are not capable of acquiring this education, they should be deprived of political power and probably of leisure. Their uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous. If the people are incapable of achieving the education that responsible democratic citizenship demands, then democracy is doomed, Aristotle rightly condemned the mass of mankind to natural slavery, and the sooner we set about reversing the trend toward democracy the better it will be for the world."

"We believe that the reduction of the citizen to an object of propaganda, private and public, is one of the greatest dangers to democracy. A prevalent notion is that the great mass of the people cannot understand and cannot form an independent judgment upon any matter; they cannot be educated, in the sense of developing their intellectual powers, but they can be bamboozled. The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen twenty-four hours a day all his life long mean either that democracy must fall a prey to the loudest and most persistent propagandists or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves."
A Library of Great Books to the Rescue
"Great books alone will not do the trick; for the people must have the information on which to base a judgment as well as the ability to make one. In order to understand inflation, for example, and to have an intelligent opinion as to what can be done about it, the economic facts in a given country at a given time have to be available. Great books cannot help us there. But they can help us to that grasp of history, politics, morals, and economics and to that habit of mind which are needed to form a valid judgment on the issue. Great books may even help us to know what information we should demand. If we knew what information to demand we might have a better chance of getting it."

The full text of the Preface is available here.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also worth a look: The PhD Roadmap: A Guide to Successful Submission of your Dissertation / Thesis. 

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