Monday, May 6, 2013

Knowing the Great Books

But the tide has been turning. Last week, venerated, yet controversial 80 year old classical scholar Donald Kagan gave his fare-well address at Yale University, reiterating themes from the 1990s, when as Dean of Yale College, he was called a "racist" and criticized on campus as "peddler of European cultural arrogance." This time the reaction was quite different.

In his overview of the state of American universities, Kagan declared: “I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness.” He accused faculty of lacking “an informed understanding of the traditions and institutions of our Western civilization and of our country and an appreciation of their special qualities and values.” The students responded with a protracted standing ovation.

Warning of democracy’s fragility, Professor Kagan called for schools to adopt “a common core of studies” to convey the history, literature and philosophy of western culture to students.

Such “core” texts sometimes are referred to as the Great Books — the Bible (and now the Koran), Aristotle, Shakespeare, the American Constitution in the U.S., Canada’s founding debates here — summarized in Matthew Arnold’s words as “the best which has been thought and said.”

One of the most intelligent people I have ever met, a scholar, a teacher, a pastor and a university president said to me once that there are "no scholars in America. "

I wasn't totally sure what he meant, but I think this is the sort of thing we are talking about.  It has become unnecessary to be acquainted with history with the great books with comparative religion with languages...  


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