Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is There a Book in this Class?

After the culture wars, the deconstruction, and the arguments about texts and authors, the Great Books are still there and still defensible.  

W.A.Pannapacker, in his article "Confessions of a Middlebrow" in The Chronicle Review (Oct 5/09), defends the middlebrow culture that gave rise to Adler and Hutchins' (University of Chicago) Great Books in 1952. The Harvard Classics (Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf of 51 books), an earlier expression of the same drive for knowledge, appeared in 1909.

According to Pannapacker, the Great  Books were popular because they "were expressions of hope for many people who had historically not had access to higher education." People wanted to better themselves, and knowledge held the key.

Pannapacker acknowledges the issues surrounding the canon and the idea of "greatness:"
By the end of the 1980s—when I was an undergraduate—it had become clear to seemingly everyone in authority that the notion of "Greatness" was a tool of illegitimate power; Adler and Hutchins were racist and sexist in their choices of texts; their valorization of the "Western World" made them complicit with imperialism and worse.

Regardless, Pannapacker and others believe there is still a place for the Great Books. They speak to an earlier time when the intellectual life was more highly valued:
What has been lost, according to Jacoby, is a culture of intellectual effort. We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed...The rejection of the Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment—as anyone who teaches college students can probably affirm.

We need a resurgence of the intellectual life; we need to wrest education away from those who are proudly ignorant and feel no shame about it. As Pannapacker notes: "The Great Books had a narrower conception of "greatness" than we might like today, but their foundational ideals were radically egalitarian and proudly intellectual."

We could do worse than to teach "Arnold's vision of culture as 'the best that has been thought and known in the world'."

W.A. Pannapacker is associate professor of English at Hope College; he is the author of Revised Lives: Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Authorship.

I would like to invite W.A. Pannapacker to my soiree.


Owen Gray said...

I hope he accepts your ivitation. As I reached the end of my teaching career, I increasingly felt like a relic.

Growing up in Quebec in the 60's, I learned that there was a place for politically popular literature. But ignoring Sophocles and Dickens and a host of other "old foggies" is merely singing a hymn to ignorance.

ChrisJ said...

Thanks for your comment. I will be a relic for a few more years and am not looking forward to it!