The Chronicle Review

Great Books 2.0

May 19, 2009

Joshua dropped by my office as he often did to pursue some question of literary interpretation or reference I had made in class. But this time he was grinning and holding out a thin, hardback book. "Look what I found in a used-book store. I got it for 25 cents!" It was The Great Conversation, Robert M. Hutchins's manifesto from the Great Books of the Western World. I hadn't seen a copy in decades. His blue eyes twinkled, and he asked, "Will you sign it for me?" Hardly Hutchins, I still didn't want to disappoint him, so I scrawled something on the flyleaf. But all I could think was "25 cents …"

As documented by NEA study after NEA study ("Reading at Risk," 2004; "To Read or Not to Read," 2007), reading has become devalued in American life, on sale in the clearance bin along with notions of greatness, classic works and ideas, and Western civilization itself. Back in the day, Stanford students chanted, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go." It did. The historian Victor Davis Hanson tells of giving a lecture on the West and realizing that half the audience thought he was going to talk about cowboys.

Trying to teach fine literature has become the struggle of how to save the students who want to study only pop culture from the teachers who want to teach only pop culture and the administrators who want only packed classes. But here in front of me was a living, breathing Great Books enthusiast, a curly-haired Iraq war veteran with a taste for the real deal. I had used Hutchins's "great conversation" metaphor in Joshua's "Introduction to Literature" class, had even adapted it as a course learning outcome: "Upon successful completion of the course, the student will feel prepared to enter the great conversation rather than doomed to listen uncomprehending outside the window." Joshua had come in from the cold, and Hutchins's words so inflamed him that he charged off to start a Great Books Club. Within days, community-college students began meeting Friday afternoons to discuss Aristophanes and Sappho.

And I kept running into more and more students fed up with militant multiculturalism and squash-you-all-flat postmodernism. Although pomo's demise has been widely reported, one can't ignore how sclerotic academe is. College was once described to me as "the place where old ideas go to die." In comparison with the current multicultural, social-justice, and sustainability orthodoxies, the Great Books and their perennial questions seemed positively fresh, even subversive. I found that the more students experienced complex works in the Great Books Club, the angrier they got. Many felt that they had been denied something important and valuable, and they felt insulted by low expectations. Like Joshua, they wanted the real deal. Was it fair that students at the Ivies and the private colleges got this knowledge and they didn't? Maybe, just maybe, I thought, something's happening here and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Multiculti?

That feeling was reinforced last December at the Modern Language Association convention in San Francisco, where I saw neither a ponytail nor a pair of Levis, but I did see lots of black suits and navy suits and charcoal suits. The MLA looked like a stockholders' meeting. And the stock was in free fall. English majors were listed as down again; teaching-job openings were reported off more than 20 percent. Tenured graybeards and postdoc drifters alike had that prof-in-the-headlights look, as though they heard a voice saying, "So sorry you spent all those years simmering in the multicultural crockpot, but the sociopolitical approach to literature has imploded —it's flat and tedious." As the University of Virginia's Mark Edmundson said, "I walked through the book displays and marveled at the sheer intellect represented there. And so much of it … unreadable."

Yet the supertanker of higher ed steams on, unable to turn. In his poetry class, for some reason, Cary Nelson, admiral of the American Association of University Professors, goes on teaching that sexual difference is "socially constructed." He remains adamant that a 21st-century political figure (George Bush) in some way illuminates a 19th-century fictional character (Captain Ahab) for American Lit students. But every orthodoxy, as they say, breeds its own apostasy, and I was getting the message that this might be the hour for recuperation, renaissance, resurrection, recovery, renewal, and revival of the Great Books' perennial questions. Old ideas become stale —perennial questions do not.

With Joshua's prompting, I talked with Bruce Gans, impresario of the famous Great Books program at Wilbur Wright Community College; I checked in with Celeste Barber and her program at Santa Barbara City College, and David Mulroy, who designed a Great Books program at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. I chatted with Gary Schoepfel, who is involved with Harrison Middleton's Great Books curriculum. I got advice from Stephen Balch of the National Association of Scholars and Kay White of the San Francisco Bay Area Great Books Council.

I learned that Great Books is better as a separate program than as a general-education track; state regulations make special sections of courses untenable. So why not a separate program using already approved courses? We give certificates for drama and fashion design, park service and hospitality. Why not offer students a certificate designating them Great Books Scholars if they complete a certain number of rigorous courses that use the Great Books? To keep literature alive in academe, we can't rely anymore on bibliophiles, nerds, and dewy-eyed "Woolfian-Plathian girls" (with thanks to Jonathan Lethem). A certificate, though, is "value added." What could look better than "Great Books Scholar" on a scholarship application, or a transfer application, or a résumé? What better starting point for a transfer-application essay than a quote from Conrad or Socrates?

The first question was: Did our curriculum have enough courses that could realistically be called Great Books courses? I pored over the catalog and found that although some were on life support, the answer was yes. Tom Logan has that Mediterranean-history course when he isn't off Indiana Jonesing some dig in Egypt. Dave Joplin, an expert in British Romanticism, is the dancing master of Brit Lit. Anita Johnson has a rich background in the Bible as lit. The bicoastal Allston James tends Shakespeare's shrine when not at the Folger, producing his own plays in New York, or immersing himself in the Bard at Ashland. Todd Weber's philosophy classes overflow with eager students, drawn by the good doctor's wit and rep. Alan Haffa, a St. John's Great Books curriculum graduate, has successfully migrated the "Masterpieces of Literature" survey to online delivery.

To online delivery …

To online delivery!

Of course! Make the certificate achievable online! I could even sex it up with a Web site and a Facebook group. Finally, like an actor in a B movie, I said to myself, "Dave, I know this sounds crazy, but it just might work."

Still, something was missing. As Neil Postman suggested, "Perhaps the most important contribution schools can make to the education of our youth is to give them a sense of coherence in their studies, a sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness in what they learn." There needed to be a gateway course, an explanation of "great books" and "core curriculum" and "Western civ." There needed to be a primer in "dead white European males," "canon busting," "Eurocentrism," "hegemony," and "the patriarchy," all dusty now but still caught in the throat of academe. There needed to be an apologia, a justification of reading, of quality, of education and civic virtue for students steeped in relativism, images, iTunes, and Twitter. I decided to adopt Edmundson's book, Why Read? and Robert Pinsky's Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry. I decided to serve delicious morsels from Kenneth Rexroth's Classics Revisited, and dine on speeches by Gans, Harvey Mansfield, Rosanna Warren, Carol Iannone. The class would view Brian Lamb discussing David Denby's own Great Books. And then we would embark on a how-to-read training voyage through a Great Book. I decided on Billy Budd —there's no better or more distilled example of perennial questions regarding law, justice, innocence, guilt, good, evil, purity, and forgiveness, with a super film in the bargain.

Then I started thinking bigger. The Internet puts the whole archipelago of California community colleges within reach: 110 institutions, 2,600,000 students. Why wouldn't serious students anywhere want such a program, online, and at California's cheap community-college tuition? And what about all those University of California and California State University applicants being routed into the community colleges to prep before transfer? What better preparation could they present two years hence? Why, the program could grow like a dot-com!

A guy can dream, can't he?

This summer I'll finish designing the introduction to the Great Books course, upload the files, and complete the Web site. I've already made T-shirts, bookmarks, business cards, and bumper stickers. In the fall, we open for business.

I'm going to let Joshua cut the ribbon.

David Clemens is an instructor of English at Monterey Peninsula College and coordinator of its Great Books Program.