To the Editor:
Brian Rosenberg’s “review” of a Louis Menand’s review in The New Yorker is more than disappointing (“This Is the Way the Humanities End,” January 7). The former professor of English and liberal-arts-college president misses the point of Menand’s criticism of new recent anachronistic books commemorating “Great Books” courses. In attempting to critique a critique, he is ignorant of Menand’s own blind spots. Especially problematic, Rosenberg’s defense of “great books” is out of date, lacking in knowledge of research on reading and literacy, and unadmittedly ideological.
Menand is entirely correct to criticize the two new Princeton University Press books by Roosevelt Montás and Arnold Weinstein that anachronistically, ideologically, and illogically tout the supposed transformative qualities that they claim to follow directly from a classroom encounter with “great books.” Rosenberg’s attempt to rebut Menand is circuitous and evades the fundamentals. He is at once evasive and distraction, hardly an effective strategy or mode of argumentation. But Menand fails to get to the heart of the important matter.
First, Menand does not comment on a scholarly press’ promotion to a non-academic market in its quest for sales. These are coffee-table books for the 2020s. Second, he errs in dating the “great books movement” in association with the “emerging modern university.” This is too late a dating. Menand combines a false assumption about the “modern university” (contradicted shortly thereafter with a reference to science) with a judgment based on a handful of books’ publication dates. The “great books,” without that moniker, were central to the earlier liberal-art colleges.
Third, while trying to clarify the two books’ authors’ muddled appropriation of “liberal values” to their ideologically based promotion of “great books” courses, Menand in turn confuses “liberal arts,” “liberal culture,” and “liberal.” They are not the same, and “great books” courses are very often much more conservative than liberal. Neither Rosenberg nor Menand grasps this fundamental point.
Menand actually joins Montás, Weinstein, and now Rosenberg in either missing or obfuscating that point and in opposing “liberal culture” to science. It is 2021, after all, not 1959 (C.P. Snow’s already out-of-date The Two Cultures). Perhaps this is because Menand himself taught and led programs in Great Books at Columbia and Harvard, hardly a coincidence.
Finally, and most significantly, all three err in presuming that the individual act of reading a book, in a class or outside, is by itself “transformative.” That is a fallacy, the “literacy myth” and the “reading myth,” long disproved by scholars across disciplines. My book The Literacy Myth, which coined the phrase, was first published in 1979.
Harvey J. Graff
Professor Emeritus of English and History
Ohio State University