A Jesting Pilate: The Great Books and Today’s Students
Mark L. Thamert
Goethe put it this way in Book V of his Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre:
People are so inclined to content themselves with the most commonplace; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead . . . it is only because the senses are not used to taste of what is excellent that many people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided that they are new.
It is the well-respected actor-manager Serb who ruminates here as he teaches the maturing Wilhelm and other young recruits for the stage something about the importance of great art and literature for their lives. In this scene and in the chapters that follow, Goethe uses Serb and the other mentors of the novel to guide the younger protagonists toward a deep appreciation of aesthetic and moral excellence, and an enduring commitment to greater social awareness and responsibility.
I suppose it is the Goethe in all of us who poses the question, each time we put together a new syllabus or rework entire curricula, of how we might distinguish between works of art and literature that are commonplace and those that are of enduring value, those that are sensational and shallow, and those that reward our hardest intellectual efforts. The truth remains: our students, no less than those of Goethe’s time, must be introduced to what we ourselves have experienced to be excellent, inexhaustible, and most worthy of our attention. Our students—now more than ever—need to engage themselves with the best our culture has to offer so that their senses do not die, so that they too might be able to distinguish between books and ideas that justly earn our highest esteem and those that are second-rate, however exciting these may seem on the first encounter. Students nurture their spirit and their senses not through the predigested and derived thought and imagery which constitute the majority of best sellers and textbooks. Rather, they do this through rich personal encounters with unsettling ideas, metaphors, and complex debates that they can experience as somehow important and authoritative for their lives, both as true to life and true to their ideals: beautiful in form and content, authentic and original, morally invigorating, and coherent in structure.
Certainly these experiences of what we and our students sense to be excellent must face the critique and encouragement of the community of learners and teachers to which we belong. We need continuously to question and refine, and consciously to relearn how we might best evaluate intellectual, aesthetic, and moral excellence in what we read and think about. Students and teachers must explore this together; only then will we be able to discern more sensitively the difference between the vapid and the inspired; in Goethe’s terms, the silly and the excellent.
If Great Books give us a standard against which we can better evaluate what we read, they also guide us through our most personal and spiritual explorations. We need the provocative questions, images, and debates provided by the Great Books, for in these, as in nothing else, we are free to experience what is essential to our lives. Great Books liberate us from the constraints of what we have taken for granted, freeing us from what Robert Hutchins in The Political Animal has called the prison-house of class, race, time, place, background, family, and nation. They free us, if they are truly great, from our most cherished models and paradigms of self-understanding, from all that is ideologically narrow or rigid, and from all that is unworthy of our deepest human commitments.
If Great Books give us a wealth of information and imagery about the times for which they were written, if they present the intellectual and moral debates that a Euripides or an Augustine or a Flannery O’Connor felt were most significant and most vital to their existence, if they provide metaphors, moral urgings, narratives, judgments, symbols, and facts of profound historical fascination for us, then they also teach us something about genuine and thoughtful human existence here and now, in our times and our social surroundings. Such works disclose and explain to us important aspects of our most rooted and authentic selves, if we are prepared to listen to them in this way.
One way in which Great Books do this is through their interaction with our emotional lives. Franz Kafka once wrote in his diary that he thought we ought to read only those books which wound and stab us. I take this to mean that if we in our times attend to the moments of despair and grief in some of our very greatest books, if we allow ourselves to relive in detail Medea’s loss of Jason, the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, Lear’s unspeakable grief in his embrace of the dead Cordelia, and even the pointless murder of K. at the end of Kafka’s Trial, we suddenly come face to face with our own inner lives. We discover in these images an echo and articulation of our own most wrenching emotions and memories of loss and unresolved grief. In a similar way, these works give expression to human jubilation, love, and hope. Often they portray both bright and dark emotions we have not yet been able to name for ourselves. They give us images of tenderness, wrath, ecstasy, doubt, and bitterness we can first experience vicariously and then begin to claim as authentically our own. If our interaction with the Great Books is a strong one, they will be able to enlarge, intensify, and articulate the richest of our human emotions.
If Great Books help strengthen the emotional side of our experience, the habits of our hearts, they also can be used to strengthen the habits of our minds, the way we think and reason. In her prologue to The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt reminds us with some urgency that we must take time to “think what we are doing,” to move from hopeless and complacent thoughtlessness to a kind of thinking which will restore us in our political and spiritual lives. The Great Books offer an arena in which we can contemplate what we sense to be profoundly true about reality. In the process of contemplation we allow the great and authoritative thoughts and questions of our tradition both to strengthen and wreak havoc on our current models of self-understanding.
In Francis Bacon’s Essays or Counsels, Civill and Morall, we have the humorous image of the jesting Pilate posing the question “What is truth?” But then Pilate runs away, deciding not to wait for an answer. An authentic encounter with the truth means that we must be willing to stand still momentarily and think about the answer to that question in our lives, to examine our rigid adherence to fixed explanations of reality and to move toward a thoughtful detachment which allows us to question and transform the way in which we think. In this context, Great Books and the truths we encounter in reading and interpreting them are what can free us from the prison-houses we so easily construct for ourselves out of half-truths, thoughtless allegiances, and unexamined ideological agendas. Great Books and the interpretative conversations they evoke allow us, in the end, to commit ourselves more authentically and more worthily, they enable us to discern, to love, and to delight in what we believe to be true, beautiful, and morally life-giving.
Perhaps most importantly, Great Books can lead us to a deeper understanding of our common human destiny, what Carl Gustav Jung has called the state of participation mystique—that level of existence where the larger questions of human condition prevail, the realm beyond the fortunes and misfortunes of a single human being. When we read and interpret the Great Books with our students, we usher them and ourselves into a larger kind of existence and response within the worldwide human community. Texts recognized as great cross disciplinary, gender, national, and even strong ideological boundaries, providing a meeting place for readers of the most diverse backgrounds and persuasions. People of distinctly different cultures, chemists as well as teachers of comparative literature, women and men, young students as well as the elderly can experience in these books a starting point for an exchange of ideas about the values we espouse, the ideas we love, and the principles by which we live. For such an exchange is already enacted by these books themselves, insofar as they are understood as always being in conversation with one another, across the ages, across ideological commitments. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, for example, can be loved by both Soviets and Americans, Marxist historicists as well as conservative New Critics. The ideas, probing questions, and claims of such a text can be relied upon to transcend, illuminate, and even transform readers’ initial view of the world, if they are open to such an experience. It is here that people who read can discuss their differences with one another, their most strongly held values and principles. It is here that all of us can formulate and build upon our common convictions and commitments, for I believe, as Matthew Arnold put it in the poem “The Buried Life,” that “the same heart beats in every human breast.” Beyond human differences there is the heartfelt desire for and possibility of human exchange, understanding, and cooperation upon which civilization is founded.
Obstacles to Teaching the Great Books
Goethe’s observation that we are so easily delighted by second-rate things, provided they are new, hints at one of the most pervasive obstacles to teaching and learning from the Great Books in our time. Our culture is enamored more than ever with the new and the up-to-the-minute. But I am convinced that however good even the best of our best sellers are, however exciting and available the latest film sensations, however educational and colorful our television programs, the novelty we experience in these things will always remain of a different order from the newness which can be experienced in reading the Great Books, the great thoughts and revered narratives that have stood the test of time and scrutiny in our and other cultures.
Roland Barthes, in essay IX of his book S/Z, titled “How Many Readings,” remarks that rereading a classic or a well-known story is an operation that runs counter to the habits of our fast-paced, consumption-oriented society. But Barthes adds the paradox that if we fail to reread in order to discover the deeper novelty that lies at the heart of our classics, if we merely skim the surface of every “new” book we read, we, in effect, force ourselves to read the same story everywhere. We lose authentic novelty. It is only when we take the time to re-experience a great work, when we expend the creative energy and concentration that a great work summons in us, that we are rewarded with the true pleasure of the text, always new and different.
Barthes further quips that only children, professors, and old people can tolerate and find delight in a story they already know. It is precisely this delight, the pleasure of seeking novelty in what has always been at our fingertips, that lies at the center of Great Books education. Teachers of the Great Books know this kind of gratification and source of personal enrichment very well. And yet we hesitate to give witness to this love of ours in any direct way. We hesitate to challenge our colleagues in the humanities, for example—and ourselves for that matter—when we choose for our next semester’s syllabi books and videos that save us and our students from the personal investment and energy needed in interpreting Great Books. Instead we offer the kind of variety our culture craves. Sometimes we choose no great works at all, but rather readings and viewings that are perceived to be more easily accessible, less demanding, more sensational, more attractive. As a result, we and our students are left secure in our old ways of thinking, without the provocation, the discomfort, and the risk of interpreting great works, but also without the insights, the deeper novelty and the personal transformations that a true encounter with a great work always entails.
There are perhaps several reasons why colleges and universities have increasingly supplemented or discarded the Great Books experience. First of all, it seems we are less willing to suggest to our students where they might best invest their time and energies during their high school and undergraduate years. We fear that an articulation of our deep intellectual commitments, a love of the tradition on our part, may be taken as a restriction of freedom on their part. So we are tempted to leave them with their easily digested textbooks and second-rate literary sensations, allowing them to build a new kind of prison-house of triviality and novelty of the shallowest kind. Secondly, we underestimate our students’ willingness to develop the skills, discipline, vulnerability, and spirit of ongoing exploration that are fundamental to the Great Books experience. In our good-hearted efforts not to overwhelm or over-challenge students, we fail to realize they are often more resilient and inventive than we think.
Perhaps the most prevalent obstacle to a genuine teaching of the Great Books in our time—when they are read and taught—has to do with the growing tendency among our colleagues in the academy to approach great works with a kind of ideological hardness of heart, a stubbornness seeking only those ideas, structures, questions, and demands in the text which coincide with one’s preconceived expectations. For such readers and interpreters, great works of literature, social thought, or philosophy are valuable, but only to the extent that they uphold and illustrate one’s most treasured opinions. To be sure, great works in our tradition do mirror our ideologies and systems of value, but they always do this with an unsettling excess. That is to say, if we allow ourselves to read more closely and interpret more honestly, it is the nature of a great work not only to illustrate but to undermine and confound aspects of what we believe to be true about the world. There are some readers, however, who prefer to surround themselves with only those colleagues, journals, conferences, texts, or those ideas within a text which provide ready consolation, moral support, agreement, and strengthening of their own argument. We all need and make use of this support and assurance. But at an extreme, this search for comfort and self-buttressing can amount to a severe discounting of much that is valuable, beautiful and liberating in our search for the truth. It can lead to an impoverishment, provincialism, and self-isolation that turn out, ultimately, to be one’s own worst enemy.
Recent advances in criticism and theory in the humanities provided by structuralism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, Marxism, the new historicism, and other methods of perceiving and interpreting a text can reveal to us our blindness and carelessness with respect to how we read and interpret. These methods can correct, bring into sharper relief, and make more inclusive our understanding of a great text. But sometimes these very approaches, and the ideologies they imply, advance criteria for judging Great Books that would have us ignore and even reject what we have experienced in a personal way as important, morally vital, and true in the work. They want us to subordinate our original illuminating and unsettling encounter with a great book to a particular sought-after truth or experience that is more in line with their ideological strategies. In reality, there is so much in our classics which could shed desperately needed light upon the inadequacies, awkwardness, and pomposities of our most dearly held methods and ideologies if we allowed them this influence on the way we think and perceive.
But it means that we must develop a different metaphor for our reading and teaching of the Great Books, a metaphor that privileges the ability of the work itself to speak. To paraphrase W.H. Auden, it is ultimately the Great Books which read and teach us, not we them. It is the great book in both its form and content that must be allowed at least temporarily to direct our investigations, impressions, the kinds of questions we ask as well as our final evaluations of our experience. For this to happen, however, we must be willing to hand over some of our authority in the classroom and in our own habits of reading to the great book and trust in its ability to teach, to console, to explain, to contradict, and to provide an experience that is important and of lasting value. As Thoreau expressed it in the essay “On Reading”: “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!” Great Books and great ideas may very well continue to have this power in our lives. But in order for this to happen each generation must reinvest them with this capacity by insisting on their autonomy and their ability to speak directly and freely to us, no matter what the latest ideological and methodological discoveries might be.
How Do You Teach the Great Books?
Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all. -- Henry David Thoreau
The basis of our Great Books seminar at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, is the idea borrowed from Thoreau, that Great Books constitute the strongest foundation of one’s personal library, and that one must start building this library early in life to take the fullest advantage of its riches. In the spirit of Thoreau, we have put together a list of some 120 works of literature, philosophy, social thought, and the history and theory of science and the fine arts that we consider to be Great Books. In the case of twentieth century works, we also include a number of books which are likely candidates for that status. This Great Books list was first established about twenty years go and has become the cornerstone of our Great Books seminar. In the spring of each academic year, faculty members from every discipline in our university nominate about 130 sophomores for the junior honors Great Books seminar. Twenty of these nominees are offered admission into the year-long junior seminar on the basis of their abilities to analyze, explore, evaluate, and discuss ideas, images, complex narratives, and models of human self-understanding. Interviews with each of the candidates give the seminar director an opportunity to explain more completely the purpose and scope of the course, to outline clearly the kind of commitment the students are expected to make, and to answer their questions regarding course content and structure.
Once the seminar participants are chosen, they are given the Great Books list of 120 titles which range from the Hebrew scriptures and the Greek tragedies to the stories of Flannery O’Connor. Before the end of their sophomore year, seminar participants buy all of these books, and are given a common reading list of fifteen novels and several short stories to read on their own during the summer. They also meet once or twice with the outgoing junior honors seminar to discuss a great work together and to learn first hand about the experience of Great Books discussion.
When these students return in the fall, the Great Books seminar constitutes a quarter of their academic program for their junior year, as they are each also engaged in completing a traditional major in subjects ranging from mathematics and chemistry to government and classical languages. The seminar meets twice a week for the entire year, alternating between Monday evening large-group lectures and discussions, and midweek small group discussions. Each session averages about two hours, but students often continue their discussions well beyond the formal class period. Normally these exchanges cover a different book from the list each week, with some time devoted to discussions of their summer readings and to ten-minute book reports given by individual students. About a hundred of the books are introduced or covered in the seminar, either through discussion, book reports, summer readings, or an occasional short lecture given by the instructor. Although the teacher is prepared to lead the discussion in certain directions, the main mode of instruction is the Socratic method, and often the most important discoveries come about more spontaneously and indirectly as students and teacher alike examine the questions, possible answers, and concepts embedded in the text at hand.
Students are also introduced to ideas offered by literary interpretations, criticism, and theory, but these are carefully subordinated to first-hand experience with the work itself and are meant to challenge, animate, and augment the depth of that encounter.
During the spring semester the seminar’s format is interrupted with a month-long treatment of a longer work, such as Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov or Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which is read more deliberately and accompanied by frequent discussion, pertinent background material, carefully chosen criticism, and an application of the work’s major ideas and questions to our present social and moral situation.
Writing plays an important role in the Great Books seminar. Students write a paragraph or two to prepare for, and a three-page paper after each discussion, in which they are able to synthesize or expand upon ideas presented during the seminar. Students also regularly read and discuss each other’s writing, making suggestions for the sake of greater clarity, coherence, and depth of insight and interpretation. Six longer, more formal papers are assigned during the course of the seminar and are thoroughly discussed in small-group writing-circle sessions led by the instructor. Reading, writing, and discussion are the three interacting elements of the Great Books experience, with each playing an important role in the development and enrichment of the students.
By the end of the junior seminar, participants are often eager to make their way through the rest of the Great Books on the list and to begin rereading their favorite works. Currently, most of the participants are enrolled in “Great Books, Part II,” a series of evening discussions during their senior year which they have organized on their own. About a dozen faculty members have agreed to participate in these student-run discussions.
Each year about ten of the titles on the list of books are changed to allow seminar alumni to return to the bookstore to add to their Great Books collection. This annual adjustment also symbolically demonstrates that books of our culture must continually be evaluated and judged for their greatness—the quality and depth of the issues they raise, the claims they make on our lives, and the kinds of answers they give to our most important questions. Plans are now underway to expand the number of Great Books seminars to be offered concurrently because of the growing interest among students and faculty.