Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Brace of Holiday Book Reviews

Best wishes for a happy holiday season and a great New Year!


How well I remember my Dad warning me against majoring in what he called "farts and litters" in college! Ironically, as a longtime member of the Jesuits, he himself had a classical education, including a healthy dose of readings from what used to be known as "the Western canon" but what is now sometimes disparaged as the roll call of "the dead white males." In A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME: THE RISE, FALL, AND CURIOUS AFTERLIFE OF THE GREAT BOOKS (Public Affairs Books, 2008), Alex Beam provides a lively and entertaining survey of the mid-20th-century push to make the "canon" accessible to a mass audience, in the form of Encyclopedia Britannica's GREAT BOOKS OF THE WESTERN WORLD. The "Great Books" still serve as the focus of the traditional "core curricula" at such schools as Columbia University, St. John's College, Shimer College, and Thomas Aquinas College, but they have largely been abandoned elsewhere for reasons more or less convincing. The drive to make the likes of Faraday, Gibbon, and Aristophanes (... "ridiculous"!! Hi, Odd Couple fans!) after-dinner reading for middle-class families turned out to be a non-starter, though some aging acolytes have kept the flame burning with "Great Books Discussion Groups."

In retrospect, the original GREAT BOOKS collection had two fatal flaws: It provided absolutely no ancillary material to help inexperienced readers cope with obscure language and concepts (let's not even talk about the misguided inclusion of classic texts of science and mathematics; I've read excerpts from these and trust me, you MUST have a guide to get through them!) and the quality of its printing was atrocious (minuscule type, double-column format). That being said, I happen to think that a judicious use of readings from original sources is a necessary part of liberal education. You simply need to avoid the trap of providing "too much of a good thing."

Thanks to the work of Allan Bloom and such defenders of the traditional academy as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, defenses of the "Great Books" have come to be associated with political conservatism. Beam seems to think that this is a strike against them, and this is the one major flaw in his argument. Why should he be so surprised? Colleges have trivialized and dumbed down their curricula to such an extent that SOME form of dissent is inevitable, and, given the prevailing political ethos on modern campuses, it is natural that conservatives should be placed in the position of defending what has been dismantled. Nor is the current "Great Books" movement a political monolith. Some "Great Books" schools have a conservative political bent, but St. John's and Shimer, among others, do not. Judging by the anecdotal evidence Beam provides, participants in "Great Books Discussion Groups" include a fair number of people on the left. The whole idea of using "Great Books" is to bring fundamental ideas into the spotlight for open and vigorous debate, and that's something on which both fair-minded liberals and fair-minded conservatives should be able to agree. Let's use readings from original sources more often in ALL colleges, I say. Just don't expect me -- or anyone else -- to read Apollonius' CONICS without a few judiciously positioned nets.


Anyone interested in the future of conservatism ought to read Claire Berlinski's THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE: WHY MARGARET THATCHER MATTERS (Basic Books, 2008). Thatcher is both loved and loathed, and both for good reason. Taking power in Britain at a time when the country was an absolute basket case, the grocer's daughter realized that extreme measures were needed in order to pull Britain off the downward path of socialism and liberate the considerable entrepreneurial energies of its people. She ultimately succeeded, but not without causing dislocations and fundamental changes that, by contrast, make Ronald Reagan's strides forward to "morning in America" look like a cakewalk. Her imperious personality only made her drastic policies seem all the more drastic. There is an important lesson to be learned here: any really profound change away from socialism and towards capitalism will make permanent enemies, so any politician who seeks to make such changes must either be able to ignore the critics or transcend them.

Berlinski interviews both allies and adversaries of Thatcher, including an interesting visit with some former miners whose lives were changed forever in the wake of the failed miners' strike of 1984. Berlinski's sympathies obviously lie with Thatcher, but she gives Thatcher's enemies a fair chance to be heard. I happen to agree with Berlinski's summation that while current geopolitical issues (radical Islamic terrorism, which Thatcher frankly failed to recognize as a big threat) may seem to have little to do with the Cold War milieu in which Thatcher operated, the eternal appeal of the secular religion of socialism (especially when it forms an "unholy alliance" of expediency with Islamic enemies of the West, as detailed by David Horowitz and others) will always make Thatcher's ideas and experiences relevant. This is a very well-written book with a very important message.

1 comment:

Max Weismann said...

Argumentum ad Hominem

The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins' pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

Max Weismann,
President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Chairman, The Great Books Academy