Why ‘Great Books’ were great

Jon Levenson writes on Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind 25 years after its debut. It’s a great in-depth piece on Allan Bloom’s thinking and aspects of this thinking on higher education that have grown stronger or more vulnerable with time. This was particularly compelling:

So, what was Bloom’s remedy [in The Closing of the American Mind]? First, the university must overcome the temptation to be socially and politically relevant, a temptation that is especially powerful in democracies. Instead, the university must strive to “provide the atmosphere where the moral and physical superiority of the dominant will not intimidate philosophic doubt,” cultivating therefore true “freedom of the mind,” which entails, importantly, not only “the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts.” And since “flattery of the people and incapacity to resist public opinion are the democratic vices,” in a democracy the academy must fill the role once played by those aristocrats who offered ballast against the pressures of the masses. Otherwise, “there is no protection for the opponents of the governing principles as well as no respectability for them,” and when that situation obtains, what Bloom called “the theoretical life”—the unending quest to move beyond opinion toward genuine knowledge—is gravely imperiled. Ironically, to revert again to Bloom’s subtitle, higher education had in his view not only impoverished the souls of today’s students; it had also failed democracy. If his view is right, then the relationship of “elitism” to rule by the people is something very different from the stark opposition that so many of his critics instinctively assume.

Second, the current situation could not be corrected, Bloom claimed, until colleges and universities reclaimed the works of literature that once underlay the classical liberal arts curriculum:

Of course, the only serious solution is the one that is almost universally rejected: the good old Great Books approach, in which a liberal education means reading certain generally recognized classic texts, just reading them, letting them dictate what the questions are and the method of approaching them—not forcing them into categories we make up, not treating them as historical products, but trying to read them as their authors wished them to be read.

Against those who treat Aristotle’s Ethics as a discussion not about “what a good man is but [about] what the Greeks thought about morality,” for example, he pointedly asked, “But who really cares very much about that?” His answer was, “Not any normal person who wants to lead a serious life.” In sum, the Great Books are great not because they reflect a culture and a society—every book does that—but because they communicate a precious message that transcends cultures and societies and can, in the hands of the right teacher in the right institution, speak profoundly to the perennial problems of being human.

There was also this line, which will stick with me anytime I hear the word used:

Now, instead of morality and commandment, we hear of “values,” which are barely distinguishable, if at all, from mere preferences.

That seems right, that “values” today are, in fact, simply “preferences.”