Why We Lost the Great Books

Why do modern humanities professors hate the Western canon, the so-called Great Books that once defined a liberal arts education? Ralph McInerny, a professor of philosophy and medieval studies at Notre Dame University—and also the author of the popular Father Dowling mystery series—has an answer.

It isn’t just relativism (or, in McInerny’s words, the idea that it’s as important to teach Tarzan as Hamlet) or the claim that classical scholars push the works of “dead white males” in order to control society. The reason, says McInerny, is that most of the Great Books “were written under Christian auspices.” Their religious underpinning is obvious in the works of authors such as Dante, but also “inescapable” in those of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Furthermore, the non-Christian parts of the canon, such as those by Plato and Aristotle, were written under the assumption that providence, or a divine mind, governs human life.

This is an idea that many modern academics cannot stand, said McInerny.

McInerny shared his thoughts about Great Books at an evening lecture in Charlotte on November 6. His talk before an audience of about 100 people was sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Pope Center.

McInerny, a prominent scholar known especially for his work on Thomas Aquinas, has taught at Notre Dame since 1955. A man of enormous energy, he is also the author of more than fifty novels. Before his lecture, he took the time to teach a class at Belmont Abbey College on Pope Benedict’s controversial 2006 Regensburg address.

A central element of his talk was an overview of an initially successful attempt to restore the classics of Western civilization to a previous generation. This was the identification and promotion of Great Books that occurred in the 1930s (and had a strong following through the 1960s).

At that time, a few individuals—such as Robert Hutchins, Mark Van Doren, and Stringfellow Barr—sought to determine the most important writings underlying modern civilization and to promote their study and appreciation. This “great revival of liberal arts education” occurred at a number of schools, including Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and St. John’s College, McInerny said.

The impetus for the revival was a reaction to the direction that higher education had taken. Beginning as far back as the 1870s, Harvard (influenced by the nineteenth-century turn toward research universities) had devised a way to address the proliferation of intellectual disciplines. It did so by abandoning the concept of a unified curriculum. That approach gradually overtook higher education. It became de rigueur for American universities after the 1960s, but it had infiltrated higher education some generations before that.

Harvard, with Charles Eliot its president, had shifted to a system of electives, allowing students to take pretty much any classes they wanted—choosing from what McInerny called a “smorgasbord” or “salad bar” of courses. The Great Books project of the 1930s was designed to counter this intellectual fragmentation.

Although that revival was successful, it didn’t last. McInerny suggested in his talk that the movement had a weakness that became evident later: Some supporters of the Great Books movement didn’t really grasp—or, at least, they did not express—the fundamental reasons why these works are great. McInerny was able to tell his audience why Great Books matter—but first he illustrated the problem.

McInerny referred to a 1994 book by Harold Bloom, a professor of humanities at Yale and an acknowledged giant in literary criticism. Bloom’s book, The Western Canon, defends the best literary works against academic critics, but the book disappointed McInerny. Bloom made the elevation of the Great Books “sound like a preference”—it appeared that Bloom simply liked those books better than others.

McInerny doesn’t see the Great Books this way. So he devoted a segment of his talk to what makes those books great. Like Bloom, McInerny focused on literature or fiction, which represents an important part (but not the totality) of the Great Books. (The classics include many works of non-fiction—philosophy, religion, economics, etc.)

Fiction draws its power from forcing an individual to face a dilemma, McInerny said, a predicament that becomes more complex with each step he or she takes. Crucial choices are imposed on that character—he or she finds it difficult to do the right thing. The character’s decisions matter because the interest of the story depends on the fact that we are “answerable for what we do.”

Some fiction is better than other fiction. McInerny offered a rule of thumb for what makes fiction into literature—re-readability. “Literature is anything that you read again,” he said.

Fiction does not have to have a religious viewpoint to be literature, of course. For the Christian, McInerny said, there is a system of eternal reward and punishment for one’s decisions, but fiction does not require a divine providence to make clear the seriousness of the dilemma facing the protagonist. From all good stories, “we’re going to learn something about being a human being.”

That doesn’t mean that all literature equals a Great Book. There is a hierarchy, said McInerny, based in part on objective criteria such as how the authors deal with such matters as diction, character, plot, and setting. And more profoundly, literature deals with “what it is to be a human being”—“the meaning of human existence.” The books most highly ranked on those measurements are Great Books.

McInerny covered more aspects of our cultural heritage in his speech than discussed here. He gave a capsule summary of how the liberal arts evolved during the early Middle Ages as a secular preparation for religious study, and his talk was sprinkled with allusions to writers ancient and modern such as Plato, Aristotle, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Hilaire Belloc, and C. S. Lewis.

But the message Professor McInerny conveyed was a unified one: Great works reveal the meaning of human existence. Because many of the greatest works do so in the context of a divine purpose, they are disdained on campuses today. It will not be easy to restore respect for them, but some people are trying. He appeared to want those in the audience to become part of that restoration effort. “It’s something we have to make happen; individuals have to do it,” he said.

(Those interested in learning more about the historical shift of colleges from a unified focus to today’s fragmentation may enjoy the Pope Center paper, From Christian Gentlemen to Bewildered Seeker: The Transformation of American Higher Education, by Russell K. Nieli, here.)