Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives morning show on Fox News 1450 AM 96.7 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not those of St. George News.
OPINION – 60 years ago, classical educator Mortimer Adler along with then-president of the University of Chicago Robert Hutchins set about publishing the Great Books of the Western World. The 54-volume collection contains 443 of the greatest works of Western thought spanning a period of nearly three millennia. Within the Great Books is a wide range of topics including fiction, history, poetry, natural science, mathematics, philosophy, drama, politics, religion, economics, and ethics. The series is a remarkable achievement in and of itself, consisting of over 30,000 pages and over 25 million words.
These are the books that continue to be read in times, places and cultures far removed from those in which they were written. The reasoning for which Adler and Hutchins set about compiling the Great Books collection is as timely today as it was in 1952.
The first book of the set is titled The Great Conversation. In it, the editors make a powerful case that the disappearance of the great canon of “western thought” from education portends a calamity rather than progress. They clearly saw that while America’s standards of living were continually rising in terms of material comforts, a majority of adults were becoming impoverished morally, intellectually and spiritually.
In Hutchins’ words, “We believe that the reduction of the citizen to an object of propaganda, private and public, is one of the greatest dangers to democracy.” His concern stemmed from the progressive notion that the people “cannot be educated, in the sense of developing their intellectual powers, but they can be bamboozled.”
The key to countering the effects of this daily onslaught of propaganda, according to Hutchins, was for the people to, “save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves.” He understood that study of the great books provides one with a more well-rounded grasp of humanity, history, politics, morals and economics that enable the reader to effectively apply their own mental abilities rather than waiting for experts to tell them what to think.
The editors of the Great Books never presumed that the series would be a panacea by which all of our problems could be answered. Instead, they recommended them as tools to further one’s self-education by allowing the reader to come face-to-face with what the greatest thinkers of the past 3,000 years had to offer.
Individuals who put forth the effort of studying great thinkers like Herodotus, Plato, Descartes, Machiavelli, and all the others whose works comprise the Great Books, will attest to the insight their study provides to better understanding the current issues and crises of our own time.
It was once considered self-evident that a liberal arts education, meaning a well-rounded one, was how an individual could obtain the necessary thinking skills to be capable of perpetuating liberty. Sadly, today the word “liberal” carries a political connotation that actually prevents independent thought in certain ideological circles.
The Great Books won’t teach a person “what” to think, but by studying the great ideas – including those that were wrong – our minds become trained in how to think critically and how to ask the right questions. This type of education doesn’t even require a formal classroom setting. Most liberally educated people got that way by diligently spending a bit of time reading and studying daily in the privacy of their own study or bedroom.
There are no shortcuts to self-education and that’s why the concept is a tough sell to generations that prefer to plop down in front of the TV or computer and be entertained But the liberal arts remain the best method by which a student learns how to think as opposed to what to think.
The past 60 years of educational “progress” have demonstrated that Adler and Hutchins’ fears were well founded. Too many of us are waiting for someone to tell us what sources we should tap for information. A better solution is to develop our own thinking skills to the point that we can avail ourselves of many sources and accurately sift truth from error.
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Copyright 2012 St. George News.
The Great Books…a great idea. No previous intelligence required. Just add hard work and patience. Practically free, since in this day and age you can find almost all the works online or on interlibrary loan. (Including the 2,000+ reference works). Sadly, few people have the inclination or the perseverance to tackle this alone, and serious study groups, especially in this part of the country, are next to nonexistent. Too bad.