The not-so-great Big Books debate


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In this week New Yorker, Louis Menand reviews two books that defend a Great Books program – that of Roosevelt Montás Saving Socrates: How The Ledgers Changed My Life And Why They Are Important To A New Generation and Arnold Weinstein The life of literature: reading, teaching, knowing. He doesn’t like it either.

Both authors claim that great literary works shape our lives for good and that this kind of moral or personal approach to texts is underestimated in modern universities, which in turn are more concerned with professional training and marketable skills. English and Comparative Literature Departments – Are There Any Left? – emphasize specialization and ignore wisdom. Critical theory and cowardly administrators who yield to the slightest demand for the removal of offensive works have only made matters worse. Something must be done. Hence these books.

Menand, who is not quite against this argument, recalls that it is an old debate: old. “Menand refers to debates in English between philologists and humanists. But the debate is much older than This. In one of his letters to Lucilius, Seneca argues that liberal studies do not make students virtuous. It was somewhat against the grain at the time. He emphatically asserts that liberal studies – in poetry , astronomy, mathematics, history – offer “nothing” in terms of virtue. Yet, he continues, students should always study poetry because it “sets the stage” for virtue:

“Why then do we educate our sons in liberal studies?” Not because they can confer virtue, but because they prepare the mind to receive it. Just as what used to be called Basic Grammar, by which children acquire the basics of their education, does not teach the liberal arts but prepares the ground for them to be acquired in due time, so do the arts. liberals themselves do not lead the mind to virtue but open the way for it.

Menand’s problem with claims that Montás and Weinstein make great books is that they’re too big:

The humanities do not have a monopoly on moral insight. As you read Weinstein and Montás, you might conclude that English teachers, having spent their entire lives reading and discussing literary works, must be the wisest and most humane people on the planet. Take my word for it, we are not. We are neither better nor worse than anyone. I have read and taught hundreds of books, including most of the Columbia Core books. I teach a ledgers course now. I love my job and I think I understand a lot of things that are important to me much better than when I was seventeen. But I don’t think I’m a better person.

I agree with Menand here, and the problem is not limited to the “ledger” defenses. Book after book on the value of reading, the argument is made that literature improves us. Authors differ on what improvement means – literature makes us good, righteous, holy, free; the list goes on – but the approach is the same, and the claims for the power of literature are almost always far too big.

At the same time, literary works are more than mere recordings “of how human beings have made sense of experience,” as Menand writes. This reduces them to mere artifacts and turns the reader into a sort of anthropologist. I prefer the Seneca approach.

In other news

What the so-called big story is missing: “To sweep human history into a cosmic tale is a thrill, but we must be wary of what is overlooked in greatness. “

The new Carnavalet museum: “Now, for the first time, visitors can move relatively smoothly in the 6,000-year-old canoe found near the Seine at Bercy, housed in a new basement exposed to prehistoric Paris. from the medieval period, to relics of Parisian history in the 21st century, including a large cardboard pencil proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie”, from 2015, and photographs of Parisians watching Notre-Dame burn in 2019. “

Christmas with Hemingway in Arkansas: “Ernest Hemingway married his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, on May 10, 1927. The newlyweds left Europe for Piggott, Arkansas. She was pregnant and wanted to be closer to her family before the birth of their son, Patrick. Hemingway worked on his novel A farewell to arms in the barn / studio behind the house, located on West Cherry Street in what is now downtown. . . Hemingway loved Piggott and Pauline’s family. He said Squire magazine in 1934 that the only other place he’d rather be than Paris was “Piggott, Arkansas in the Fall”.

The Other Charles Dickens Christmas Stories: “This is the story of a miserly gentleman who eventually finds redemption, and it was a huge bestseller at the time, but the festive story of Charles Dickens The cricket on the hearth is much less known than its predecessor A Christmas Carol. “

John McWhorter in the New York Times: “Porgy and Bess is not the black opera. It’s American opera.

The Guardian has one million users who pay for digital content on a recurring basis. Three years ago, that number was just over 500,000.

David J. Garrow criticizes Claude A. Clegg III The black president:

Clegg is too good a historian to be an uncritical fanboy like the many journalists who gave up their professionalism during the Obama years. He captures the hopeful ambivalence with which many black Americans have responded to Obama’s self-created life story’s “unlimited ambition”, noting how comedian Chris Rock called him “our president.” zebra. … We ignore the whiteness of the president, but it is there. Likewise, distinguished actor Morgan Freeman bluntly observed that “he’s not the first black president of the United States, he’s the first mixed-race president of the United States.” Clegg also grapples with the reluctant but widely held recognition that Obama’s presidency has failed black Americans to a painfully surprising degree.

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