Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Maynard Hutchins

The Order of St. John’s

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When I think back on my personal experience with the great books, as I did here the other day, I have to start with the six weeks that I spent as a high school junior at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. As I’ve discussed in greater detail before, I had applied to the Telluride Associate Summer Program on the advice of my guidance counselor. It was an impulsive decision, but I was accepted, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call it one of the three or four most significant turning points in my entire life. I was more than primed for a program like this—I had just bought my own set of the Great Books of the Western World at a church book sale—and I left with my head full of the values embodied by the college, which still structures its curriculum around a similar notion of the Western Canon. Throughout the summer, I attended seminars with seventeen other bright teenagers, and as we worked our way from Plato’s Cratylus through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, it all seemed somehow normal. I more or less assumed that this was how college would be, which wasn’t entirely true, although I did my best to replicate the experience. Looking back, in fact, I suspect that my time at St. John’s was more responsible than any other factor for allowing me to attend the college of my choice, and it certainly played a role in my decision to major in classics. But it’s only now that I can fully appreciate how much privilege went into each stage in that process. It came down to a series of choices, which I was able to make freely, and while I don’t think I always acted correctly, I’m amazed at how lucky I was, and how the elements of a liberal education itself managed to obscure that crucial point.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of an article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times, who paid a visit to the sister campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He opens with a description that certainly would have appealed to my adolescent self, although probably not to most other teenagers:

Have I got a college for you. For your first two years, your regimen includes ancient Greek. And I do mean Greek, the language, not Greece, the civilization, though you’ll also hang with Aristotle, Aeschylus, Thucydides and the rest of the gang. There’s no choice in the matter. There’s little choice, period…You have no major, only “the program,” an exploration of the Western canon that was implemented in 1937 and has barely changed…It’s an increasingly exotic and important holdout against so many developments in higher education—the stress on vocational training, the treatment of students as fickle consumers, the elevation of individualism over a shared heritage—that have gone too far. It’s a necessary tug back in the other direction.

More than twenty years after I spent the summer there, the basic pitch for the college doesn’t seem to have changed. Its fans still draw a pointed comparison between the curriculum at St. John’s and the supposedly more “consumerist” approach of most undergraduate programs, and it tends to define itself in sharp contrast to the touchy-feely world around it. “Let your collegiate peers elsewhere design their own majors and frolic with Kerouac,” Bruni writes. “For you it’s Kant.”

Yet it isn’t hard to turn this argument on its head, or to recognize that there’s a real sense in which St. John’s might be one of the most individualistic and consumerist colleges in the entire country. (The article itself is headlined “The Most Contrarian College in America,” while Bruni writes that he was drawn to it “out of respect for its orneriness.” And a school for ornery contrarians sounds pretty individualistic to me.) We can start with the obvious point that “the stress on vocational training” at other colleges is the result of economic anxiety at a time of rising tuitions and crippling student loans. There’s tremendous pressure to turn students away from the humanities, and it isn’t completely unjustified. The ability to major in classics or philosophy reflects a kind of privilege in itself, at least in the form of the absence of some of those pressures, and it isn’t always about money. For better or worse, reading the great books is just about the most individualistic gesture imaginable, and its supposed benefits—what the dean of the Santa Fe campus characterizes as the creation of “a more thoughtful, reflective, self-possessed and authentic citizen, lover, partner, parent and member of the global economy”—are obsessively focused on the self. The students at St. John’s may not have the chance to shop around for classes once they get there, but they made a vastly more important choice as a consumer long before they even arrived. A choice of college amounts to a lot of things, but it’s certainly an act with financial consequences. In many cases, it’s the largest purchase that any of us will ever make. The option of spending one’s college years reading Hobbes and Spinoza at considerable cost doesn’t even factor into the practical or economic universe of most families, and it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise.

In other words, every student at St. John’s exercised his or her power in the academic marketplace when it mattered most. By comparison, the ability to tailor one’s class schedule seems like a fairly minor form of consumerism—which doesn’t detract from the quality of the product, which is excellent, as it should be at such prices. (Bruni notes approvingly that the college recently cut its annual tuition from $52,000 to $35,000, which I applaud, although it doesn’t change my underlying point.) But it’s difficult to separate the value of such an education from the existing qualities required for a high schooler to choose it in the first place. It’s hard for me to imagine a freshman at St. John’s who wasn’t intelligent, motivated, and individualistic, none of which would suffer from four years of immersion in the classics. They’re already lucky, which is a lesson that the great books won’t teach on their own. The Great Conversation tends to take place within a circle of authors who have been chosen for their resemblance to one another, or for how well they fit into a cultural narrative imposed on them after the fact, as Robert Maynard Hutchins writes in the introduction to Great Books of the Western World: “The set is almost self-selected, in the sense that one book leads to another, amplifying, modifying, or contradicting it.” And that’s fine. But it means that you rarely see these authors marveling over their own special status, which they take for granted. For a canon that consists entirely of books written by white men, there’s remarkably little discussion of privilege, because they live in it like fish in water—which is as good an argument for diversity as any I can imagine. The students at St. John’s may ask these hard questions about themselves, but if they do, it’s despite what they read, not because of it. Believe me, I should know.

Written by nevalalee

September 20, 2018 at 9:02 am

Reading the rocks

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“[Our] ignorance of planetary history undermines any claims we may make to modernity,” the geologist Marcia Bjornerud writes in her new book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. In an excerpt that appeared last week on Nautilus, Bjornerud makes a case for geology as a way of seeing that I find poetic and compelling:

Early in an introductory geology course, one begins to understand that rocks are not nouns but verbs—visible evidence of processes: a volcanic eruption, the accretion of a coral reef, the growth of a mountain belt. Everywhere one looks, rocks bear witness to events that unfolded over long stretches of time. Little by little, over more than two centuries, the local stories told by rocks in all parts of the world have been stitched together into a great global tapestry—the geologic timescale. This “map” of Deep Time represents one of the great intellectual achievements of humanity, arduously constructed by stratigraphers, paleontologists, geochemists, and geochronologists from many cultures and faiths. It is still a work in progress to which details are constantly being added and finer and finer calibrations being made.

This is a lovely passage in itself, but I was equally struck by how it resembles the arguments that are often advanced in defense of the great books. One of that movement’s favorite talking points is the notion of “The Great Conversation,” or the idea that canonical books and authors aren’t dead or antiquated, but engaged in a vital dialogue between themselves and the present. And its defenders frequently make their case in terms much like those that Bjornerud employs. In the book The Great Conversation, which serves as the opening volume of Great Books of the Western World, the educator Robert Maynard Hutchins writes: “This set of books is offered in no antiquarian spirit. We have not seen our task as that of taking tourists on a visit to ancient ruins or to the quaint productions of primitive peoples.” And the justifications presented for the two fields are similar as well. As Bjornerud’s subtitle indicates, she suggests that a greater awareness of geologic timescales can serve as a way for us to address the problems of our own era, while Hutchins uses language that has a contemporary ring:

We are as concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking. We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation. We want them to be heard again not because we want to go back to antiquity, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the Eighteenth Century. We are quite aware that we do not live in any time but the present, and, distressing as the present is, we would not care to live in any other time if we could.

“We want the voices of the Great Conversation to be heard again because we think they may help us to learn to live better now,” Hutchins concludes. Bjornerud sounds much the same when she speaks on behalf of geology, sounding a dire warning against “temporal illiteracy,” which leads us to ignore our own impact on environmental processes in the present. In both cases, a seemingly static body of knowledge is reimagined as timely and urgent. I’ve spent much of my life in service to this notion, in one way or another, and I badly want to believe it. Yet I sometimes have my doubts. The great books have been central to my thinking for decades, and their proponents tend to praise their role in building cultural and civic awareness, but the truth isn’t quite that simple. As Harold Bloom memorably points out in The Western Canon: “Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens.” And a few pages later, he makes a case that strikes me as more convincing than anything that Hutchins says:

The silliest way to defend the Western Canon is to insist that it incarnates all of the seven deadly moral virtues that make up our supposed range of normative values and democratic principles. This is palpably untrue…The West’s greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own…If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all.

And while I’m certainly sympathetic to Bjornerud’s argument, I suspect that the same might hold true if we turn to geology for lessons about time. Good science, like great literature, is morally neutral, and we run into trouble when we ask it to stand for anything but itself. (Bjornerud notes in passing that many geologists are employed by petroleum companies, which doesn’t help her case that access to knowledge about the “deep, rich, grand geologic story” of our planet will lead to a better sense of environmental stewardship.) And this line of argument has a way of highlighting a field’s supposed relevance at the moments when it seems most endangered. The humanities have long fought against the possibility, as Bloom dryly puts it, that “our English and other literature departments [will] shrink to the dimensions of our current Classics departments,” and Bjornerud is equally concerned for geology:

Lowly geology has never achieved the glossy prestige of the other sciences. It has no Nobel Prize, no high school Advanced Placement courses, and a public persona that is musty and dull. This of course rankles geologists, but it also has serious consequences for society…The perceived value of a science profoundly influences the funding it receives.

When a field seems threatened, it’s tempting to make it seem urgently necessary. I’ve done plenty of this sort of thing myself, and I hope that it works. In the end, though, I have a feeling that Bjornerud’s “timefulness” has exactly the same practical value as the virtue that Bloom attributes to books, which is priceless enough: “All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.”

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