MOOCs and “The Great Books”

Shimer’s president, Susan Henking, linked this morning to an interesting, if cranky article on the Great Books. The author makes the obvious, if oft-overlooked, point that the Great Books approach is hardly the bulwark against relativism that conservatives make it out to be — rather, in presenting all the Great Books of the Western tradition as equally valid options, it directly inculcates the relativism that conservatives decry. This is actually what I was partly trying to get at, albeit from the opposite direction, in my essay on the Shimer pedagogy, where I basically argue that the reason Great Books are so Great is that they are endlessly discussable.

What really interested me in the article, though, is this historical point:

This basic feature of Great Books draws attention to the curious feature of Kronman’s chronology that goes unremarked upon. According to Kronman, religiously-affiliated institutions with a longstanding emphasis on a classical education (particularly Classics and Biblical studies) dominated the American landscape until the late 19th and early 20th-centuries. Then, he argues, there was a brief flourishing of “secular humanism,” during which the study of the Great Books was a central component of the curriculum. This period marked the rise of a view that life’s meaning was not regarded to be unified in a religious creed, but rather that meaning was to be increasingly fashioned by individuals in an age of “pluralistic” belief. This phase lasted less than a century, followed in the mid- to late-twentieth century by the rise of the science-dominated and politically correct research university.

If we extend Kronman’s analysis chronologically into the past, however, we would need to acknowledge that in one form or another, the religiously-affiliated university has dominated the scene in the West since the Middle Ages, persisting roughly for a millennium or more. By contrast, the age of “secular humanism” lasted not even for a century, a scant blink of an eye compared to the longer tradition of the religious university. Seen in this light, we need to ask why the very ideal recommended by Kronman was so fleeting and unstable in the light of the longer history of the Western religious university.

The irresistible conclusion is that the age of “secular humanism” was a brief period of transition between the decline of the age of the religious university to rise of the age of the scientific and “politically correct” university. Secular humanism sought briefly to provide a different kind of “scripture” to that which had been displaced – now the Great Books – but lacking any kind of philosophical or theological principle by which to assess the competing claims advanced by those texts, this period was destined to usher in a period of philosophical relativism and the rise of the science as the only form of knowledge that could provide certainty and true knowledge.

The motivation in finding a new scripture seems to be of a piece with the way Löwith describes Burkhardt’s project in Meaning and History: to preserve continuity for its own sake. But in this case, the effort is self-undermining because the very diversity of the history preserved militates against any kind of unified horizon within which it would be worth preserving.

What’s interesting to me about this historical narrative is the correspondence of the “classical era” of Great Books education with High Fordism. In many ways, the postwar era was an era of consolidation and documentation — and to use contemporary terminology, it was an era of “increasing access.” This was a project that took place under both Stalinism and Fordism, making “high culture” available to the masses. Penguin Classics might have been that era’s equivalent of internet access, in terms of educational promise. How amazing is it that everyone should be able to have decent editions of the Great Books available for affordable prices on a mass-produced basis! We see the same impulse in the popularization of the Great Composers of classical music — all the great repertoire, at least before the rise of atonality, has surely been recorded many times over and made available for everyone’s home consumption. Perhaps we could even view Robert Hutchins’ “Great Books” collection (sold door-to-door by encyclopedia salesmen!) as the MOOC of the era, the ultimate in “increased access” — a curated selection of the greatest that has been written and thought, available for group discussion by anyone with the interest and time. Finally we have mass access to a coherent liberal education! What a game-changer!

The Hutchins collections mainly sat on the shelf unread, though, just as most MOOCs are enthusiastically taken up by thousands and then unceremoniously dropped by almost all students. Similarly, I’m not sure that mass-produced paperbacks represented a real game-changer over the previous technology of checking “classics” out at the public library (there was a study in the Journal of I Think I Read Somewhere indicating that historically, working-class people tended to focus on the classics when they visited the library…). Indeed, mass producing them may have had the perverse effect of dethroning them — Penguin Classics become one market niche among others, just as classical music has declined from being one of the key markers of the undisputable greatness of the West to being one musical taste among others. Indeed, both are relatively small market niches!

Perhaps this historical context leads to an unexpectedly optimistic conclusion for critics of MOOCs, however. Perhaps it will turn out to be the case that the MOOC will represent the dethroning of the “great lecturer” — breaking the spell of authority and self-evidence by mass availability. Instead of being the bread and butter of university education, lectures will become a niche form of entertainment like reading old books and listening to classical records. Deprived of the “sage on stage,” the university will once again be forced to find a new way of authorizing its privileged role in society — and perhaps this time, deprived of the mystical aura of the Great Books and the Great Lecturers, it will finally discover that its only hope is to demonstrably, actually teach people stuff.

4 thoughts on “MOOCs and “The Great Books”

  1. I actually read the blockquote. And thought it was interesting. I don’t think this ruins the correspondence between the great era of Great Books and “High Fordism” that you point to. But the chronology (that secular humanism was just a brief period of transition between the religious university and the science-driven university) seems a bit too clean. Secular humanism has genealogical roots in the religious university, especially in forms of relatively open internal rebellion against it. Emerson, and his divinity school address, for example. His philosophy wasn’t secular humanism, but certainly aided in the development of a secular humanist sensibility. Incidentally, Emerson was also deeply influenced by German historical criticism of the Bible. Which was still part of the religious university’s scholarly enterprise, but also contributed to the development of secular humanism in its own way, and aimed to be “scientific”! Similarly, secular humanism still retains a strong imaginative appeal for many in the sciences (Dawkins, etc…) I think the chronology misses some of those overlaps, entanglements, repetitions.

    Similarly, I just wonder if the narrative that the MOOC is marking some fully “new” stage in the development of academic life is missing overlaps, entanglements, repetitions…

  2. Way back in the ’50s, Shimer’s use of the Great Books taught me how to study and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. That has proved both useful and confining. Useful in that my interests are now, but only now, beginning to be satisfied–yes, 60 some years later. Confining in that, as I am not an academic, when people ask me what I am doing, only a few can relate. With mass media and the internet, I have access and bits and pieces of exchanges available–as with this blog, which I read with some regularity. I have learned to look on the Great Books as “pre-Heidegger metaphysics” and relish Jean-Luc Nancy’s image of ours as the epoch of hatching. That is to say, times change.

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