The Great Conversation: Substance of a Liberal Education

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Hutchins, Robert.  The Great Conversation: Substance of a Liberal Education.

If Robert Hutchins can answer this question, then this introduction is a resounding success:  Why do I need to read from this canon of books? He gives an initial answer: “It is the task of each generation to reassess the tradition in which it lives” (Hutchins xi).

I’ll give my own example.  What is “justice?” The conservative says it is letting each man keep his own.  The socialist says it is having access to my pocketbook. At the most basic everyone will agree it means “playing fair.”  The Tradition can help us. While no one will agree with Aristotle full stop, he did frame the debate quite clearly, so he can be our starting point.

The Tradition of the West

Why should we read the Western Canon?  It’s a dangerous question, one that will get you blocked from several university campuses.  At the risk of sounding triumphalist, the West produced more lasting great thinkers than anyone else.  More importantly, these books “were the principal instrument in….the education that men acquired for themselves” (3).

What is a “liberal education?” It is the education of free men. As noted above, a liberal education seeks to clarify (if not always answer) the basic problems. These books teach people “not only how to read them, but also how to read all other books” (47).  This point shouldn’t be missed. It’s not enough to read Aristotle. It is to read Aristotle as he is in conversation with Plato, and how Thomas Aquinas will be in conversation with both. It is not enough to read and refute the demoniac Karl Marx. It is to read Marx as he was in conversation with the classical economic tradition.

These books “explode sociological determinism, because it shows that no age speaks with a single voice” (9).  This also means that Social Justice/Cultural Marxism is wrong, since no one age or “class” has the same interests.

We can’t say much that is good about the modern world, nor should we.  One good thing it did, however, was to democratize access to the Great Books (Hutchins wrote before the advent of the internet, which only made it more accessible).

It ends with a ten year reading plan for the Great Books.  It won’t take you through every book, but you will read quite a bit. Each year has 18 selections.  These selections generally follow the order of the set


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