The first distinctions which must be observed are those between elitism and elite and between discrimination and discernment. A general definition of elitism is: a certain regard and satisfaction for being recognized as part of a favored group. This definition has a negative connotation in our contemporary Western culture and is generally associated with the sort of ignorant and inflated sense of self that economic or political “elites” seem to have of themselves and their enterprises. As such a doctrine of belief necessarily precludes the capacity for self-reflection and self-inquiry, clearly, it is not an aspect of a Great Books curriculum. A certain concern for what is actually elite would absolutely be a concern for a Great Books curriculum. In the theory of Great Books(, a certain spirit of inquiry and perseverance is repeatedly encountered–in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus demonstrates not only an inquisitive attitude, which gets him in trouble with Polyphemos, the Cyclops, but also endurance of will and goal as his journey home to Ithaka takes him through strange lands, ten years, and the death of all his companions; In Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine himself demonstrates a sort of radical self-inquiry being plagued by questions and self-doubt; In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the existential question is born “To be or not to be”. Naturally, this spirit of inquiry searches after both those things which are considered high (forms: beauty, truth, goodness; virtues: prudence, temperance, courage, justice), and those low and mundane things which give a student a certain sense of reality. So while a student might study his or her Plato and think about intangible and remote “goodness” in its most abstract form, one will also see Odysseus, wet, weakened, and stripped of his ship, men, and clothes sleeping under the shade of a double olive tree; covered in leaves–praying that a wild predator nor the frost from the air strips life from him as he ignobly sleeps like an animal near the shore of Scheria. Obviously, though a certain concern for developing “elite” skills like critical thinking and “elite values” like nobility may be parts of the Great Books curricula, a recognition of the harsh realities and survival methods of “Great and storied” men are also major attributes of such curricula.

The next point which might allow a Great Books curriculum to seem elitist would be its measure of accessibility, both by proximity and intellectually. To the first point, it seems that in order to be elitist in terms of offering the curriculum, one must offer exposure to the Great Books to a favored and select group of peoples in order to inflate their sense of class and self. This means that in order to be elitist the curriculum would have to be exclusively offered. That, however, is not the purpose of this project nor is it contained within the definition of Great Books set out early on ( Wide and general accessibility is both the goal of this blog, the implementation model at my school, and will soon be offered through increased digital materials. As a side note, though certainly everything included in a classical learning model is not “Great”, and all “Great Books” are not free, many are free and accessible online through such sites as Perseus-Tufts.

Great Books must therefore be elitist concerning their intellectual approachability. What this idea suggests is that such texts as Homer’s Odyssey, Euclid’s Elements, Virgil’s Aeneid, Plato’s Meno, et alia are in some way the intellectual property and concern of a certain “elite” class of individuals. This vague notion is in itself difficult to dismiss because it is difficult to pin down exactly who this elite class would be: intellectuals or political/economic elites? Though at the turn of the 19th century it may have been the case that those with the best educations were the wealthiest, it is not always true today that the economic elites have the same education and concern for education that once seemed to go hand in hand. There is also a difficulty, epistemologically, with the notion that only intellectual elites have access to understanding of “Great Books”. For one, insofar as intellectual elites are no longer economic elites, this means that people who rise to the status of “intellectual elite” may come from the middle and lower classes by virtue of their learning. If one draws out one’s reasoning here, that means that people of multiple classes, not simply some favored class, are given access to educations which make the “Great Books” accessible by means of physical and intellectual proximity–and also that the Great Books are approachable by a broader spectrum of people than some “privileged class”. On a practical note, too, I teach and have implemented a Great Books curriculum in a public charter school in a racially and economically diverse community in California. I do not come from the Ivory-Tower, and as a high school teacher, I am not exactly an economic elite. I also do not teach to those who are likely to be, at least at large, the wardens of the Ivory Tower’s majestic heights, though they could if they so desired. With their learning, my students may choose to be whatever they want.

A Great Books curriculum now having been proven neither to be elitist in theory or practice, the next point which must be addressed is the difference between discrimination and discernment. There are two ways by which detractors generally suggest that Great Books curricula are discriminatory: (1) they feature largely white male authors from throughout time, and (2) there is not a diversity of perspective in the texts–as these white male authors apparently all think the same thoughts. The first claim is dismissed almost as easily as the second: for one, in a curriculum of learning, for instance in a biology class or a mathematics class: does the content become less valid based on the ethnicity or nationality of the persons who discovered the theorems and equations? Or the the taxonomical differences between two species, for example? Obviously, not–such a suggestion would be itself considered prejudicial. Such an esteemed interlocutor might then be tempted to suggest that liberal studies are by their very nature subjective and that limiting one’s perspectives to “old white men” from the past is by nature excluding the vast majority of perspectives from the world in the past and present. At first, this seems like a fairly cogent point–until one thinks the matter through. For one, is it really possible to take perspectives from writers from Archaic Greece, Ancient Greece, Rome, Pre-Christian Scandinavia, Medieval Andalusia, Carthage, and fairly modern Germany, England, France, et alia and reduce their perspectives to “old white male”? This thought, grand in scope as it may be, is patently devoid of truly inquiring into the Great Books, European/American History, and the diversity of perspectives which have pervaded people, cultures, and nations throughout the entirety of Western Civilization. As a minor example, one might even look to Britain and Germany during 1941. Did those cultures and their thinkers then share the same values and opinions? Was Martin Heidegger of the same persuasion of thought as say C.S. Lewis at that time? Were the Egyptian or Carthaginian and Medieval Arabic peoples Anglo-Saxon? Are one’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and values so easily reducible to one’s ethinicity, nationality, time period, and geographical location? Such an objection shows a profound misunderstanding of human nature, history, and what differentiates one thinker from another.

The second objection which suggests that there could not possibly be a diversity of perspectives in the texts is as grossly ignorant of Great Books as the first objection. That Homer, who wrote about the deeds of heroes and Greek gods, for example, believed in the same God that Augustine writes of in his Civitas Dei or Confessions, or that either of them shared the same rational and emanating god as the Jewish writer Baruch Spinoza centuries later, or the “dead god” Nietzsche espoused centuries after that would be a highly, highly suspect claim. And that is only considering the differences between the religious/theological beliefs/thoughts of a few Great Thinkers. The political, psychological, logical, and ethical differences are astounding as well. Between Euclid and Bertrand Russell, for example, there would even be disagreement about the logical nature of mathematics.

All this goes to say that brilliant minds do not all think alike in terms of what their opinions, thoughts, and feelings are, but that these minds, and their output housed in Great Books, do maintain a certain quality throughout. This quality, which was briefly mentioned above, is discernment. Discernment might be generally defined in the following way: as maintaining a high capacity for rational thinking, judgment, and discretion. Each and every one of the “Great Books” in so far as it is a Great Book illustrates a level of judgment or rational cogitation at a superior level of thinking, and the point of reading such works is to imprint the young with such capacity to achieve such heights themselves, not to make them think, believe, or feel in the same way as the thinkers that they encounter. Just as one is not a friend to another in order to become that other, but rather to experience the world and life in light of another’s unique and vivid experiences, deeds, and thoughts, so is one to take the messages, thoughts, and stories of the Great Books and to craft one’s own superior story, whether it be in deed or in thought–and whether it last as long as the span of one’s years or longer.


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