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 Minding the Campus: The Overthrow of the Great Books

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RR Phantom


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PostSubject: Minding the Campus: The Overthrow of the Great Books   Tue Apr 10, 2018 11:37 pm

Many years ago, in the late ‘90s, three professors and I met with the undergraduate dean at Emory University to discuss a Great Books proposal. Steven Kautz, a political scientist, led the effort, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Harvey Klehr, and I backed him up. The idea was to build a Great Books track within the undergraduate curriculum whereby if a student took enough approved courses, he could add a certificate to his record. Kautz had lined up funding for the program and promises of cooperation from (to that point) three or four departments.

The dean was cautious. He wasn’t really a humanities guy, and none of us knew him well. Soon afterward, in fact, he left Emory to become head of the Bronx Zoo. Without his approval, though, we couldn’t move forward. He listened to Kautz’s pitch without any show of enthusiasm, simply nodding and posing a logistical query now and then. When Kautz finished, he finally made a substantive suggestion: drop the “Great Books” label.

The Sound of Superiority

He didn’t like the term. I recall him saying something about “Great Books” sounding superior or combative. Professor Kautz didn’t waver on the title, but he didn’t make much of an issue out of it, either. The suggestion trailed off, and we left the dean’s office without any determination one way or the other. As I think back on it now, I can’t conceive of anything we might have said after he offered his criticism that would have gotten past it and left our vision of the program intact. Obviously, we were there because we wanted a mini-curriculum of traditional, Western Civ works available for students interested in that kind of material.

Like everyone everywhere else, we had seen the core of liberal education erode as multiculturalism spread through the professorate and as “education” types called for more student choice in the general requirements for the bachelor’s degree. A policy that allowed a student to take a course on contemporary fiction instead of one on The Odyssey disgusted us. To object to “Great Books” was to ask us to drop our basic philosophy of teaching.

Perhaps that was his intent. A clever bureaucrat doesn’t kill an initiative by beheading it. He goes after a big toe, a small-seeming request or inquest that, in fact, disables the whole project or discourages the leaders of it.
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