This slim opening volume of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World contends that liberal education, an unquestioned necessity for the civilized Westerner until the 19th century, though now all but dead, is not only worth reviving but is indispensable for every free citizen of our shrunken, technologized, and heavily armed world.
Robert M. Hutchins, editor of the Britannica Great Books, delivers the keynote address in this essay, called The Great Conversation. In it he seeks to fight off the various criticisms of liberal education and establish why its disappearance in the wake of other, more “modern” educational ideas is a near-disaster for humanity, certainly for the West, even if an invisible and slow-motion one.
A liberal education boils down to studying and contemplating the Great Ideas contained in the Great Books of this series. “We think that these books show the origins of many of our most serious difficulties,” he says. “We think that the spirit they represent and the habit of mind they teach are more necessary today than ever before.”
He makes the case that these books, far from containing fusty, outmoded ideas fit only for the deliberation of academic specialists, actually set forth, in the most cogent way yet developed, the most important and controversial problems that beset humanity. With few exceptions the Great Books were written not for specialists, but for the interested and intelligent lay reader.
Hutchins deplores the descent of 20th-century education into academic specialization, physical science, and vocational training. According to him, such training in no way prepares us to deal with the deepest problems of modern life: how to coexist nonviolently, even when we cannot agree on things.
As far as I can tell, all the criticisms that have been leveled against the Britannica Great Books series—that it is elitist, patriarchal, Western-biased—are answered in this essay, and answered well. Ideas don’t care who has them or who talks about them. Our biggest danger is that we don’t talk about them, don’t think about them, and are mostly unaware of them. We can certainly debate whether these particular books are exactly the right set for such a series, but if not, they’re pretty close, and they make a great place to start.
I myself have no university education, and have been skeptical of the value of the old-fashioned “liberal education”. Having read Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action, I’ve been persuaded that state education can only mean indoctrination, since, in Mises’ view, no government will fund a curriculum that it perceives as being counter to its interests. Hutchins here delivers a powerful counterstroke to that thought, siding with Thomas Jefferson in the belief that the only way to preserve a free society is through universal education. I have to admit that for myself, the jury is back out. It’s no coincidence, Hutchins would say: Education is one of the 102 Great Ideas discussed in the Great Books.
This book challenged my beliefs and assumptions, made me think deeply, and did so in a very short space. What more recommendation can I give?