Unless I miss my guess, almost every one of us have taken a quiz to see how many titles we’ve read from a list of 100 classic books. If you’re like me, you’ve probably read more than the average test taker, but your score still causes you to wince a bit and resolve to read more of the classic, Great Books collection.
To soothe those guilty, book-illiterate consciences, the late University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom listed eight reasons why people should stay away from the “Great Books cult” in The Closing of the American Mind. Those reasons include:
- It’s amateurish
- It encourages self-assurance without competence
- One can’t read all Great Books carefully
- Reading only Great Books leaves one with no knowledge of ordinary books
- There’s no way of determining who decides what a Great Book is
- Books are made ends and not the means
- The push for Great Books has an evangelistic tone
- Reading Great Books engenders a spurious intimacy with greatness
Undoubtedly, many of us would be tempted to shoot holes in that list and call Professor Bloom an idiot. But before we start the name-calling, let me reassure you that Professor Bloom also produced a counter list of why individuals should read the Great Books. These include:
- Great Books make students excited and satisfied
- They make students feel independent and fulfilled
- Great Books build respect for study
- They create awareness of classic books
- Great Books introduce the big questions of life
- They create models on how to answer those questions
- Great Books provide shared experiences
- They create gratitude for learning
So why bring up the pros and cons of reading Great Books?
According to Professor Bloom, today’s education system is beset by three major dangers, including “trendiness, mere popularization and lack of substantive rigor.” As a result, students go through their schooling gleaning a little bit of this and that, but never gain a consistent, unified picture of history, science, and life in general. Thus, although he can see problems with fixating on reading Great Books, Bloom recognizes that a thorough grounding in them is the only way for restoring the cultural and historical literacy we’ve lost.
What do you think of Bloom’s pros and cons for reading Great Books? Would you agree with his assessment that restoring a canon of common literature selections is the only way to rebuild a solid, historical, and academic foundation in society?
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