A bow to the middlebrows

In Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor, W.A. Pannapacker defends cultural strivers and the Great Books in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The rejection of the Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment—as anyone who teaches college students can probably affirm.

For all their shortcomings, the Great Books—along with many other varieties of middlebrow culture—reflected a time when the liberal arts commanded more respect. They were thought to have practical value as a remedy for parochialism, bigotry, social isolation, fanaticism, and political and economic exploitation. The Great Books had a narrower conception of “greatness” than we might like today, but their foundational ideals were radically egalitarian and proudly intellectual.

I remember hearing about middlebrows when I was a kid. I had a feeling I was one.

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  1. their foundational ideals were radically egalitarian

    I’m pretty sure I disagree with that statement. I don’t have time to read the article right now (getting ready for work) but I sure hope the author gives some supporting examples!

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    He seems to be one of the few who “gets” the Great Books. This collection was marketed similarly to encyclopedias, door to door, as a hallmark of education for the middle classes. There are in fact indicators that they were actually read and studied, in addition to filling shelves with the trappings of education.

    I don’t know that their rejection today is rooted as strongly in a sense that they are not practical as they are in a realization of the role that a specified body of knowledge has played historically in separating the educational haves from the educational have nots. While egalitarian in the sense of providing a somewhat accessible means of acquiring the trappings of education and culture given to some and denied to others–a way to catch up, particularly for those whose business success brought them in economically–there is no denying the unquestioned endorsement of the dominant culture.

    I think we have come to a fortunate sense of unease with the role of education as granting to certain bodies of work a cache that is denied to others primarily because they derive from cultures unexplored, or unknown to the members of a certain class.

  3. –there is no denying the unquestioned endorsement of the dominant culture.

    Words like “there is no denying” always give me an overpowering urge to argue the opposite. And in the case of the Great Books, it’s jolly easy to argue the opposite. Take for example this list of Great Books from 1886 – http://www.interleaves.org/~rteeter/grtlubbock.html
    The list includes:
    – The Analects of Confucius
    – The Koran (portions of)
    – St. Hilaire’s “Le Bouddha et sa religion”
    – Maha Bharata
    – Ramayana (History of India)
    – The Sheking
    – Dante’s Divina Commedia
    – Arabian Nights

    These are not entirely Western books.

    Or take the First Edition of the Great Work’s list, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Books_of_the_Western_World#The_works
    The starting point is the Ancient Greeks and Romans, who obviously differed from the dominant culture of the anglosphere at the time the list was put together in not being Christain. The list also includes many people from cultures not within the dominant one:
    – Dante Alighieri – Italian
    – Geoffrey Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales, which are bawdy in a way that early 20th century literature wasn’t mostly
    – Francois Rabelias (foreign plus bawdy)
    – Cervante’s Don Quixote
    – Benedict de Spinoza, a Dutch Jew of Portuguese descent
    – Adam Smith, the author of an attack on mercentalism, which did not endorse the dominant culture
    – Karl Marx, the famous proponent of Communism, which did not endorse the dominant culture
    – Sigmund Freud, with his sex obsession.
    – Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, both Russian authors.

    I don’t see any endorsement here of a dominant culture. Unless by “dominant culture” you mean “a culture that is open to new ideas”.

    I think we have come to a fortunate sense of unease with the role of education as granting to certain bodies of work a cache that is denied to others primarily because they derive from cultures unexplored, or unknown to the members of a certain class.

    We may be uneasy about such matters, but I have no idea of how, practically, you think that any teacher can be expected to teach a body of works that they don’t know about and have never explored. Of course the process of education can result in unexpected discoveries by the teacher as well as by the student. But we can only plan to teach what is already known.

  4. Homeschooling Granny says:

    The flip side to the coin of unease about endorsing a certain body of works and the culture it conveys, is to not have a common culture that is generally understood by all citizens. Today we seem to have a common culture that centers around the commercial and the entertaining.

    It looks as if some of our deeper political and social issues derive from people not having a common understandings based on shared knowledge. I’ve had some interesting and very frustrating conversations with people who have not read the Federalist Papers as I have. We do not share a common understanding of the constitution or the founding of this country.

  5. Andrew Bell says:

    I have a daughter at one of the great books schools (there are still a few), and while some of the students may think highly of themselves, the school is certainly accessible to anyone who wishes to read and learn. The great books aren’t necessarily about obtaining a body of knowledge, though they may help in that regard. They are about helping one to explore thoughts that may not have occurred to them – they broaden one’s experience vicariously. It is sad to me that so many don’t see this as valuable.

    When told that my daughter was going to attend a school that had all required courses and no majors, save “liberal arts,” I was asked over and over, “What is she going to do with that?” My reply was always “Anything she wants.”

    It can be empowering to learn that you can think for yourself and have some basis other than radio talk show bluster as a foundation.

  6. ponderosa says:

    I’m reading Robert Maynard Hutchins’s 1936 pro-Great Books manifesto right now. One of his claims that I found fresh and interesting is that the aim of education is to connect man with man. English, our common language, does this to an extent, but a common stock of IDEAS (such as what the Great Books could give us) does this to a much greater degree. I like this idea. Reducing the isolation of our minds/souls, bringing our minds together in shared knowledge of Plato, Newton, etc. I agree with Homeschooling Granny: in the absence of a common core curriculum, crappy pop culture fills the vacuum. Sadly my American age mates and I can talk about old Brady Bunch episodes and Coke commercials, but not Melville or the Federalist Papers. If the Margos of the world want to ditch the Dead White Men, I’ll settle for Chinese classics –anything so long as it’s more nutritious than Jon and Kate gossip and iPhone app chatter.


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