The Magazine

Great Books Redux

An educator strives to rediscover knowledge.

Dec 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 14 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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It may be true, as some critics of the Great Books method claim, that its pedagogy implicitly licenses the quarter-thought and fosters a confidence that blooms too early and bids fair to hamper plodding patience in the face of complexity, to say nothing of humility in the face of mysteries resistant to exact formulation and easy sloganeering. Conversing formally about a Great Book cannot ensure that any of its profound, finer elements will lift anybody in the room out of the torpor of trivia, still less that a few weeks of discussion over translations of Homer can make a sharp, perceptive thinker of anybody.

Surely not, but keeping intensive company with Homer, even if only briefly, can begin to make us feel our own smallness before the cosmos, and that is no small benefit. The beginning of wisdom may be the discovery that the sun does not revolve about us.

But nonsense isn't an exclusive prerogative of the younger generation alone. Martin commits a few solecisms of his own, especially ones seeded with therapeutic presuppositions and blossoming into the soft-focused lingo of the talk show and self-help section. So eager is he to dip down into the false sophistications of our popular argot that he sometimes seems to be rehearsing for an appearance with Dr. Phil--point taken about inflated titles?--instead of tracing a sober journey of intellectual rediscovery.

What else are we to make of those oily drops of contemporary thinking of the kind accusing Agamemnon of "severe parental abuse"? Yes, one may choose to put it that way. Then again, one may not.

Wandering back and forth between the seminar room and boathouse, café, and Friday-night lecture, Martin observes in passing the lives of the modern iPod-hooked, cell phone-addicted, texting-mad student, and in doing so discovers, without much surprise, that college students now are pretty much what they always were, questing minds and souls trying, by fits and starts, to make headway toward some solid sense of themselves that will help them find a secure foothold in the world.

As the weeks pass from August to December, some of these young people confide in this father-like figure. But most don't, and we understand why. He is living out of season. We can cheer him on even while cringing from time to time over the ultimate silliness of any enterprise whose object has been to transplant oneself in another stage of life. Let no man in his sixties be advised to "hang out," talk of being "pumped" for a race, or speak of Socrates being a "pain in the butt" who "turns people off."

What remains of this quirky account, once Martin's compelling story fades, is a brighter, more luminous prospect of what the life of the mind can still be for those discerning and disciplined enough to opt for the harder road. But we're still left in the end with the chief paradox of a place like St. John's, that no matter how much the college may sell itself as a grand exercise in democracy, where the greatest books lie open to all comers, this model works best when its devotees, teaching and taught alike, hunger to excel, to stand apart as singular, unique--a handy standard to sustain these days, lest we forget that excellence too holds a modest place in the American tradition.

Tracy Lee Simmons is the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.