- Old voices can help us live better lives now, they did not have the distraction we have today, and properly thought about the use of our time and brains.
- Intellectual people can’t be lied to by loud politicians. Smart people have their own opinion.
- The liberally educated man has a mind that can operate well in all fields. He may be a specialist in one field. But he can understand anything important that is said in any field and can see and use the light that it sheds upon his own.
- By the end of the first quarter of this century great books and the liberal arts had been destroyed by their teachers. The books had become the private domain of scholars. The word “classics” came to be limited to those works which were written in Greek and Latin. In reality, these books are the public domain and are available to everyone and can be consumed by any one person.
- Community is the future (of humanity). To improve we need better messages, better people, not better methods of distribution.
- Facts have to be supplemented by thinking.
- Great books teach people not only how to read them, but also how to read all other books.
- No one said that these books are easy. But they will get easier as you go through them.
- Many people now expect to be done with learning ones they are out of college. However, the most important things that human beings ought to understand cannot be comprehended in youth. Youth is for building habits and discipline that will allow one to pursue further education in the adulthood. Childhood and youth are no time to get an education. They are the time to get ready to get an education. The great issues, now issues of life and death for civilization, call for mature minds. Childhood is a stage of life reserved for being a child nothing more.
- The principle of an aristocracy was honor, and the principle of a tyranny was fear, the principle of a democracy was education.
- The understanding of the west will help with understanding of the east.
- Every man’s mind ought to keep working all his life long; Liberal education ought to end only with life itself.
This book is an intro book to the Great Books of the Western World series (GBotWW, or just ‘series’ from now on), where Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler try to convince the readers on why it is crucial to read these books. They refer to this series as liberal education and they believe each one of us is capable and should pursue it.
This book has been written in 1952, and with that in mind it is incredible how many topics they cover are relevant today. Not only are they relevant, but also predict the future in a very precise manner.
I don’t think it makes too much sense to read this book in a vacuum, but only if you are planning to read the series. You surely be convinced that spending the time to read this challenging books is worth your time and effort.
Apart from convincing you to approach the series they will do a great job of telling you how to approach it (there are multiple approaches). The approach I have decided to follow is a 10 Year Reading Plan, which slowly gets you into the minds of the Greatest People in our history. Conveniently, they have sorted these works by the level of difficulty, and so as you follow along you will get more and more accustomed to authors and topics. And by the end of this series you will be able to tackle any works that your heart and brain desire.
By reading these books you can take part in the Great Conversation between those authors. While reading you will find them referring to each other and being influenced by each other. Their thoughts and opinions are built on top of their predecessors. Standing on the shoulders of giants.
It is the task of every generation to reassess the tradition in which it lives, to discard what it cannot use, and to bring into context with the distant and intermediate past the most recent contributions to the Great Conversation.
We are quite aware that we do not live in any time but the present, and, distressing as the present is, we would not care to live in any other time if we could. We want the voices of the Great Conversation to be heard again because we think they may help us to learn to live better now.
We believe that the reduction of the citizen to an object of propaganda, private and public, is one of the greatest dangers to democracy. A prevalent notion is that the great mass of the people cannot understand and cannot form an independent judgment upon any matter; they cannot be educated, in the sense of developing their intellectual powers, but they can be bamboozled.
CHAPTER I The Tradition of the West
The liberally educated man has a mind that can operate well in all fields. He may be a specialist in one field. But he can understand anything important that is said in any field and can see and use the light that it sheds upon his own. The liberally educated man is at home in the world of ideas and in the world of practical affairs, too, because he understands the relation of the two.
CHAPTER III Education and Economics
If the people are not capable of acquiring this education, they should be deprived of political power and probably of leisure. Their uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous. If the people are incapable of achieving the education that responsible democratic citizenship demands, then democracy is doomed, Aristotle rightly condemned the mass of mankind to natural slavery, and the sooner we set about reversing the trend toward democracy the better it will be for the world.
Millions of men throughout the world are living in economic slavery. They are condemned to subhuman lives. We should do everything we can to strike the shackles from them. Even while we are doing so, we must remember that economic independence is not an end in itself; it is only a means, though an absolutely necessary one, to leading a human life. Even here, the clarity of the educational ideal that the society holds before itself, and the tenacity with which that ideal is pursued, are likely to be decisive of the fate of the society.
CHAPTER IV The Disappearance of Liberal Education
The West has not accepted the proposition that the democratic ideal demands liberal education for all. In the United States, at least, the prevailing opinion seems to be that the demands of that ideal are met by universal schooling, rather than by universal liberal education. What goes on in school is regarded as of relatively minor importance. The object appears to be to keep the child off the labor market and to detain him in comparatively sanitary surroundings until we are ready to have him go to work.
By the end of the first quarter of this century great books and the liberal arts had been destroyed by their teachers. The books had become the private domain of scholars. The word “classics” came to be limited to those works which were written in Greek and Latin.
There can be little argument about the proposition that the task of the future is the creation of a community. Community seems to depend on communication. This requirement is not met by improvements in transportation or in mail, telegraph, telephone, or radio services. These technological advances are frightening, rather than reassuring, and disruptive, rather than unifying, in such a world as we have today. They are the means of bringing an enemy’s bombs or propaganda into our homes.
CHAPTER V Experimental Science
William Harvey says neither more nor less when he declares that “to test whether anything has been well or ill advanced, to ascertain whether some falsehood does not lurk under a proposition, it is imperative on us to bring it to the proof of sense, and to admit or reject it on the decision of sense.” To proclaim the necessity of observing the facts, and all the facts, is not to say, however, that merely collecting facts will solve a problem of any kind. The facts are indispensable; they are not sufficient. To solve a problem it is necessary to think.
CHAPTER VI Education for All
If many great books seem unreadable and unintelligible to the most learned as well as to the dullest, it may be because we have not for a long time learned to read by reading them. Great books teach people not only how to read them, but also how to read all other books.
CHAPTER VII The Education of Adults
Man, though an animal, is not all animal. He is rational, and he cannot live by animal gratifications alone; still less by amusements that animals have too much sense to indulge in. A man must use his mind; he must feel that he is doing something that will develop his highest powers and contribute to the development of his fellow men, or he will cease to be a man.
At present it is built upon the notion, which is unfortunately correct, that nobody is ever going to get any education after he gets out of school. Here we encounter the melancholy fact that most of the important things that human beings ought to understand cannot be comprehended in youth.
CHAPTER VIII The Next Great Change
We know that all parts of the world are getting closer together in terms of the mechanical means of transportation and communication. We know that this will continue. The world is going to be unified, by conquest or consent. We know that the fact that all parts of the world are getting closer together does not by itself mean greater unity or safety in the world. It may mean that we shall all go up in one great explosion.
Vocationalism, scientism, and specialism can at the most assist our people to earn a living and thus maintain the economy of the United States. They cannot contribute to the much more important elements of national strength: trained intelligence, the understanding of the country’s ideals, and devotion to them. Nor can they contribute to the growth of a community in this country.
A republic is a common educational life in process. So Montesquieu said that as the principle of an aristocracy was honor, and the principle of a tyranny was fear, the principle of a democracy was education. Thomas Jefferson took him seriously. Now we discover that a little learning is a dangerous thing. We see now that we need more learning, more real learning, for everybody.
CHAPTER IX East and West
Understanding requires a recognition of common values. For so long as men cannot think with other peoples, they have not understood, but only known them; and in this situation it is largely an ignorance of their own intellectual heritage that stands in the way of understanding and makes an unfamiliar way of thinking to seem ‘queer’.
CHAPTER X A Letter to the Reader
And this is the point: every man’s mind ought to keep working all his life long; every man’s imagination should be touched as often as possible by the great works of imagination; every man ought to push toward the horizons of his intellectual powers all the time. It is impossible to have “had” a liberal education, except in a formal, accidental, immaterial sense. Liberal education ought to end only with life itself.
I must reiterate that you can set no store by your education in childhood and youth, no matter how good it was. Childhood and youth are no time to get an education. They are the time to get ready to get an education. The most that we can hope for from these uninteresting and chaotic periods of life is that during them we shall be set on the right path, the path of realizing our human possibilities through intellectual effort and aesthetic appreciation. The great issues, now issues of life and death for civilization, call for mature minds.
It is now necessary for everybody to try to live, as Ortega says, “at the height of his times.” The democratic enterprise is imperiled if any one of us says, “I do not have to try to think for myself, or make the most of myself, or become a citizen of the world republic of learning.” The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.