Part of the American faith is that all men must have the opportunity to develop their fullest potentialities, and as a natural outgrowth of that faith it has been felt by many that the values of liberal education, instead of being confined to a limited and selected group, as in European countries, should belong to all citizens of a democracy. Some, going even further, would have it that the wide dissemination of liberal education is an absolute necessity if democracy is to survive at all; out of this belief have come the fifty-four volumes of the “Great Books,” published by Encyclopedia Britannica under the editorship of Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, which offer to the “common man” what these editors feel to be the essential content of Western civilization. F. R. Leavis, one of the great figures in criticism in our day, discusses here whether the assumptions behind the Great Books project are sound and whether in any case this list of Great Books or any such list can be taken to embody the core of a liberal education.
D.H. Lawrence’s would have been the commentary to have on The Great Books of the Western World, and the plan of democratic regeneration through the “Study of the Great Ideas,” a study to be pursued with a life-long application and the aid of the Syntopicon (Volume I, Angel to Love; Volume II, Man to World’). It is easy to find in his writings very relevant and suggestive things about Ideas, Idealism (and American Idealism in particular), Freedom, and Equality. Opening Studies in Classic American Literature I light at once on this, in the chapter on Benjamin Franklin:
Oh Benjamin! Oh Binjum! You do Not suck me in any longer.
And why, oh why should the snuff-colored little trap have wanted to take us all in? Why did he do it?
Out of sheer human cussedness, in the first place. We do all like to get things inside a barbed-wire corral. Especially our fellow-men. We love to get them inside the barbed-wire enclosure of Freedom, and make ’em work. “Work, you free jewel, Work!” shouts the liberator, cracking his whip. I do not choose to be a free democrat. I am absolutely a servant of my own Holy Ghost.
Mr. Robert M. Hutchins in The Great Conversation (which explains the plan) addresses the free democrat, conceived as representatively the worker at the assembly line. Work at the assembly line, Mr. Hutchins concedes, tends to be, intellectually and spiritually, neither stimulating nor exalting, but the triumph of industrialization it represents has liberated the free democrat into leisure. Or, rather, it has made it for the first time possible for him to be truly a free democrat. And to be truly a free democrat, Mr. Hutchins insists with stern logic, is an affair of sustained and resolute hard labor. If, as he says, “Work is for the sake of leisure,” then leisure, he immediately makes plain, is for the sake of work; for the sake, in fact, of what, for all but a conceivable handful of Leonardo da Vincis (and Members of the Advisory Board, with the Editorial Consultants—among whom I am impressed to see a member of my own university), must be incomparably more exacting and burdensome than what they ordinarily call work.
The logic is inexorable:
If leisure and political power are a reason for liberal education, then everybody in America now has this reason, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately have it. If leisure and political power require this education, everybody in America now requires it, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately require it. 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 towards democracy the better it will be for the world.
The “liberal education” that the people must achieve in order to qualify, not only for leisure, but for exemption from slavery, is to be identified with the program of the Great Books: this assumption, taken as virtually axiomatic, is of Mr. Hutchins’ logic, which I did not lightly call inexorable.1 The Great Books include (among many others) the works of Plato and Aristotle; the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas; the works of Hipparchus, Galen, and Archimedes; the Enneads of Plotinus; the works of Pascal; Spinoza’s Ethics; Huyghens’ Treatise on Light; Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Knowledge and Optics; The Wealth of Nations; Kant’s three Critiques, together with four other works by him; Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Philosophy of History; Marx’s Capital; Faraday’s Experimental Researches into Electricity; the works of Freud. . . . Liberal education involves mastering these—and not only these—formidable treatises, together (of course) with Homer, the Greek tragic writers, Lucretius, Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare, Faust, and so on; and a “liberal education is the education that everybody ought to have.”
“We believe,” says Mr. Hutchins, “that it is a gratuitous assumption that anybody can read poetry, but very few can read mathematics.” There is no irony here: this is not, as you might suppose, a defense of poetry against a gratuitous assumption; it means that it ought to be possible to assume that the mathematical and scientific classics are accessible to all, and that we must assume it in laying our plans for universal liberal education. “This is not to say that any great book is altogether free from difficulty. As Aristotle remarked, learning is accompanied by pain.” So if the free democrat, faced with Pascal’s Correspondence with Vermat on the Theory of Probabilities, or Newton’s Mathematical Principles, or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, should feel that, so far as he is concerned, the probability of profit is not such as to make his applying himself here a good use of his time, the answer is, “Work, you free jewel, work!” One cannot expect to master a great book at one reading; education is a matter of a lifetime; and here, by the way of encouragement, is a ten years’ program sketched. One is free to make one’s own approach and to arrive at one’s own understanding, since these works, “we hold,” are intelligible to the ordinary man. “The great books should speak for themselves, and the reader should decide for himself. Great books contain their own aids to reading; that is one reason why they are great.”
As for the Syntopicon, it “will not interpret any book to the reader; it simply sup plies him with suggestions as to how he may conveniently pursue the study of any important topic through the range of Western intellectual history. And reading and understanding great books will give him a standard by which to judge all other books.”
I Find it hard to decide which aspect of the whole extravagant and enormous unreality is the more astonishing; the idea that liberal education is, or should be, or ever has been, this; or the fanatical illusion that one may hopefully set out to prove that this, or anything like it, could be made, by dint of example and leadership and exhortation, the people’s way of using leisure (or life)—or a common way—in America or any country. But it is that illusion which has given the grotesque and solemn escapade of academic idealism its aspect of portentous fact: here are the volumes, expensively produced; the awe-inspiring catalogue of books is clearly no mere catalogue; the moral and the practical support have been abundantly forthcoming. I start, then, by asking myself how an undertaking so utterly uncountenanced by observation and experience can have been entertained to such effect, commanding as it has done the devoted labors of learned minds and the financial backing of men of the world. And it is plain that the extravagance of this unreality of democratic faith is a kind of corollary of those disastrous consequences of “democracy” in education which are reported by Mr. Hutchins:
The products of American high schools are illiterate, and a degree from a famous college or university is no guarantee that the graduate is in any better case. One of the most remarkable features of American society is that the difference between the “uneducated” and the “educated” is so slight.
The reason for this phenomenon is, of course, that so little education takes place in American educational institutions.
I merely quote Mr. Hutchins. The delicacy of an Englishman’s engaging at all in this commentary comes home to me afresh at this point, and I will only say about the facts in question that, going by a good deal of relevant reading and by what I have gathered in talk from American friends and informants, I take Mr. Hutchins to be expressing with extreme severity a dissatisfaction with American education as it is that (among those who may reasonably be said to have opinions) is generally shared, and for which there are good grounds.
In so complex a matter it would be rash for anyone, whether American or foreign, to offer as an adequate explanation any simple account of causes. Nevertheless, when one considers what one has gathered about the problem and the grounds for discouragement facing the American educationist at the university level, it is impossible not to see the trouble as, in essential respects at any rate, an American interpretation of democracy. It is the interpretation assumed as unquestionable by Mr. Hutchins himself. This comes out strikingly in his way of replying to critics of the scheme he advocates:
Many convinced believers in liberal education attack the idea of liberal education for all on the ground that if we attempt to give liberal education to everybody we shall fail to give it to anybody. They point to the example of the United States, where liberal education has virtually disappeared, and say that this is the inevitable result of taking the dogma of equality of educational opportunity seriously.
The two criticisms I have mentioned come to the same thing: that liberal education is too good for the people. The first group of critics and the second unite in saying that only a few can acquire an education that was best for the best. The difference between the two is in the estimate they place on the importance of the loss of liberal education.
The first group says that, since everybody cannot acquire a liberal education, democracy cannot require that anybody should have it. The second says that, since everybody cannot acquire a liberal education, the attempt to give it to everybody will necessarily result in an inferior education for everybody. The remedy is to separate the few who are capable from the many who are incapable and see to it that the few, at least, receive a liberal education. The rest can be relegated to vocational training and any kind of activity in school that happens to interest them.
The more logical and determined members of this second group of critics will confess that they believe that the great mass of mankind is and of right ought to be condemned to a modern version of natural slavery. Hence there is no use in wasting educational effort upon them.
Mr. Hutchins complicates the point a little by so gratuitously identifying liberal education with the Great Books program. But the unquestioning ease with which he assumes the identity must itself be taken as a mark of the decay in America of the tradition of liberal education. And in that decay it seems plain that the axiom assumed by Mr. Hutchins had a major part; the axiom that it is an offense against democracy to advocate for anybody anything that everybody can’t have. And now, answering his critics, Mr. Hutchins with emphatic deliber-ateness advocates his Great Books program as the education for everybody. He has indeed gone further; he has said that, if everybody cannot be proved to be capable of this education, then democracy is doomed.
If Mr. Hutchins is right, then we can have no hope for democracy; for nothing is more certain than that very few persons indeed are capable of making even a plausible show of submission to the regime of the Great Books—even with the aid of the Syntopicon. The conclusion, however, that I choose to dwell upon is that, until the “democratic” axiom is dropped, it is a poor lookout for liberal education in America. I won’t for the moment argue about the relation of the Great Books and the Syntopicon to any intelligent idea of education, but will state my firm belief in this form: it is disastrous to let a country’s educational arrangements be determined, or even affected, by the assumption that a high intellectual standard can be attained by more than a small minority. This belief has behind it a very different experience from Mr. Hutchins’; for the history of education in England has not been what he reports of America.
Severe as would be in some contexts the criticisms I should pass on education in my own country, it would be misleading here not to say that English schools are good. I should be ungrateful if I said otherwise, seeing the profit that, as a university “teacher,” I get out of working with the undergraduates coming from them. These men, of course, are very highly selected. I will not here try to sketch the system by which the minority of the school-attending population ultimately judged capable of benefiting by university education gets to the university. The essential point I have to make is given in the words “selected” and “minority”: the attempt to establish a democratic educational system in Great Britain has gone on the assumption that far from everybody has the capacity to justify his or her presence at a university—if “university” is to mean anything—and that there must consequently be a severe sifting. My own observation and experience (it seems odd to have to say so) assure me that that assumption is well grounded. And I will record my conviction that, for a good long while before the well-known postwar educational reforms associated with the Welfare State, very few in Great Britain capable of justifying their presence at a university had failed to get there.
But I see that I must now, in order to convey the force of what I have to say, supply this informative note: Oxford and Cambridge cream the country; no one who can get into Oxford or Cambridge, and wants to go there, goes anywhere else (at least, this is true of England, and I know that the pull of the ancient English universities on Scotland is very strong). Under the postwar Labor government an attempt was made to “direct,” as of right and policy, those for whom the public funds were making university education possible—to direct, that is, to Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol, or whatever other university the authorities judged proper, students whom Oxford and Cambridge were willing to admit; but the attempt met with strong resistance and was generally condemned and has been abandoned. So Oxford and Cambridge, as I said, still cream the country.
My point is that there is a cream and that it is a very small proportion of the population of university age. Teachers in the provincial universities bear rueful testimony to the fact. When I compare notes with them I find them as a rule very ready to recognize that, in general, by the standards of Oxford and Cambridge, the work in their departments—the education for the guidance of which they have to assume responsibility-is not really at the university level. They hope to find now and then an especially good man who, when they have done all they can for him, can be sent to an ancient university to qualify for an Oxford or Cambridge degree. The disadvantage under which they work is not a condition they would propose to remedy by diverting the best material from the ancient universities and sharing it out. They know—they have good reason to know—that the supply is strictly limited, and that only by the actual concentration can standards be maintained, and that unless they are maintained somewhere the cause is lost everywhere.
What I am trying to convey is that in a country in which there has been no such collapse, and no such hiatus in tradition, as Mr. Hutchins reports of American education, it is impossible to question the clear fact: only a minority is capable of advanced intellectual culture. The situation I have briefly sketched amounts to this: Oxford and Cambridge (which, as I have said, cream the country) could become more “open” only by lowering standards, for no other discrimination than what is represented by these now regulates their hospitality. And if democratic equality of opportunity requires that standards should be lowered, then I am against democracy.
At This point I have to confess that by . Mr. Hutchins’ standards I am not qualified to speak: I have not read most (I think) of the Great Books, and I shall never read them. I know that it would be a waste of my time and energy to try. And yet I had what Mr. Hutchins (to judge by his account of the conditions he is familiar with) would judge a comparatively good education. I left school with a very good start in French and German. I spent a great deal of time as a schoolboy writing Latin proses, some of which were commended by my headmaster, Mr. Ezra Pound’s correspondent, Dr. Rouse. I could in those days (so soon left behind!) explain in Greek, observing quantity, stress, and tonic accent (the precise value of which Dr. Rouse knew), that I was late for school because I had a puncture in my back tire. With my Form I read through semi-dramatically the plays of Shakespeare. I worked enough at history (I remember reading, among other things, Trevelyan’s History of the American Revolution) to win a university scholarship in that subject. At the university I took the Historical Tripos Part I and the English Tripos, both successfully. Then I was able to spend three years in post-graduate research.
It will be plain that I was not, at the beginning of the last paragraph, subsiding into modesty—though it should be equally plain that I have a strong (it is often a painful) sense of my limitations. My aim in these personal notes has been to give due force to the avowal that I have not read the greater number (I suspect) of the Great Books and, knowing it could never be worth my while to make the attempt at working through any such program, shall never make it. Nor can I easily believe that Mr. Hutchins himself, whatever ideal schemes the optimistic zeal of unbridled academic intellectualism may have proposed to him in abstraction, has actually worked through anything like that program, or will seriously give himself to the attempt. He has had, and has, other things to do.
I have just used the phrase “academic intellectualism”: that seems to me to describe aptly enough the whole ethos of the Great Books—the Great Books, the Great Ideas, the Great Conversation, and the Syntopicon. So extreme a form of academic intellectualism could be found, I think, or could at any rate be taken so seriously, only in America, the favoring conditions being those which I touched on some time ago in these pages2 when referring to Mr. Eliot’s estimate of Irving Babbitt as against D. H. Lawrence and to the conceptions of Culture, Civilization, and Art represented by Pound’s Cantos (and his pamphleteering). The conditions are those pointed to by Mr. Hutchins himself in his account of the past century of American education. Where the living tradition has been so weakened the higher culture that should be of it becomes a thing apart, insulated from the world of actualities, where “serious” living is done, in a kind of academic other-world. The ideal intellectual culture advocated by the promoters of the Great Books is plainly a monstrous unreality fostered by such conditions. The hypertrophied academic innocence, the utter remoteness from realities, the lack of all sense of how things are and what they could be, is proclaimed in the belief that this culture might, and must, be acquired by everybody. Let us not be academic and esoteric—let us bring it into full and living relation with actualities! Because the great bulk of mankind has never had the chance to get liberal education, Mr. Hutchins tells us, it isn’t proved that they cannot get it.
The unintelligently intellectualist nature of the academicism is manifested in the belief that this is liberal education, and the astonishing ignorance going with the intellectualism in the belief that this, or anything like it, was the education of the educated in any past. There must be scores of scholars in America who can provide Mr. Hutchins with compelling corrective notes about the intellectual cultures, and the lines of the liberal educations, of a number of different pasts in which there were powerful educated classes. Always in these pasts there is the strong positive bent, the selective interest, the relation to specific contemporary needs and conditions and to the set of the current in the contemporary movement of life. The type member of the élite didn’t cover more than a fraction of the reading enjoined on the free democrat by Mr. Hutchins. If he had (incredibly) occupied his leisure in the prescribed spirit, that would have meant that, at the “educated” level, there was no living tradition. And where there is no living tradition there is in no real sense a contemporary higher culture and there can hardly be a liberal education.
Perhaps the case today is not as utterly hopeless—not quite as hopeless—as the Great Books scheme would make it appear, even though such a scheme, fervently advocated with wide and powerful support, suggests that all notion of what a living tradition is like has been lost. But I will, at any rate for the moment, put aside talk about “tradition” (that tricky concept which needs such delicate and positive handling) and make some points that must have occurred to anyone who, as a “teacher,” is concerned with liberal education at a place where, in a modern community, liberal education is at least a recognized and institutional concern: a university. Thinking of correctives to academic tendencies, one tells oneself that there will be this mark of a student’s having spent his time not without profit: he will leave the university knowing to much better effect that there are renowned works he needn’t take as seriously as convention affirms, and others that, though they will repay the right reader’s study, are not for him. For an instance of the first class, there is Aristotle’s Poetics, a treatise prescribed among the Great Books. There may be some point in a student’s looking up the Poetics when he is going into Tragedy under the guidance of Gilbert Murray, Jane Harrison, Cornford, and the other anthropologizing Hellenists. But the man who leaves the university able to suppose that in the Poetics he has studied an illuminating treatise on the foundations of literary criticism has not used his time to real educational profit—even if he has won high academic distinction. It is characteristic of the academic conventionality of the Great Books ethos to endorse the conventional academic standing of the Poetics.
I am not of course being foolish enough to question the importance and greatness of Aristotle—which brings me to the second head of the proposition I threw out in the last paragraph. Every educated person must know something about the nature of that importance and greatness, but it doesn’t follow that he need have made a study of Aristotle’s works, or that it would have been good economy for him to attempt it. Every educated person must know something about Plato, and will undoubtedly have read some of the works, but it doesn’t follow that he must have read studiously through the oeuvre listed among the Great Books. And when it comes to prescribing that he must also have read the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and Kant and Hegel (I confine myself to philosophers—to which, of course, the Great Books are not confined) it is plain beyond question that the promoters of the scheme not only have no notion of the limitations of the ordinary man (or the ordinary member of the intellectually given minority); they have no notion of the nature of a trained mind—or (shall I say) of that kind of training of the powers of thought which must be central to any real education. The student has to learn, as a matter of firm personal possession, the difference between real thinking and what ordinarily passes for that. It is a difficult and painful business, and one that is far from always forwarded—or even proposed—by the academic regime and environment. To the would-be self-improver faced with the Great Books program as something to be seriously attempted, the difference, unless he is a genius or has unusual luck, will never present itself in any challenging form. The difficulty of learning what it is will elude his apprehension in the ardors and endurances, the confident new assaults on Everests of knowledge prescribed for him by Mr. Hut-chins. The typical product of that liberal enterprise, persisted in (if one can conceive of persistence on a big enough scale for there to be a typical product), will be that large, never-at-a-loss knowledgeableness, that articulate intellectuality, that happy confidence among large ideas, which condemns the possessor to essential ignorance of the nature of real—that is, of creative—thinking. And that is no real higher education which doesn’t bring the student some first-hand experience of creative thinking—enough at any rate for him to know what it is, and to know the worthlessness of mere confident articulate intellectuality.
A man will hardly justify time and energy spent in reading the works of Aristotle (to take one instance of the many presented by the Great Books) unless he is committed to an intensity of sustained frequentation, and to a study also of the works of the relevant specialists, that will make him something of a specialist himself. Mr. Hutchins and his friends, in fact, have not formulated the problem of liberal education as it presents itself today to anyone who proposes really to grapple with it. We are irretrievably committed to specialization, and no man can master all the specialisms. The problem is that of educating a central kind of mind, one that will give the different specialisms a humane center, and civilization a center of consciousness. I will add at once, in order to counteract any false suggestion conveyed by “a central kind of mind,” that the hope must be, for those who see the problem for what it is and feel its urgency, to work out different partial solutions at different places.
I Myself have suggested, in Education and the 6/25/2008, how the opportunities presenting themselves in England at my own university might be taken advantage of for some such partial solution. I mention my book because, while intent on defining principles as sharply as possible, I aim there immediately at practice, and give my scheme in some detail: it is only so, it seems to me, that principle, and the nature of a proposed solution, can be made clear. But here, by the way of emphasizing that my criticism of the Great Books is no mere negative affair, I can only throw out some brief and general indications of the lines on which, I think, experiment should proceed—except that I add: “I have explained, in terms bearing directly on practice, precisely what I have in mind—and I have given my hostages.”
That liberal education should be centered in the study of creative literature is a proposition that will perhaps meet with general agreement. When I insist that for English-speaking people it must be centered in the literature of the English language I have in mind in the first place the distinctive discipline of intelligence that literary study should be. And here I come to a place where, I know, without a particularity of illustration that is out of the question, I cannot be sure of not being misunderstood. It ought to be possible to insist that there is a real discipline of intelligence proper to the field of literary study without being supposed to be indicating the “New Criticism.” But I should, I know, be ill advised not to say that what I am thinking of is none of the things commonly associated with that description. The real, disciplined application of intelligence to works of literature is one in which intelligence is not distinguishable from sensibility and essentially involves value judgment. I may indicate the force of my insistence by saying Irving Babbitt, Mr. T. S. Eliot’s enormously learned mentor who hadn’t the beginnings of intelligence about the literature of his own time, does not exemplify the mind that a liberal education would point to as proof of its success.
But the intellectualist inadequacy of the Great Conversation—of that conception of tradition and cultural consciousness and essential human history—comes out most strikingly, perhaps, in Mr. Hutchins’ attitude towards American literature of the past; bringing us to another aspect of the central place of literary study in liberal education:
We thought it no part of our duty to emphasize national contributions, even those of our own country. I omitted Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau and Mark Twain, all very great writers, because I felt that, important as they were, they did not measure up to the other books in the set. They carried forward the Great Conversation, but not in such a way as to be indispensable to the comprehension of it.
Heaven save us from any large supply of the kind of “comprehension” threatened here! It would be the end of all hope of any renewal of life. On that list of names one has to comment that, odd as it is as a list of the “very great” American writers, a study of the writers named, intelligently directed, would provide a better approach in liberal education than any represented by the Syntopicon. This is the more so because one of those named is truly a very great writer, and his masterpiece, not unreasonably reputed the greatest American classic, a peculiarly good opening for a study of civilization. Actually Huckleberry Finn, though excluded from the first list of the Great Books, was let in later. There is a commentary on it in that series of guidebooks (Symposia: five volumes of A Christian Appraisat) which appears also to have been an after-thought (and since the commentators are all Roman Catholics, and from other hints, there would seem to be a curious history behind it). The commentator on Huckleberry Finn pays as good as no attention to the aspects of the book that make it so peculiarly fitted for the purpose in question. Huckleberry Finn exemplifies with great force a kind of relation between “uneducated” living tradition and intellectual culture that the promoters of the Great Books know (one gathers) nothing of; Mark Twain’s art brings the folk culture of the frontier into something that is much more than “folk” and belongs to sophisticated literature. We have here (I make a second point) an unrivaled opening into a study of crucial importance for Americans: the part of the frontier in the history of European civilization in America (a study that, properly developed, would throw some light on the significance of the enterprise under review). Further, Huckleberry Finn illustrates supremely well how creative literature can provide, for the purposes of liberal education, the best kind of opening into ethical inquiry (and sociological); for the main theme of the book, abstractly stated, is the problem presented by the inescapable need for concrete ethical decisions in a society that, like any “Christian” society, has a complex tradition, and is far from univocal in its ethical imperatives and promptings. That the Great Books expositor should not have noticed this interest (the central one) in a great work of creative literature—presented, that is, in the concrete and presented by a profound student, not of the Great Ideas, but of life—constitutes a piquant comment on the intellectual education advocated (and aptly illustrates the force of the description, “academic intellectualism”).
An intelligent study of Huckleberry Finn, of course, would go with a study of Mark Twain and Mark Twain’s America, And such a study (there is admirable guidance—I am thinking in particular of the work of Mr. Bernard De Voto) offers as good an entry into the study of civilized man, and of the problems of civilized living, as a scheme of liberal education could ask for. It is only when intimately related to living experience that thought and knowledge in general or historical terms can have any vitality—can be anything but merely “intellectual” and academic.
One has to note finally that, in his preoccupation with the Great Ideas, the idea of a literature seems to have escaped Mr. Hutchins. “We thought it no part of our duty to emphasize national contributions, even those of our country.” By “national contributions” Mr. Hutchins means individual and separate Great Books. But a literature is a necessary concept, especially for liberal education; and where a country has a literature, and a great one, that literature will, in any real liberal education, be very much emphasized: it will be at the center. And America has a classical literature, and one the central line of which explores with great subtlety the meaning of American history and the relation of America to Europe: important enough themes for any Western mind. It is a literature that has the advantage of being, while distinctively American, part of the greatest of all literatures. I cannot conceive of an intelligent attempt to solve the problem of liberal education in America that should not make a great deal of that opportunity. I am thinking in particular, of course, of the line of novelists: Fenimore Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and Hemy James, the line that (and we may associate Mark Twain) may be said to be the distinctively American way back to (or way on from) Shakespeare—Shakespeare who stands as the great presence in the background.
I shall not, I hope, have been taken to be suggesting that liberal education will be merely a matter of literary studies. But the scheme of liberal education for America that assumes the reading of Shakespeare and the reading of Aeschylus (in translation—and “Great books contain their own aids to reading”) to be the same kind of thing must be judged to betray an ignorance of the nature of literature; and a scheme that hasn’t a sound notion of literature at its center has gone wrong. The syn-topical ignorance (we may call it) that knows nothing of the nature of true literary study, or of the idea of a literature, goes with the intellectualism of the Great Books scheme. And the intellectualism has as a major aspect the pseudo-democratic optimism that pronounces: this is liberal education, and everybody should be capable of it, for it hasn’t been proved that he isn’t; this, or nothing, and the free democrat who doesn’t qualify deserves the slavery coming to him. It is pseudo-optimism; offered alternative slaveries, the ordinary man has no real choice, for very few could tread that intellectual mill, or make any sustained show of treading it. But actually, of course, it is very far from being this or nothing. And of no standard, or higher norm, of liberal education can it be said, it is this or nothing. The standard must be maintained somewhere, or everything is lost for the whole community. But if the standard is established and maintained, and it is a good and vital one, there will be possibilities of education, and of real participation in the cultural heritage, at many levels. What I have been really saying is that it must be intimately associated with a conception—one related to facts, or one that its servants are validly determined to make so—of higher culture as part of the whole community’s tradition of humane life.
1 To be safe against the charge of misrepresentation I must report that Mr. Hutchins makes this concession: “On the other hand, the conclusion that everybody should have that education which will fit him for responsible democratic citizenship . . . does not require the immediate adoption in any country of universal liberal education.”
2 See Mr. Leavis’s “The Americanness of American Literature” in COMMENTARY for November 1952.