It hasn’t been a month since the election and already Meg Worthen in the New York Times is urging liberal professors to go back to the 1940s and The Great Books. I think I have whiplash from the abrupt change I direction. Weren’t we just talking about pedagogy of disenfranchised, historically neglected or maligned groups?
As a medieval historian who leans left politically, I teach bits of this Mortimer Adler-inspired pedagogy, but not because I want to indoctrinate new conservatives. I teach Augustine and Aquinas because they’re fundamental to understanding the mentalité of medieval Europeans. But the key difference between what I do and what most conservatives advocate is that I was trained to critique the Great Books. His was not part of some bastion of left-wing foment but at a Jesuit Catholic university.
I have many bones to pick with Professor Worthen’s op ed piece, but for now I’ll focus on the way that conservatives use Great Books as static and heroic, and in so doing they drain the life out of them. These texts beg for a regular critique by another great thinker who happens to be alive, or to have lived since 1800. Augustine and his Great Books companions take a beating from post-modern critiques but ultimately they still stands tall. For example, in the run-up to war with Iraq in 2003, there was excellent work done on just war theory by Martin Marty at the University of Chicago. Lisa Sowle Cahill works on feminist ethics and works extensively with Augustine and Aquinas.
Dead white Chrisitian men do matter, but not just as icons for veneration by a conservative reading group. They are best read alongside a crititque that refracts the texts through a contemporary standpoint epistemology.
And not only should they not be read in isolation, they should not be the only thing read. There are hundreds of Great Books written by non-Christian, non-western women and men that are as important as Augustine and Aquinas.
My question for you: How do you teach canonical texts in troublesome times? What modern authors do you pair with them?