Friday, August 26, 2016

The Great Conversation: Preface

from The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins

The Editors do not believe that any of the social and political changes that have taken place in the last fifty years, or any that now seem imminent, have invalidated or can invalidate the tradition or make it irrelevant for modern men. On the contrary, they are convinced that the West needs to recapture and re-emphasize and bring to bear upon its present problems the wisdom that lies in the works of its greatest thinkers and in the discussion that they have carried on. 

This set of books is offered in no antiquarian spirit. We have not seen our task as that of taking tourists on a visit to ancient ruins or to the quaint productions of primitive peoples. We have not thought of providing our readers with hours of relaxation or with an escape from the dreadful cares that are the lot of every man in the second half of the twentieth century after Christ. We are as concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking. We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation. We want them to be heard again not because we want to go back to antiquity, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the Eighteenth Century. 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. 

X. A Letter to the Reader

from The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins

IMAGINE you reading this far in this set of books for the purpose of discovering whether you should read further. I will assume that you have been persuaded of the necessity and possibility of reading these books in order to get a liberal education. But how about you? The Editors are not interested in general propositions about the desirability of reading the books; they want them read. They did not produce them as furniture for public or private libraries. 

We say that these books contain a liberal education and that everybody ought to try to get one. You say either that you have had one, that you are not bright enough to get one, or that you do not need one. 

You cannot have had one. If you are an American under the age of ninety, you can have acquired in the educational system only the faintest glimmerings of the beginnings of liberal education. Ask yourself what whole great books you read while you were in school, college, or university. Ask yourself whether you and your teachers saw these books as a Great Conversation among the finest minds of Western history, and whether you obtained an understanding of the tradition in which you live. Ask yourself whether you mastered the liberal arts. I am willing to wager that, if you read any great books at all, you read very few, that you read one without reference to the others, in separate courses, and that for the most part you read only excerpts from them. 

IX. East and West

from The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins

AT this point I hear some reader say, "The world community and the world republic of law and justice must be composed of all peoples everywhere. These are great books of the West. How can comprehension of the tradition they embody amount to participation in the world republic of learning? How can such comprehension promote world community, since great books of the East are not included?" 

The Editors reply that there is undoubtedly to be a meeting of East and West. It is now going on, under rather unsatisfactory conditions. The Editors believe that those who come to the meeting with some grasp of the full range of the Western tradition will be more likely to understand the East than those who have attended any number of the hastily instituted survey courses about the East proposed by educators who have been suddenly impressed by the necessity of understanding the East and whose notion is that the way to understand anything is to get a lot of information about it. 

The Editors are impressed by the many reminders given to the West by Eastern thinkers that the parts of the Western tradition that are now the least known and the least respected in America are the very parts most likely to help us understand the deepest thought of the East. On the other hand, the Editors are convinced that those aspects of the West which the East finds most terrifying, its materialism, rapacity, and ethnocentric pride, will get no support from those great books which indicate the main line of the Western pursuit of wisdom. The Editors believe that an education based on the full range of the Western search is far more likely to produce a genuine openness about the East, a genuine capacity to understand it, than any other form of education now proposed or practicable. 

VIII. The Next Great Change

from The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins

SINCE education is concerned with the future, let us ask ourselves what we know positively about the future. 

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. 

We know that there is no defense against the most destructive of modern weapons. Both the victor and the defeated will lose the next war. All the factors that formerly protected thiscountry, geographical isolation, industrial strength, and military power, are now obsolete. 

We know that the anarchy of competing sovereign states must lead to war sooner or later. Therefore we must have world law, enforced by a world organization, which must be attained through world co-operation and community. 

VII. The Education of Adults

from The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins

THE Editors believe that these books should be read by all adults all their lives. They concede that this idea has novel aspects. The education of adults has uniformly been designed either to make up for the deficiencies of their schooling, in which case it might terminate when these gaps had been filled, or it has consisted of vocational training, in which case it might terminate when training adequate to the post in question had been gained. 

What is here proposed is interminable liberal education. Even if the individual has had the best possible liberal education in youth, interminable education through great books and the liberal arts remains his obligation; he cannot expect to store up an education in childhood that will last all his life. What he can do in youth is to acquire the disciplines and habits that will make it possible for him to continue to educate himself all his life. One must agree with John Dewey in this: that continued growth is essential to intellectual life. 

VI. Education for All

from The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins

WE have seen that education through the liberal arts and great books is the best education for the best. We have seen that the democratic ideal requires the attempt to help everybody get this education. We have seen that none of the great changes, the rise of experimental science, specialization, and industrialization, makes this attempt irrelevant. On the contrary, these changes make the effort to give everybody this education more necessary and urgent. 

We must now return to the most important question, which is : Can everybody get this education? When an educational ideal is proposed, we are entitled to ask in what measure it can be achieved. If it cannot be achieved at all, those who propose it may properly be accused of irresponsibility or disingenuousness. 

Such accusations have in fact been leveled against those who propose the ideal of liberal education for all. Many sincere democrats believe that those who propose this ideal must be antidemocratic. Some of these critics are carried away by an educational version of the doctrine of guilt by association. They say, 'The ideal that you propose was put forward by and for aristocrats. Aristocrats are not democrats. Therefore neither you nor your ideal is democratic.' 

The answer to this criticism has already been given. Liberal education was aristocratic in the sense that it was the education of those who enjoyed leisure and political power. If it was the right education for those who had leisure and political power, then it is the right education for everybody today. 

V. Experimental Science

from The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins

THE Great Conversation began before the beginnings of experimental science. But the birth of the Conversation and the birth of science were simultaneous. The earliest of the pre-Socratics were investigating and seeking to understand natural phenomena; among them were men who used mathematical notions for this purpose. Even experimentation is not new; it has been going on for hundreds of years. But faith in the experiment as an exclusive method is a modern manifestation. The experimental method has won such clear and convincing victories that it is now regarded in some quarters not only as the sole method of building up scientific knowledge, but also as the sole method of obtaining knowledge of any kind. 

Thus we are often told that any question that is not answerable by the empirical methods of science is not really answerable at all, or at least not by significant and verifiable statements. Exceptions may be made with regard to the kinds of questions mathematicians or logicians answer by their methods. But all other questions must be submitted to the methods of experimental research or empirical inquiry.