Monday, May 20th, 2013
In our latest addition to the Professions and Civic Culture series, University of Virginia professor and literary scholar Paul A. Cantor examines the relationship of the humanities to civic life today. Cantor argues that the academy, in abandoning the traditional defense of studying literature in higher education, has unwittingly undermined public support for the humanities. He urges his colleagues in the university to consider how they might reconnect with older traditions of general education, such as the Great Books:
The justification of the Great Books had a specifically civic component in the context of American higher education.They were regarded as especially important for education in a democracy. Democracy requires an informed electorate; that is one reason why public education has always been an important issue in American politics. Simple literacy is crucial to an informed electorate, and what is now called cultural literacy is important as well.
To be familiar with the Great Books is also to be familiar with the ideas and attitudes that created the United States in the first place and that have continued to guide and shape its development as a nation. It is no accident that the first burst of enthusiasm for the Great Books movement came during and right after World War I and the second came during and right after World War II. Both wars presented threats to American democracy from what were perceived to be alien and nondemocratic cultural traditions. The educational response was to stress the need to provide Americans with a firm grasp of the traditions that gave birth to their cherished democratic institutions. Studying ancient Greek books might at first seem like a frivolous exercise in antiquarianism, but the Greeks invented democracy and can still teach us something about the concept.