Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Plucking the Middlebrow

On my husband's recommendation, I read the essay Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor by W.A. Pannapacker in The Chronicle review. In it, Pannapacker tells us he bought a copy of the Great Books series, originally published in 1952, for $10 at a church sale. S/He writes:

"There was something awe-inspiring about that series for me, even if I acquired it a generation late. The Great Books seemed so serious. They had small type printed in two columns; there were no annotations, no concessions to the beginner. They emphasized classical writers: Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, and Aristotle, among others, like Galen and Marcus Aurelius, who are still remembered but rarely read. Their readings also included Bacon, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Gibbon, Mill, and Melville; the series functioned like a reference collection of influential texts. I'd hear someone say, "I think, therefore I am," find out that it came from Descartes, and then I'd read the first few chapters of his Meditations on First Philosophy."

A few years later, Pannapacker went to college:

"By the end of the 1980s—when I was an undergraduate—it had become clear to seemingly everyone in authority that the notion of "Greatness" was a tool of illegitimate power; Adler and Hutchins were racist and sexist in their choices of texts; their valorization of the "Western World" made them complicit with imperialism and worse. "This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education," said Hutchins. "Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.""

One can say a lot of things about a cannon but however you feel about a cannon's content or purpose, Pannapacker argues and I agree, the fact of the Great Book series, its emergence in post-war America, shows a kind of intellectual striving that at one point those in the know might have found quaint but still had the potential to be transformational, a potential that's lost in our world of non-stop, easy info-tainment. Pannapacker writes:

"For all their shortcomings, the Great Books—along with many other varieties of middlebrow culture—reflected a time when the liberal arts commanded more respect. They were thought to have practical value as a remedy for parochialism, bigotry, social isolation, fanaticism, and political and economic exploitation. The Great Books had a narrower conception of "greatness" than we might like today, but their foundational ideals were radically egalitarian and proudly intellectual."

I know, I know this all can be taken apart, but I can't help adding my own "Here, here!" to this lament for intellectual eagerness in the face of the damningly practical.

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