Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Great Books That the Teacher Hasn't Read Either


In my last entry on Niall Ferguson's Dear God, I'm HUGE (also known as Civilization), I noted that Professor Ferguson's proposal for Western educational reform centers on a "Great Books" curriculum, of the sort that has largely fallen out of fashion in the United States and Europe.  According to a footnote on the next-to-last page of his book, Niall-o's core curriculum would consist of "the King James Bible, Isaac Newton's Principia, John Locke's Two Treatises of Government, Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, to which should be added Shakespeare's plays and selected speeches of Abraham Lincoln [an honorary Englishman, I suppose] and Winston Churchill" (324n).  I am just about willing to bet that Professor Ferg hasn't read a few of these titles cover to cover, and that he would be hard-pressed to teach any of them effectively to a class of 40 or 50 disaffected college students.  Perhaps I might propose my own substitute list of 10 "Western Classics That People Are Actually Likely to Read, Not All of Which Were Written By Englishmen"?

Sophocles, Antigone – is one's obligation to the state or to a higher morality?
Tacitus, De Germania – is civilization a source of improvement or weakness? 
Beowulf – can one be a Christian prince and still fight monsters?
Machiavelli, The Prince – can one be a good ruler without any sort of spiritual morality?
Shakespeare, Macbeth – is power worth it if the means to attain it corrupt the goal?
Voltaire, Candide – should we assume that priests and philosophers have all the answers?
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto – is the industrial bourgeoisie wrecking everything?
Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House – are the bourgeois wrecking their own lives?
George Orwell, Animal Farm – is revolution the answer?
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – surely science, at least, is neutral and unbiased – except that it too is socially constructed…

These readings total about 1,100 pages, which modern American college students could probably handle in two semesters.  Moreover, only three of them are by Englishmen; the other authors are Greek, Roman, Italian, French, German, Swedish, and American.  Regrettably, none of these authors are female, unless one accepts Woody Allen's theory that Shakespeare was actually four women.

3 comments:

A. Student said...

Couldn't you have chosen from Shrinklits? "Tyrant Creon's stern advice is/Do not bury Polynices!" That's quite enough for me.

A. Student said...

And I forgot, "Monster Grendel's tastes are plainish/Breakfast? Just a couple Danish."

KO said...

I enjoyed this list greatly, David, and suspect it might be an easier reading load than the Wanker’s suggestions. While I am completely sympathetic to calls for widening the so-called canon, I am not opposed to “great books” per se. Indeed, I think it is arrogant to think that women or racial minorities have nothing to learn from the so-called classics. And, as a matter of fact, I recently told my graduate seminar that if they read only one book as a graduate student it should be Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolution. That said, the lack of female authors on your otherwise fine list is problematic. For a female-authored “classic” may I suggest Margaret Fuller, Women in the Nineteenth Century, as a memorable work in transcendentalism, or anything by Jane Austen. Both of these authors raise the kinds of questions about the human condition that you pose for your other authors, and thus they have the kinds of universal appeal that would make them acceptable to paleo-conservatives such as Ferguson, who is still a wanker, tosser, dolt, muttonhead, douchebag, rotter, jackwagon, gobshite, kneebiter, and asshat—my personal favorite in this list of epithets.

KO