Why read Great Books?

It is not surprising that sociologists like to talk books. In the last few months various sociologists have offered their accountings of the most important, inspiring and/or foundational books in the field (or over the past year, decade, etc). You’ll find a couple of these conversations: here and here. As a happy receipient of the unrivaled Great Books education offered in the College at the University of Chicago, I am a fan of canons and foundational texts. How we determine which books are the Great Books of a discipline is a subject of ongoing, often contentious, debate. The value of Great Books is likewise up for debate.

A couple of winters ago I had the opportunity to participate in a weekend workshop on the subject of designing a liberal arts curriculum for the Asian context. My working group included a biologist, an economist, a geographer, and a psychologist. I was the only person in this group that believed it was important to read classic texts. Flabbergasted, it took me some time to figure out why I valued Great Books so much. Was it just nostalgia associated with my own academic upbringing? After a time, I determined that, beyond the value I place on my own past experience, there are three reasons I value foundational texts and spend the first weeks of the semester in most of my courses guiding (or dragging, as the case may be) students through classic books and articles.

1. Great Books either introduce or embody the moral and political preoccupations, empirical questions and objects, and vocabularies and manners-of-speech that have become naturalized within the discipline. Reading those texts demystifies sociological doxa and helps insure that we remember the underlying empirical and philosophical worlds in which social science was built.

2. Reading Great Books renders the thinkers that came before us accessible and fallible. I think it is a human tendency to deify, perhaps gradually, the people who shaped human society. Sociologists are just as susceptible to this cult of individual exceptionality. We tend to construct a pantheon of thinkers whose ideas we’ve parsed, abstracted, adapted, and adopted as sanctifying identities and noms-de-guerre in intradisciplinary squabbles. However, when you actually have students read the works of these foundational thinkers and encourage them to find the flaws and inconsistencies (too often students are not being taught to critically engage with theorists and, instead, the focus in seminars is in acquiring proficiency in talking about that theorist in a way that makes one’s knowledge and theoretical standing clear to other sociologists), not only will they see the gaps between, for example, Weber and the Weberians, they will also see the internal inconsistencies and theoretical lacunae in the work of Weber himself. It is much easier to pursue a career as a sociologist when it is plain that one needn’t be a demi-god to do so.

3. Great Books expose the imperfect knowledge of the time in which they were produced, creating in students an awareness of the unknowability and likely inaccuracies of some of their own moral myopias, methods of analysis, and fundamental truths.  For example, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic claim that we are always behind the times when it comes to bigotry and discrimination. They write, “…we simply do not see many forms of discrimination, bias, and prejudice as wrong at the time. The racism of other times and other places does stand out, does strike us as glaringly and appallingly wrong. But we acquiesce in today’s version with little realization that it is wrong, that a later generation will ask “How could they?” about us” (Delgado and Stefancic 2001:33). An important modicum of humility is gained as students realize they will never fully overcome the blindness of their time.

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