A few days back, Fillyjonk was talking about the Harvard Classics:
Last night I was talking on Twitter about the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf. This was an “Everyman’s Library” like project — the editor of it actually said in his introduction that he planned the collection so that a person not able to go to college (for a Humanities degree; I think when this was developed in the early 1900s, that was what one mainly went to college for) could get the “best part” by reading the Five Foot Shelf.
Half a century later, there was a similarly-sized collection called Great Books of the Western World, first issued in 1952. Unlike the Harvard collection, it remains in print, albeit somewhat changed from the original.
Way back when, these were aspirational acquisitions for the American home, writes Susan Jacoby:
The Great Books — along with all those Time-Life series — were often “purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing,” Jacoby writes. They represented an old American belief — now endangered — that “anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself.”
What has been lost, according to Jacoby, is a culture of intellectual effort. We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed. If we are determined to get on in life, we believe it will not have anything to do with our ability to reference Machiavelli or Adam Smith at the office Christmas party. The rejection of the Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment — as anyone who teaches college students can probably affirm.
Certainly I’m not about to name-check Montesquieu at work. But the rejection of canon is also, I suggest, partly due to some people’s revulsion at the idea that after however many centuries the works of dead white European males still comprise most of it.
This, however, sounds more like me:
I do find that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, and I admit a certain distress that I probably don’t have as much time to rectify What I Don’t Know than I would like to have.
It’s not an attitude you have to be a Science Genius Girl to appreciate, either.
(With thanks to Joanne Jacobs.)