The “Great Books” debate is often construed as the political agenda of William Bennett ’65 and friends, who wish to inculcate virtue and save America from its moral turpitude. When placed in such a context, the debate is rightly seen as having to do more with politics and less with pedagogy.
We would like to place the debate in a different context – one which is of utmost importance to Williams classes in the humanities and social sciences. And an excellent way to view the debate would be to look specifically at classes at Williams.
For example, next semester in the philosophy department, there is a course entitled “Nietzsche’s French Receptions.” The course will look at how French philosophers such as Derrida, Foucault, Cixous, Deleuze, Irigaray, and Kristeva took Nietzsche’s philosophical thought and employed it into their own thought. Certainly such a class would be quite instructional. No one would deny its intellectual depth or the critical thinking and writing that it would require. Yet, there are some problems with offering such a course: while it claims that either Philosophy 101 or 102 are required and Philosophy 201 is recommended, none of these prerequisites necessarily mean that the students taking this class will have a very firm basis in Nietzsche. And it would seem that in order to have a very firm basis in Nietzsche, one would have to have a basis in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Paul, Augustine, Kant, Hegel and those in a philosophical tradition with whom Nietzsche had an ambivalent relationship with.
The problem is, very simply, that there are not enough courses at Williams which make sure that we could be ready for such a course. This is not an essay meant to pick on the philosophy department, far from it. In fact, I am presently enrolled in the class. The larger problem is that many of the authors we read in the classes we take presuppose of body of knowledge – a knowledge of texts, a knowledge of thought, a knowledge of rhetorical style – that students at Williams do not have, and, more importantly, a body of knowledge that is neither expected nor offered.
The same that could be said of Nietzsche could be said of James Joyce or Milton Freedman or Max Weber. The English department or the economics department or the anthropology/sociology do the same type of thing. The prerequisite for the English course on James Joyce’s writing is English 101. Yet, it is possible – if not probable – that Joyce was not influenced by any of the authors studied in English 101. Not unless English 101 reads Homer, the Gospels, and Shakespeare.
A general problem that we find at Williams is that students lack any sense of purpose about attending the school. We would think that it is partly a result of the schizophrenic nature of our education. We jump from classes and thinkers and texts which we see as lacking any coherence. The emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, while certainly a worthwhile pedagogical modus operandi, especially requires a common body of knowledge to bring different thinkers into conversation. How else could we bring different disciplines together unless we suppose that the thinkers, the professors and the students have at least a modicum of common knowledge.
Our quibble need not be answered by the type of “common core” familiar to students at Columbia or University of Chicago (not to say St. John’s College). It may mean, however, that professors offer less courses in which they are doing their research and more courses which deal with the body of knowledge that they take for granted when doing that research. Many of the course offerings this year dealt with interesting areas of faculty research and contemporary thought. “The Philosophy and Politics of Higher Education” and “Theorizing Whiteness” are two examples. No one would doubt that the professors put a lot of thought into designing these courses, nor would anyone doubt that such issues are important. Our question is, however, should such courses be offered when courses involving thought central to them are not?
Of course, the physical sciences differ in both content and form from the humanities and social sciences. It is possible to understand history and historians without having knowledge of Herodotus or Thucydides, in the same way that it is possible to understand biology without having to understand Aristotle’s conception of biology. Yet it is impossible to understand linear algebra without understanding multivariable calculus. Too often, courses in the humanities and the social sciences view prerequisites in the former way and not the latter. There is something to be said for viewing the study of the humanities and social sciences in a more – rather than less – linear trajectory. Our professors expect us to base our thought in the texts of the thinkers we are studying. And certainly those we are studying based their writing on texts of other writers. To not have knowledge of those texts and authors is to miss the forest for the trees. More importantly, it is to do the type of shoddy scholarship that our professors would not tolerate in the writings of authors we are studying nor of themselves.