How Do We Really Deal with the World’s Problems?

In the face of the world’s problems, it can seem like a waste of time to spend a lot of effort understanding philosophy and old books. What do all these old books mean in the face of problems like climate change, the rise of the Islamic State, and what looks like the renewal of the Cold War with Russia?

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was discussion of a “clash of civilizations” echoing ideas presented by Samuel Huntington several years earlier. This idea occasionally resurfaces, but it is easier to talk about violence and military solutions.

The problem with this is that it only goes so far. As the recent events in Iraq have shown, we can win the battle, but the battles, there needs to be an alternative to an endless war between ideologies. Despite beating enemies in Iraq, the chaos that resulted and equipment left behind have helped create a new, terrible enemy in the Islamic State.

It is worth noting that the unraveling of the Soviet empire came about in large part because of ideas and tools to spread them. Smuggling fax machines into Poland and showing Gorbachev the grocery stores had a lot to do with the outcome of the Cold War.

People follow leaders because they believe in the ideology that leader is selling. It is easy to convince people to follow if they have no other frame of reference and no ability to think outside of their immediate context.

Understanding philosophy, religion, literature, and science are all going to be important to solve the problems that face us. We need to give people new options of thinking or every military victory will be temporary. The only way that we can offer people new options of thinking is by knowing them ourselves, by being able to think in new ways, and by understanding others. The set at the core of this blog is not complete, but it is a start to understanding where we come from, and that is way to begin understanding others. Being able to bring a convincing argument about why people deserve rights, why beheadings are wrong, and how a new way of thinking will lead to a better life for everyone.

Reading is fundamental. So is having the great conversation with people who think differently than us.


The Habit of Reading

Recently, I have discovered that it is easy to fall out of the habit of reading much like any other good habit. It is like exercise, you need to make time for it in your life and stick with it.

Most of my reading has been done on planes lately. I have read some interesting modern stuff and tried to keep up with the Great Books reading, albeit with less success. But after another hiatus, I am back and will be posting more in the future.

The questions of The Classics and the great conversation that continues on throughout the ages among all people is too important to ignore. We need to find ways to continue working on these questions for ourselves and each other, because these are the ways that we learn to live in this world.

There will be more to come, and I welcome any comments that you may have.

Earl Shorris Made The Great Books Relevant To Modern Life

Earl Shorris was an author and social critic who died last month. In addition to his writing, he created the Clemente Course at  Bard College that was designed to teach low-income people about philosophy, art, and literature. The aim of his work was to show that the way out of poverty was not just skill training or financial literacy education, but was instead an education that helped people think about their world in a broad context and to understand that there is more to life than just survival.

I was fortunate to hear him speak once, and to have participated in the Odyssey Project which was the Chicago extension of the Clemente Course. I was a writing tutor and helped facilitate the classroom discussions. I enjoyed it because I learned as much as the students.

When you are working on helping someone understand philosophy or literature, it is necessary to both meet them half way and pull them into new, and sometimes uncomfortable, territory. For many of the students I worked with, their only exposure to these kinds of topics, to challenging books at all, was the bible. To get them to step into another author’s world required me to be a diplomat — respectful, yet committed to an agenda that was perhaps different from theirs.

You can’t work with people without studying them as well. There were several tutors and teachers in the course, and seeing how different personalities and students responded to the different styles taught me a lot about teaching and learning.  Sometimes you need to give people the question and the answer so they can debate it and make it their own. Sometimes you need to give people clues to what you want them to learn. Sometimes you put something out there and see what they teach you.

Discussion Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling with a man who has lost a son is a different experience than sitting in an undergraduate course with a bunch of kids who have no real world context that compares.

At the same time, talking about whether or not saving a drowning child is a good act if part of the reason you do it is because you know it will help you get dates with the girls on the beach can show you how much students can adopt the thinking of the things they read. (For the record, I think it would be a good act, even if you might get a date out of it. The students in the class, not so much.)

There was another reason that I felt it was critical to participate in the Odyssey project. I felt like the more educated people we could produce, the less chance there would be for demagogues and tyrants and bullies to do damage. The more people who could call shenanigans on the lies and vitriol that come at us from so many directions each day, the more likely we are to survive as a civilization. I realize this sounds a little melodramatic, but it is people who understand the humanities who prevent massacres.

Earl Shorris and Robert Maynard Hutchins both said that the education for the best — meaning the leaders of society and the upper classes — is the best education for all. That is not a very Platonic idea. That said, it is one I happen to agree with as someone who has made the journey from relative poverty into a comfortable middle class life.  I hope that in some small way, I helped make a difference and contributed to his vision.


More on Why We Need the Humanities

This column from The New York Times talks about why the humanities are important.

In today’s technical age, it is easy to focus on technical skills and knowledge as the pinnacle of knowledge. It is interesting to note that technical does not necessarily mean scientific, in that even the deniers of science, such as creationists, flat earthers, and climate change deniers have no qualms about using technology to spread their messages.

But part of the reason that we can’t have reasonable conversations, and we can’t deal well with many of the issues facing us is that we do not have the language or knowledge of ourselves and of philosophy to do so. We don’t grapple with the larger questions.

This article starts to discuss that. While there are bigger questions than can be handled in a single column, it is a start. I like to think this blog is part of exploring this question in a larger way.

“Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job. ”

There are some problems in this article in that I think there is more to it in terms of what kind of work you do and what kind of person you are, but this is a start.

Can We Be Over-Educated?

In his essay “Of Pednatry,” Montaigne writes about how it is possible for a person to become highly educated and yet end up no better off for it. He is writing to caution us against become the kind of person that fills out head with knowledge, but then does nothing worthwhile with it.

I think this is probably a good caution to include in the set of “Great Books,” and it makes sense to have it on the first year reading list. As we move through all these books and hear the different parts of the great conversation, we should pause a minute to make sure that we are getting something out of it all.

“We take other men’s knowledge and opinions on trust; which is idle and superficial learning. We must make it our own. We are in this very like him who, having need of fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any with him home.”

Montaigne is calling for active learning rather than just finding ourselves a collection of books and quotes.

“What good does it do us to have the stomach full of meat if it do not digest, if it be not incorporated with us, if it does not nourish and support us.”

That is part of the reason that I started this blog. I wanted to be able to think and write about these readings and topics and maybe even talk about them with other folks. My goal was to make it more active and not just read and forget or pass over the books.

The goal of this blog is to avoid becoming the person who is “wonderfully well acquainted with Galen, but not at all the disease of the patient; they have already deafened you with a long ribble-row of laws, but understand nothing of the case in hand; they have all the theory of all things, let who will put it in practice.”

This phenomenon is alive and well today. The New York Times published an article about how law school graduates need to be taught how to do the things that lawyers do, despite a great legal education. They come out of law school without the ability to file documents or counsel clients. (You can read this story here: And of course, we have seen a number of articles about how medical schools need to teach doctors how to interact with patients because their education has emphasized everything about the human being but not the person who is the patient.

Montaigne writes that he would think twice about sending a young person to a school of his era.

“If the mind be not better disposed, if the judgment no better settled, I had much rather my scholar had spent his time at tennis, for, at least, his body would by that means be in better exercise and breath. Do observe him when he comes back from school, after fifteen or sixteen years that he has been there, there is nothing so unfit for employment; all you shall find he has got, is, that his Latin and Greek have only made him a greater coxcomb than when he went from home. He should bring back his soul replete with good literature, and he brings it only swelled and puffed up with vain and empty shreds and patches of learning; and he has really nothing more in him than he had before.”

It is important to note here that Montaigne is not disparaging the liberal arts. Rather he is saying that the way they are studied makes them useless. I wonder what he would think of today’s schools. Still, let’s take a look at his literature example. Someone who studies literature well can use that knowledge to understand the world and judge it more prudently. Look at my earlier post about police brutality and Orwell’s essay on shooting an elephant. I think that Montaigne would approve of this kind of education.

What Montaigne thinks we need to do is not, like the rich gentleman he knows, have a book or quote for everything that may come down. What we need is to have a body of knowledge that helps us to understand the way the world works and be able to draw on that and share it with others. Building great libraries is of no use if we don’t do anything but constantly search for books, Montaigne would say.

Still, what is interesting is the Montaigne admits to, and I am also guilty of, some of the same sins as the pedants who have a lot of knowledge that does not improve them.

“And here I cannot but smile to think how I have paid myself in showing the foppery of this kind of learning, who myself am so manifest an example; for, do I not the same thing throughout this whole composition? I go here and there, culling out of several books the sentences that best please me, not to keep them (for I have no memory to retain them in), but to transplant them into this; where to say the truth, they are no more mine than in their first places.”

I think the difference is that Montaigne is working to add his own voice to the conversation. I think it is worthwhile for us to think about how we might do that ourselves. I excuse his quotes and foppery because I think what is happening here is not so much that he is abdicating his voice, but making it known that it is a part of a conversation and letting us know there are others worth hearing (reading).

Interlude: Is Being Human Only for the Rich?

Below are links to two news stories that give almost contradictory accounts of the state of liberal arts education in America, but a deeper look shows a cultural and class divide that has bigger ramifications.

In the first, from the Boston Globe, is an article about how “the leaders of many prestigious universities — including Cornell, Dartmouth, and Harvard — are increasing espoing the virtues of humanities in speeches on campus and abroad.” It goes on to describe how these universities are spending money to building new buildings increasing funding for the humanities departments of their schools.

“Literature and the arts should not only be for kids who go to cotillion balls to make polite conversation at parties,” Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the president of Dartmouth is quoted as saying.

(Read the full article at:

In the second article, you can read about how some colleges are eliminating humanities programs, including foreign language departments whose usefulness seems obvious to me, in a bid to save money and manage their budgets. (Source:;related-link-3)

These universities include State University of New York at Albany (, which will eliminate French, Italian, Russian, and the Classics.

At Louisiana State University, Germand and Latin majors have been eliminated and students can no longer take classes in in Swahili, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese. (Source:

There is further talk of eliminating the Lousiaina State Univeristy Press and Louisiana Endowment for the Humanites. (Source:

What does all of this mean? It is interesting to see that the state universities, where most of our people go to be educated are cutting language and humanities programs at the same time that the Ivy League schools that have a reputation for producing many of this country’s leaders are increasing funding for them.

It seems we are looking at a situation where state universities are being turned into trade schools while the expensive, private colleges are turning into true universities. This should not be allowed to happen.

I have seen these fights occur before, and one of the arguments made is that schools should keep or eliminate departments based on the number of students enrolled in them. But that is not a good way to decide what knowledge is important. An education is not merely about making a living, but also about how we should live.

The idea that students should simply be trained to make a living is the idea that they are somehow less deserving about knowing about a larger world both in the sense of the physical world, but also in the sense of the intellectual or cultural world. In his introduction to the Great Books set, Robert Maynard Hutchins talks about this.

“So Bertrand Russell once said to me that the pupil in school should study whatever he liked. I asked whether this was not a crime against the pupil. Suppose a boy did not like Shakespeare. Should he be allowed to grow up without knowing Shakespeare? And, if he did, would he not look back upon his teachers as cheats who had defrauded him of his cultural heritage? Lord Russell replied that he would require a boy to read one play of Shakespeare; if he did not like it, he should not be compelled to read any more.”

Hutchins goes on to say that he would make Shakespeare a required reading for everyone and that the true task of the educator is to find a way to make a student understand how Shakespeare is relevant in his life and to the world at large. I can remember reading about a production of Shakespeare in the 1990s where the Montagues and the Capulets were played by Israelis and Palestinians respectively. It showed how the human condition has in some aspects remained the same despite changing times and places and suggests that maybe there are lessons to be learned from literature and a better way to live our lives.

It was around the same time, I believe, that Earl Shorris created the Clemente Course, which aims to provide college-level instruction and education in the humanities to low income people. The idea behind the course is that it is all well and good to teach people job skills and things like budgeting, but if you really want them to change their lives, then they need to learn to think about the bigger picture, and the best way to do that is through the humanities. Since its creation in 1995, the Clemente course has been replicated around the country and in various parts of the world, including Darfur, Sudan, and in South Korea.

In an article in The Common Review, Shorris describes the effects of teaching Kant to people in Mexico City. He describes how one woman said that she learned she was not a means, but an end, and thus she has dignity. So, she no longer permitted her husband to beat her.

I think this gets at a large part of the value of the humanities. They show that people are human and as such are deserving of and must claim dignity. As Hutchins puts it, writing in 1952, “As we must all become specialists, so we must all become men. In view of the ample provision that is now made for the training of specialists, in view of the divisive and disintegrative effects of specialism, and in view of the of the urgent need for unity and community, it does not seem an exaggeration to say that the present crisis calls first of all for an education that shall emphasize those respects in which men are the same, rather than those in which they are different.”

It seems to me that saying to the students of state colleges that they should focus only on those majors that earn them a living while telling the students at the private schools that they should get to think about their humanity is a disservice to us all. I think that we should all learn literature, philosophy, and other languages so that we can communicate with one another, share ideas, and truly understand one another. Everyone should have a chance to think the big thoughts and consider the broader context of life.

As Hutchins said, “The best education for the best is the best education for all.”

Machiavelli and The Great Conversation

The next reading on the program is Machiavelli’s The Prince. It is a rather short work, probably one of the shortest in the set, but it is going to prompt several posts. This work will raise a number of issues, but in and of itself and surrounding it. I hope that you will find them as interesting as I do.

The first side issue comes out of the historical note at the beginning of The Prince in the Britannica Volume. Each volume provides a short biography of the authors who wrote the works. In this one, we hear about Machiavelli’s career as a minor government official and how he tried to keep his political relevancy by writing after the factions friendly to him were deposed.

One of the things Machiavelli did while hanging around at his farm was partake in The Great Conversation as we have defined it here. In a letter to the Florentine Ambassador to the Pope, Machiavelli describes his evenings or retreating into his study thusly:

“At the threshold, I take off my work-day clothes, filled with dust and mud, and don royal and curial garments. Worthily dressed, I enter into the ancient courts of the men of antiquity, where, warmly received, I feed on that which is my only food and which was meant for me. I am not ashamed to speak with them and ask them the reasons of their actions, and they, because of their humanity, answer me. Four hours can pass, and I feel no weariness; my troubles forgotten, I neither fear poverty nor dread death. I give myself over entirely to them. And since Dante says that there can be no science without retaining what has been understood, I have noted down the chief things in their conversation.”

The introduction goes on to tell us that Machiavelli converses most frequently with Livy, Aristotle, and Polybius. So far this list has had me conversing most frequently with Augustine. That was a slog, but I managed.

Still, the image described by Machiavelli is similar to how I imagine this set first being used by someone who bought it back in 1952. I sort of imagine a middle class office worker returning home in the evening, and after dinner with his wife and kids retiring to his study, perhaps with a scotch, to read one of the great books and reflect on his life. I try to envision it in its time, and I think that there would be less distraction then. Fewer televisions, phones, and radios, no computers, and no cell phones attempting to keep people tethered to their jobs all day and night.

I suppose it could also be a woman who has time to read the great works during the day and engaging her mind beyond the narrow roles prescribed to her in the 1950s. Maybe it is a smart kid who got the set to do better in school or prepare for college.

For me, it is finding time to read where I can and trying to find a time where there are sufficiently few distractions to concentrate. I think that it is possible to fall out of the habit of reading just like it is to get out of shape from exercise or any other form of discipline. I will say that these are not easy books, which makes them all the more worth tackling. But as I have been working on the first year’s list for over a year now, I know that reading is a discipline that needs constant practice.

That last paragraph makes it sound like it is not any fun. But that is not true. The whole process of reading these books and thinking about them and how they connect to modern life is a lot of fun. The reading makes me think in ways that I am not accustomed to and to think about my connect with everyone in the past and to some degree everyone in the future. We get to be part of a conversation that lasts as long as there are people around to think about the universe and what our place is in it.

Reading all of these things is helping me to think better as well. I know that it is not fashionable to be smart or intellectual, but I would rather be engaged with the world on all levels. The United States is caught in the grips of fake culture wars and supposed conflicts between elites that create such noise that people find their own voices drowned out as the din gets too loud for them to think their own thoughts.

I think we all might benefit to follow Machiavelli’s example and withdraw into our studies and converse with the ancients rather than allow ourselves to be constantly talked at by the politicians, entertainers, and marketers that bombard us with self-serving messages every day. Once we’ve had time to collect our own thoughts, then we should converse with one another and listen to one another. Then, maybe we could solve some of the problems facing us today.