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Patrick J. Deneen on the Presuppositions of a Great Books Education

Patrick J. Deneen, "Against Great Books" in First Things (January 2013).

Books were understood to be a storehouse of wisdom from the past, a treasury and repository of hard-won experience and knowledge of these limits. What these books taught was itself a justification for an education centered around them. Because the present and future were believed to be fundamentally identical to the past, the past was understood to be a source of wisdom about our condition as humans in a world that we do not command. An education in great books was itself a consequence of a philosophical worldview, and not merely an education from which we derived a worldview (much less sought an education in critical thinking).

… Widely regarded as America’s most influential educational reformer, John Dewey, in books that continue to exert great influence in schools of education, argued that learning should be accomplished “experientially” rather than through an encounter with books. … Not only was such an education the necessary response to a society experiencing change, but it also would lead to desirable acceleration of change. A society based upon roiling change had two aims: to actively displace cultural transmission as a norm of education and thus unseat “authority” and the past as guides to action, and to permit greater command of the natural and human world and the growth of human power.