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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Monday, July 25, 2005

Curricular Questions

Posted by Jonathan Goodwin on 07/25/05 at 07:20 PM

In Mark Van Doren’s Liberal Education, he lists the curriculum of St. John’s College in Maryland (as of 1943):

Homer: Iliad and Odyssey
Aeschylus: Oresteia
Herodotus: History
Sophocles: Oedipus Rex
Hippocrates: Ancient Medicine and Airs, Waters, and Places
Euripides: Medea
Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian ar
Aristophanes: Frogs, Clouds, Birds
Aristarchus: On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon
Plato: Dialogues
Aristotle: Organon, Poetics, Physics, Politics
Archimedes: Selected Works
Euclid: Elements
Apollonius: Conics
Cicero: On Duties
Lucretius: On the Nature of Things
Virgil: Aeneid
The Bible
Epictetus: Moral Discourses
Nicomachus: Introduction to Arithmetic
Plutarch: Lives
Tacitus: The Histories
Ptolemy: Mathematical Composition
Lucian: True History
Galen: On the Natural Faculties
Plotinus: Enneads
Augustine: Confessions, On Music, Concerning the Teacher
Justinian: Institutes
Song of Roland
Saga of Burnt Njal
Grosseteste: On Light
Bonaventure: On the Reflection of the Arts to Theology
Aquinas: On Being and Essence, Treatise on God, Treatise on Man
Dante: Divine Comedy
Chaucer: Canterbury Tales
Oresme: On the Breadth of Forms
Pico della Mirandola: On the Dignity of Man
Leonardo: Notebooks
Machiavelli: The Prince
Erasmus: In Praise of Folly
Rabelais: Gargantua
Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Spheres
Calvin: Institutes
Montaigne: Essays
Gilbert: On the Loadstone
Cervantes: Don Quixote
Shakespeare: Henry IV, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Tempest
Francis Bacon: Novum Organum
Kepler: Epitome of Astronomy
Harvey: On the Motion of the Heart
Corneille: Le Cid
Galileo: Two New Sciences
Descartes: Geometry, Discourse on Method, Meditations
Hobbes: Leviathan
Boyle: Sceptical Chymist
Molière: Tartuffe
Pascal: Pensées
Milton: Paradise Lost
Racine: Phèdre
Grotius: Law of War and Peace
Spinoza: Ethics, Theological-Political Treatise
Newton: Principia Mathematica
Locke: Second Treatise on Civil Government
Huygens: Treatise on Light
Berkeley: Dialogues between Hylas and Philoneus
Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics, Monadology
Vico: Scienza Nuova
Montesquieu: Spirit of Laws
Fielding: Tom Jones
Voltaire: Candide, Micromegas
Rousseau: Social Contract
Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Smith: Wealth of Nations
Kant: Critique of Pure Reason
Constitution of the United States
Federalist Papers
Bentham: Principles of Morals and Legislation
Lavoisier: Treatise on Chemistry
Malthus: Principles of Population
Dalton: A New System of Chemical Philosophy
Hegel: Philosophy of History
Fourier: Analytical Philosophy of Heat
Goethe: Faust
Lobachevski: Theory of Parallels
Faraday: Experimental Researches in Electricity
Peacock: Treatise on Algebra
Boole: Laws of Thought
Virchow: Cellular Pathology
Mill: On Liberty
Darwin: Origin of Species
Bernard: Introduction to Experimental Medicine
Mendel: Experiments in Plant Hybridization
Riemann: Hypotheses of Geometry
Dostoevski: The Possessed
Marx: Capital
Tolstoy: War and Peace
Dedekind: Essays on Numbers
Maxwell: Electricity and Magnetism
Flaubert: Bouvard and Pécuchet
Ibsen: Ghosts, Rosmersholm
Joule: Scientific Papers
James: Principles of Psychology
Freud: Studies in Hysteria
Cantor: Transinfinite Numbers
Hilbert: Foundations of Geometry
Poincaré: Science and Hypothesis
Russell: Principles of Mathematics
Veblen and Young: Projective Geometry

Now the questions:

  1. Has anyone ever read all of these books?
  2. Anyone alive now?
  3. Half? (To both above)
  4. What percentage of them would be the theoretical maximum ever attainable by any undergraduate?
  5. Does the existence of this list demonstrate the essential absurdity of the idea of a “great books” education?
  6. Is the list too “politically correct?” Explain.
  7. Assuming that you thought the list was valid, what would you add to it that’s been written in the last sixty years to bring it up to date?


Here’s the current version.


What are those guys doing in school? They should be out fighting nazis.

By on 07/25/05 at 08:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you count books I’ve read extensive excerpts from (Hegel, Gibbon, Marx, Montaigne) and count authors I’ve read one but not all of the listed works (Aristole but no Organon or Physics, Augstine but only the Confessions, Voltaire but only Candide, &c.); that is, if you doctor the numbers like that, I’ve read 50.46% of the books on that list.  Of course, I’m a graduate student who went through a Classics-heavy Honors Program, studied Latin for four years, and is writing a dissertation which requires he be better versed in late-Nineteenth Century science than the average joe, but still: I’m alive.  (And a complete dork who did cut-and-paste that list into a numbered Word document and italicized the works he’d read.) If you just count the works I’ve read on that list, however, I’m at 49.57%, so unless you’re willing to round up, I won’t count.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/25/05 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is such a boy list.

The number of people now alive in the world who have read all these books in their original languages is in five figures.

Something for comparison purposes would be nice. What I’d like some kindly bored person to do is post the list of books he or she read for their bachelors degree.  Then we can have a real battle.  It will be held on the south lawn at 2pm, everyone brings their own pitchforks and cudgels.

By on 07/25/05 at 10:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why don’t you list them, Scott, just for reference’s sake?

Laura--no one alive has read all of those books in translation--much less the original languages. Let’s not bullshit ourselves here. I’d be surprised if there were more than fifty who’ve read--actually read--the Newton or Russell.

By Jonathan on 07/25/05 at 10:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I knew someone would ask that. Voila! 

1.Homer: Iliad and Odyssey
2.Aeschylus: Oresteia
3.Herodotus: History
4.Sophocles: Oedipus Rex
5.Euripides: Medea
6.Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War
7.Aristophanes: Frogs, Clouds, Birds
8.Plato: Dialogues
9.Aristotle: Poetics, Politics
10.Cicero: On Duties
11.Virgil: Aeneid
12.The Bible
13.Plutarch: Lives
14.Tacitus: The Histories
15.Augustine: Confessions,
16.Song of Roland
17.Bonaventure: On the Reflection of the Arts to Theology
18.Aquinas: Treatise on God, Treatise on Man
19.Dante: Divine Comedy
20.Chaucer: Canterbury Tales
21.Machiavelli: The Prince
22.Rabelais: Gargantua
23.Montaigne: Essays (portions)
24.Cervantes: Don Quixote
25.Shakespeare: Henry IV, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Tempest
26.Descartes: Meditations
27.Hobbes: Leviathan
28.Molière: Tartuffe
29.Milton: Paradise Lost
30.Spinoza: Ethics,
31.Locke: Second Treatise on Civil Government
32.Berkeley: Dialogues between Hylas and Philoneus
33.Leibniz: Monadology
34.Vico: Scienza Nuova (File under: Once was a Joycean)
35.Fielding: Tom Jones
36.Voltaire: Candide,
37.Rousseau: Social Contract
38.Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (portions)
39.Smith: Wealth of Nations
40.Kant: Critique of Pure Reason
41.Constitution of the United States
42.Federalist Papers
43.Malthus: Principles of Population
44.Hegel: Philosophy of History (portions)
45.Goethe: Faust
46.Mill: On Liberty
47.Darwin: Origin of Species
48.Mendel: Experiments in Plant Hybridization
49.Dostoevski: The Possessed
50.Marx: Capital (portions)
51.Tolstoy: War and Peace
52.Maxwell: Electricity and Magnetism (File under: Confessions of a Lot 49 freak)
53.Ibsen: Ghosts
54.James: Principles of Psychology
55.Freud: Studies in Hysteria

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/25/05 at 10:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All of those dialogues? All of the Bible? All of Wealth of Nations? The entire Comedy and Tales?

By Jonathan on 07/25/05 at 11:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would certainly add Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

The original language requirement is a little steep; the Bible alone requires three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek, two of which are useless for any other itme on the list).

By Adam Kotsko on 07/25/05 at 11:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I assumed he was talking about the Josiah Royce introduced, Benjamin Jowett translated Dialogues of Plato (1898), which I’ve read in its entirety.  I had to read Wealth of Nations for Lindon Barrett’s seminar on slave narratives (regular Valve commenter Stephen Schryer will back me on this one). 

But again, let me stress that I’ve read them now, as a twenty-seven year old doctoral candidate, not as an undergraduate.  Plus, many of those works are easily accounted for: I read Mendel and Malthus because I’m dissertating about Darwin and evolutionisms; I read Cicero and the Church Fathers--in Latin, no less--because I have a minor in Latin.  I’m not the product of a general process of education, but a set of highly particular and individual circumstances.  I chose Latin, for instance, because I’m deaf and knew I couldn’t hack a language lab.  I’ve read the entire Bible because I was infatuated with a hard-core Protestant in the Deep South as a teenager, &c.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/25/05 at 11:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Van Doren is clear that they did not require the works to be read in their original languages, though he thinks that would be even better.

By Jonathan on 07/25/05 at 11:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The thing is I’ve read the majority of the works on that list written in Latin, um, in Latin.  The scary thing is I can barely parse a Latin sentence anymore.  Go figure.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/25/05 at 11:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s only 125 books, and lots of them are short.  Why are you so sure nobody’s read them all?

By on 07/25/05 at 11:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read the Newton (in translation) & Russell before I went to college, Jonathan. The closest public library didn’t have a big enough collection to distract me.

Once I hit Flaubert, though, there was no turning back.

(You know, it’s really kind of nasty to make kids read Russell after reading Flaubert.)

By Ray Davis on 07/25/05 at 11:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think there’s anything all that impressive or imposing about this list.  I’ve read about a quarter of the list, with the vast majority of those read before graduate school, and I did not have a liberal arts education.  Another third of the list are books on science or mathematics that now have only historical value; I’m fairly sure that I covered a greater range of material at a modern level as an undergraduate.  Many of the rest are books that I could have read easily enough (in translation) if I had had to read them, and if I hadn’t been reading other books.

As for the issue of completeness, I doubt that many undergraduates read complete books in 1943.  I’m sure that skimming, cramming, and reading to the test are not new inventions.

By on 07/25/05 at 11:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And no Villette? Oh, come on, this is the schmaltz list!

By Ray Davis on 07/26/05 at 12:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott… you’re a dog: I’ve read exactly fifty percent as well (if I’ve tallied correctly). Honestly--that’s one quirky list: Where’s Nichomachean Ethics? Bouvard and Pécuchet rather than Madame Bovary?

Quick additions? Seems obvious--and wildly incomplete--that the inclusion of at least the following is warranted:

James Joyce: Ulysses
Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow
Richard Feynman: Feynman Lectures of Physics
Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations
Watson & Crick: The Double Helix
Hofstadter: Goedel, Escher, Bach
Rawls: Theory of Justice
Pound: The Cantos, ABC of Reading
Woolf: The Waves, To the Lighthouse
Kafka: Stories

Frege: Begriffschrift
Koestler: Darkness at Noon
Simon: The Sciences of the Artificial
Orwell: Homage to Catalonia
Rebecca West: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

I don’t know though… this always seems like such an a) fatuous exercise and b) frustrating one, since if you’re at all inclined toward thinking it important to put together such a list you’re either a reactionary, a dullard, or both.

Though… I made a start at a 20th century list: worth posting in full? Not to mention… some serious gaps in their 19th century: no Kierkegaard, no Nietzsche, no Twain, no Whitman, no Dickenson, no Emerson, no Eliot (G.)? Wow.

By Joel Turnipseed on 07/26/05 at 12:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

like I said, it’s the Boy’s Own list.  Biggles would get in here before Bronte.

By on 07/26/05 at 12:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joel, I’m no dog: I admit to the wackiness of the list and to the oddity of the circumstances that make it appear as if I’m educated.  Were I not deaf, a Pynchon fanatic, and writing a dissertation about evolutionary theory, there’s no chance I’ve read as much of it as I have. 

For what it’s worth, the Nicomachean Ethics and Madam Bovary were two exclusions that also made me look twice.  Same with the Ibsen: Ghost but no Doll’s House?  Augustine and Aquinas but no Abelard?  I would kill if Abelard was on there.  (Joyce too, and, well, any modernists, as I have those all wrapped up.)

Or wait, was “dog” a compliment?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/26/05 at 12:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, as Joel says, it’s a weird exercise.  But it’s got to be done, and in various forms, it is done, every day, all the time.  It’s publishing (parading) the limits of the list that’s the dangerous part, in my opinion.
I wrote recently on my own blog about Amazon having recently begun selling the entire Penguin Classics catalogue in one indigestible chunk.  The usual inability to stay on topic meant that most respondents to my post thought I was complaining about flimsy paperbacks, but I really meant to say that what is universally wrong with self-proclaimed Great Books collections is that they are finite.

By on 07/26/05 at 12:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What the hell. 66. But since most of the missing items are obsolete science/geometry, I think I deserve extra credit for being a math major & reading so much post-1943 number theory, “algebra”, & “arithmetic”. (Oh, you think you learned “arithmetic” in grade school & “algebra” in high school? A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!)

But Laura’s right. This is stupid. It doesn’t even reach the level of “stoopid”.

By Ray Davis on 07/26/05 at 12:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray, all I’ll say is this: I applaud all lists that flatter the work I’ve already done, and despise all that imply I’ve more work to do.

Ipso facto, this list is neither stupid nor stoopid, but the most important and meaningful list in the long and storied history of lists.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/26/05 at 12:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Uh… “Dog” is a Gargantuan compliment. Though I suspect I would find it hilarious if you a) lived in a tub or b) had ever pissed on your dinner hosts when they made fun of you--both of which that rascal banker’s son Diogenes the Dog did. Better yet, if you could phrase the latter as well as D. Laertius did: “He turned a dog’s trick on them.” Heh…

As for canon formation/finitude… yes: you should allow for personal taste & historical exegency & so on. In dream world, there’d be something like a database of 5-8 thousand great books (and, across all disciplines/cultures/time, there just might be that many; though you might have 500-1000 in undisputed & the rest as “really goddamned good” category), with some data relations/interface that would allow you to explore/build your own canon. I guess, at some level, that’s what we do everyday as we develop our own libraries/reading habits--but it would be fun, dammit, if someone did the data entry & the php scripting for us!

By Joel Turnipseed on 07/26/05 at 12:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s stupid, but interesting.  It helps to know what people were taught, don’t you think?

I’m writing about The Graduate.  I have tried to find out exactly what it was that Charles Webb was made to read at Williams in the early 60s that pissed him off so much, but so far no dice. I imagine some Folio Society list like this, however.

By on 07/26/05 at 12:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok--Laura, two things: 1) the ones that aren’t short, aren’t short. Many of them are extremely complicated--require years of training to understand, etc. 2) Even in 1943, this was not what you’d call a progressive method of education.

Ray--the Newton? The Russell? The Russell? Are you sure you’re thinking of the right book?

Rich, greater range of material, eh? Examples? Learning contemporary science doesn’t mean that you learn the entirety of previous science, does it? Think about the immense amount of conceptually outdated, yet largely consistent with its framework, information in the scientific works here. No doubt about the skimming, however.

By Jonathan on 07/26/05 at 12:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, for crying out loud, think about it: Math major. Public library. Impoverished public high school with a graduating class size of fifty. (OK, I hadn’t mentioned that last part.) Connect the dots, man!

The Euclid might help.

By Ray Davis on 07/26/05 at 12:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Another couple of questions would be 1) Of those you’ve read, how many did you understand? 2) Which could have the expectation of being reasonably understood by the majority of bachelors of arts?

Also, according to Van Doren, this is the whole curriculum. All of the faculty read all of the books. You learn all your science, etc. from these books.

By Jonathan on 07/26/05 at 12:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But Ray--we’re talking about 500 pages of relational formulae in outdated notation.

By Jonathan on 07/26/05 at 12:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t imagine what the authors of this list were thinking. I notice that only “selections” are read from Archimedes—does that mean that everything else was read in its entirety? All of Plato, all of the Bible, all 54 enneads of Plotinus (and some of the last nine are rather slow going, let me tell you...), all of Euclid’s Elements, every one of Montaigne’s essays and every last tale of Chaucer? And if so, why then only five plays of Shakespeare, and one each of Sophocles, Corneille, Racine? Why only one 19th century French novel (and it’s Bouvard et Pecuchet, of all things)? Why couldn’t we leave out a few chapters of Gibbon, so as to have time for Madame Bovary or Le Rouge et le Noir?

Whether this reading list was consumed in it’s entirety is to me less interesting than what kind of education may have resulted from the experience. Obviously the authors of the list thought that a “liberal education” was basically a philosophical one, rounded out with such works of history and imaginative literature as couldn’t be avoided (Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Cervantes &c.), a fair amount of ancient mathematics (more than almost anyone would want to digest), and a certain amount of biology, chemistry, and physics—but more of that in a moment. Even by its own (implied) standards, there are some fairly surprising omissions—no Hume, no Kierkegaard, no Nietzsche. Almost all of modern European imaginative literature is absent - Pope, Swift, La Fontaine, Austen, Dickens, Balzac, Heine,... well, you get the idea. And of course there’s almost nothing from the 20th century, but given the date of 1943, it’s not so surprising.

The whole approach to mathematics and science is perhaps the least satisfactory of all. Working your way through Newton’s Principia is almost the worst possible way to learn Calculus or Newtownian physics (even Newton abandoned the “Euclidean” mode of presentation after the Principia). I can’t believe that this method did anything besides inducing radical confusion on whatever students it was inflicted on (which was, for the most part, the result the Principia had on Newton’s contemporaries). It took the better part of two centuries to work out a comprehensible and rigorous presentation of the basic mathematical ideas of the infinitesimal calculus. Once you’ve been through a modern treatment, it is relatively easy, and quite rewarding, to go back to the old sources, but attempting to learn the subject from scratch from the original sources is all but impossible. I have, in fact, been told by some recent graduates of St. John’s that they now teach mathematics out of modern texts.

Did anyone else notice how Anglocentric the list is, as regards the 19th century sciences? (perhaps translations were not available?) The students were supposed to read Faraday, Joule, and Maxwell, but not Carnot, Clausen, Ampere, Coulomb, or Boltzmann, who were at least as important. Surely one or two of the less thrilling Enneads could have been skipped to make room for Boltzmann’s discussion of entropy. And as far as I can see, the students wouldn’t have learned enough in the way of calculus or differential equations to make much sense of Maxwell.

I can’t imagine what kind of student this program produced, what species of neoclassical hypertrophy was the result. Certainly nothing that I would call a liberal education.

OK, sorry for the Jeremiad. I will shut my mouth and go back to the commentary of Ficino that I was working my way through…

By R Crew on 07/26/05 at 12:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment


By Ray Davis on 07/26/05 at 12:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(My last directed to Jonathan, not R.)

By Ray Davis on 07/26/05 at 12:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My father is a loyal St. John’s alum and a trustee, and he is in fact hanging out on their Santa Fe campus this week.  I will ask him when he gets back which of the books on the list he has read, but for now I will just offer the following thoughts:

At St. John’s, it is not easy to skip or even to skim the reading.  The seminars are small and everyone is expected to participate vigorously.

When my father was there in the fifties, he had to try to read some of the texts in Greek and German.  I believe that he could have chosen to work on Latin and French instead.

I agree with Rich Puchalsky that the list is not all that imposing.  Remember, at St. John’s they read little or no secondary material.  Did anyone participating in this discussion really read fewer than a hundred books in college?

The point on which the St. John’s faculty would disagree with Rich vigorously is whether the scientific works on the list are obsolete.  Their premise is that learning the principle isn’t good enough: one should try to re-experience the discovery of the principle and the early struggle to articulate it.  The point of reading Newton is not just to master a little calculus but to learn something about how Newton developed it.  This premise is debatable but should certainly not be dismissed out of hand.

I agree with Laura that there should be more women on the list, and one could also argue for the inclusion of non-Western texts (which St. John’s surveys in depth in one of its master’s programs).  But any list or canon will be vulnerable to such criticisms.  And it is not at all clear that the more typical undergraduate curriculum is superior.  How many students get degrees in the humanities without ever reading Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kant, Wordsworth, and Dostoyevsky, or even Homer and Shakespeare?  I can think of more than one student from my graduate program in English who had never read King Lear, and a high percentage of them had never read any Milton or Spenser.  And of course almost none of us had read as many scientific texts as a St. John’s student would.  If the fundamental question here is whether students should follow a fixed great books curriculum or choose freely from an eclectic curricular menu, I vote for at least two years of set curriculum.  The point on which I disagree with the tutors of St. John’s is their hostility to secondary reading.

By on 07/26/05 at 12:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Rich Puchalsky that the list is not all that imposing

Alright. Take a look at the last five books on that list, mix it up with the (unabridged, I assume) Calvin, and get back to me.

By Jonathan on 07/26/05 at 12:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A brief anecdotal response to some of the historical querying here. My grandfather went to Harvard (B.A., Ph.D. in Economics) and my great uncle went to Columbia (B.A., Ph.D.--in, I think, Comp. Lit.). My great uncle Donald was friends with and a student of Trilling, won the Cutting the year before Chas. Van Doren… so, I grew up in awe of their reading habits (though Donald’s were second-hand: he drank himself to death when I was a small child). And they were prodigious. My grandfather spoke/read English, French, Russian, and Latin fairly well--plus “get around town” in Chinese. Not to mention, linear algebra and calculus. Donald was brilliant in French and Latin (one of his best friends was Justin O’Brien). So--they not only read a lot of these books: they read them in the original language. And also fought in two wars (WWII, Korea), played piano/organ, sailed, drank (often too much), cursed God, quoted Paddy Chayefsky’s Network script from heart, etcetera. It was nothing for me, during the few summers I spent in Connecticut, and especially in late teens/early adulthood, to expect to have read a Kafka story or worked through an MIU recursion puzzle or gleaned the basics of a botanical guide--and to expect to listen to “adult” talk at the dinner table (including the talk of sex and drinking and smoking and duplicity and adultery and all the other human bits).

Which is to say… those from a certain age/culture/temperament can not only find in this list a sort of bare-minimum (granted--w/many optional items) obviousness, but a pang of “and shit, we’ve replaced this with Lost and Grand Theft Auto and an adult population that is no longer able to carry on an intelligent conversation (and is certain to get fired, if not arrested, should word get out that they do so in front of the kids).

By Joel Turnipseed on 07/26/05 at 12:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Rich, greater range of material, eh? Examples? Learning contemporary science doesn’t mean that you learn the entirety of previous science, does it?”

Jonathan, it’s part of the basic principles of science that you don’t have to learn the entirety of previous science.  Huge chunks of previous science were wrong, and can be dismissed in a paragraph, or were right but are now so heavily tested that the details of how the knowledge was obtained don’t matter to anyone but historians of science.

Here’s one example: “Aristarchus: On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon”.  You learned better information than that in grade school, probably. “Hippocrates: Ancient Medicine”, ditto.  “Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Spheres”, “Huygens: Treatise on Light”, “Mendel: Experiments in Plant Hybridization”: all well within an introductory general science freshman course.  Even the giants in there, like “Newton: Principia Mathematica”, or “Darwin: Origin of Species”, I’d expect people to know the still-current information from if they had an undergraduate science degree.

And what isn’t in there?  Well, almost everything that would appear in the second two years of an undergraduate science degree, exact content to be determined by which field the degree is in.

By on 07/26/05 at 01:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Rich, but as Matt says the apparent goal is to attempt to recapitulate the history of the discovery. The amount of historical knowledge and conceptual sophistication required to understand these works--now read only by highly specialized historians--is formidable. So formidable, in fact, as to be completely unrealistic for undergraduate education. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. I probably shouldn’t let my personal limitations get in the way too much here, as one of our contributors was apparently reading for teenage fun a book once understood by ten or so logicians in Europe.

By Jonathan on 07/26/05 at 01:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan -

I guess I wonder at your idea that this list is so “formidable"--at least to a fairly large body of undergraduates. If you consider that “genius” IQ occurs in about 1 or 2 percent of the population, there are 300,000-600,000 geniuses in the United States (and 6-12 million in the world): hardly rare. Of course, exposure and personality and drive and focus and good humour can matter much more in so many things… but the potential is certainly there in abundance.

In my high school, there were a small coterie of us who took up Camus from the Cure, Guy Debord from the Sex Pistols, dog-eared Kant from reading Pirsig, talked about Hofstadter during Basic/Pascal class, etcetera… it just got worse in college. I think it’s more a matter of what a) your family, b) your high school/college faculty, and c) the general culture expects of you--and I think when we look back at fairly middlebrow early 20th attempts at general culture (Penguin Classics, Harvard Five Foot Shelf--just about identical in content to Van Doren’s list) and think them daunting it should tell us something rather sad about our current reading habits (cf., Gerry Howard’s recent paean to Pynchon in Bookforum).

By Joel Turnipseed on 07/26/05 at 01:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d say that one or two percent of the population scores in the top one or two percent of psychometric tests. It’s different with different tests. Get a cultist of g to explain it to you sometime.  And then ask them about Justinian.

By Jonathan on 07/26/05 at 02:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

How many in the world again?

By Jonathan on 07/26/05 at 02:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan -

Sorry, it’s late and I’m tired: 3-6M in the US; 60-120M in the world. And of course, I’m aware of the vagaries of using IQ as a standard of potential (from various methods of measurement, to Howard Gardner’s ideas, to lack of strict correlation between IQ and achievement).

I was just using it as an at-hand method of grounding the idea that “there are a lot of people out there who are a lot more capable than we’re letting on.”

I think another analogy might be the perception of Go (I used to do a column for the US Go Association) in the US: here it’s the province of mathematicians and hippie drop-out geniuses; in Asia it’s like crossword puzzles or golf. If we had a culture in which socially-competent adults were expected to engage in verbal play, to be able to crank out a satire of a Wallace Stevens poem, to mimic prose style of Henry James on their answering machine… we’d have a much more literate society. But we don’t, so we don’t. And even the literate suffer from lack of oxygen--in a way they didn’t used to (anyone here read Trow’s In the Context of No Context lately? Seems like I should go back to that again...).

By Joel Turnipseed on 07/26/05 at 02:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan: “as Matt says the apparent goal is to attempt to recapitulate the history of the discovery. The amount of historical knowledge and conceptual sophistication required to understand these works--now read only by highly specialized historians--is formidable.”

But in exchange you didn’t have to learn anything current.  This is a 1943 list, and I didn’t see anything about quantum mechanics on it; QM started in 1925.  This is true even for subjects, like history, that the list is dominated by.  And I’d guess that learning how to read these kinds of works is a skill like any other; the amount of work needed to read a large group of them is not the same as the amount of work needed to read the first one times the number of books.

No do I think that the students or even the faculty really understood many of these books.  I’d guess that they’d read e.g. the Origin of Species and have a facile understanding of it, undetected because shared by all. 

Matt: “The point on which the St. John’s faculty would disagree with Rich vigorously is whether the scientific works on the list are obsolete.  Their premise is that learning the principle isn’t good enough: one should try to re-experience the discovery of the principle and the early struggle to articulate it.”

On thier current list, they’re still having people read Freud’s General Introduction to Psychoanalysis as their only psychology book.  Sorry, I’d call that obsolete.  The same goes even for areas, like history, that they concentrate in—I didn’t see any modern work of economic history on their current list.  Their current list still has no Wittgenstein, no Rawls.  I would characterize their attitude towards science as being something like scientism; they honor the history of scientific production without grasping that part of actual science is to be able to forget it.

As a practical matter, I wouldn’t educate someone this way.  With a bright kid who was interested in a wide-ranging education, I’d have them read the more interesting books from this list in high school.  Then they could do more serious study in college.

By on 07/26/05 at 08:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The only odd thing about the list was the high proportion of classical science and math texts. Science itself is never taught that way, but a historian or philosopher of science would be well-served by this course.

By John Emerson on 07/26/05 at 09:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But Ray--we’re talking about 500 pages of relational formulae in outdated notation.

You’re both confusing Russell’s Principles of Mathematics with Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica.  No matter what, it’s impressive to read all of either book and all of Newton’s Principia in high school.

I’m sure they used selections from the longer works in 1943 just as they do now.  Otherwise, the course really would be inappropriate for undergrads, and the curriculum would be hostage to quirks of publication history and available editions.  (Selected Works for Archimedes is just the title of the book they used, not a sign that they assigned all the Enneads.)

By on 07/26/05 at 10:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here are some links to the current reading lists at St. John’s in Santa Fe (not very different than the Annapolis, MD campus’s list): http://www.stjohnscollege.edu/asp/main.aspx?page=1302

For fuller details of exactly what they read in the seminars, use this link: http://www.stjohnscollege.edu/asp/main.aspx?page=6802

As you can see (I cut and pasted the list below) not that much has changed, and I assume much of Van Doren’s list actually consisted of excerpts, not entire books. 

I almost took a job of St. John’s a while back, when I thought my wife would be accepting a job in Santa Fe.  The students get an excellent education there, and one of the best parts is working through the original math and science books (Euclid, Ptolemy, etc.).

HOMER: Iliad, Odyssey
AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides, Prometheus Bound
SOPHOCLES: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, Philoctetes
THUCYDIDES: Peloponnesian War
EURIPIDES: Hippolytus, Bacchae
HERODOTUS: Histories
PLATO: Meno, Gorgias, Republic, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, Parmenides, Theatetus, Sophist, Timaeus, Phaedrus
ARISTOTLE: Poetics, Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, On Generation and Corruption, Politics, Parts of Animals, Generation of Animals
EUCLID: Elements
LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things
PLUTARCH: Lycurgus, Solon
NICOMACHUS: Arithmetic
LAVOISIER: Elements of Chemistry
HARVEY: Motion of the Heart and Blood
Essays by: Archimedes, Fahrenheit, Avogadro, Dalton, Cannizzaro, Virchow, Mariotte, Driesch, Gay-Lussac, Spemann, Stears, J.J. Thompson, Mendeleyev, Berthollet, J.L. Proust


ARISTOTLE: De Anima, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Categories
VIRGIL: Aeneid
PLUTARCH: “Caesar” and “Cato the Younger”
EPICTETUS: Discourses, Manual
PTOLEMY: Almagest
PLOTINUS: The Enneads
AUGUSTINE: Confessions
ST. ANSELM: Proslogium
AQUINAS: Summa Theologica, Summa Contra Gentiles
DANTE: Divine Comedy
CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales
MACHIAVELLI: The Prince, Discourses
COPERNICUS: On the Revolutions of the Spheres
LUTHER: The Freedom of a Christian
RABELAIS: Gargantua and Pantagruel
PALESTRINA: Missa Papae Marcelli
VIETE: “Introduction to the Analytical Art”
BACON: Novum Organum
SHAKESPEARE: Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, The Tempest, As You Like It, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Coriolanus, Sonnets
POEMS BY: Marvell, Donne, and other 16th- and 17th-century poets
DESCARTES: Geometry, Discourse on Method
PASCAL: Generation of Conic Sections
BACH: St. Matthew Passion, Inventions
HAYDN: Quartets
MOZART: Operas
STRAVINSKY: Symphony of Psalms


CERVANTES: Don Quixote
GALILEO: Two New Sciences
DESCARTES: Meditations, Rules for the Direction of the Mind
MILTON: Paradise Lost
PASCAL: Pensees
HUYGENS: Treatise on Light, On the Movement of Bodies by Impact
ELIOT: Middlemarch
SPINOZA: Theological-Political Treatise
LOCKE: Second Treatise of Government
RACINE: Phaedre
NEWTON: Principia Mathematica
KEPLER: Epitome IV
LEIBNIZ: Monadology, Discourse on Metaphysics, Essay On Dynamics, Philosophical Essays, Principles of Nature and Grace
SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels
HUME: Treatise of Human Nature
ROUSSEAU: Social Contract, The Origin of Inequality
MOLIERE: The Misanthrope
ADAM SMITH: Wealth of Nations
KANT: Critique of Pure Reason, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals
MOZART: Don Giovanni
JANE AUSTEN: Pride and Prejudice
DEDEKIND: “Essay on the Theory of Numbers”



Declaration of Independence
The Constitution of the United States
Supreme Court opinions
HAMILTON, JAY, AND MADISON: The Federalist Papers
DARWIN: Origin of Species
HEGEL: Phenomenology of Mind, “Logic” (from the Encyclopedia)
LOBACHEVSKY: Theory of Parallels
TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America
LINCOLN: Selected Speeches
KIERKEGAARD: Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling
MARX: Capital, Political and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology
DOSTOEVSKI: Brothers Karamazov
TOLSTOY: War and Peace
MELVILLE: Benito Cereno
TWAIN: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
O’CONNOR: Selected Stories
FREUD: General Introduction to Psychoanalysis
WASHINGTON, BOOKER T.: Selected Writings
DUBOIS: The Souls of Black Folk
HEIDEGGER: What is Philosophy?
HEISENBERG: The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory
MILLIKAN: The Electron
CONRAD: Heart of Darkness
Essays by: Faraday, J.J. Thomson, Mendel, Minkowski, Rutherford, Davisson, Schrodinger, Bohr, Maxwell, de Broigle, Dreisch, Orsted, Ampere, Boveri, Sutton, Morgan, Beadle & Tatum, Sussman, Watson & Crick, Jacob & Monod, Hardy

By on 07/26/05 at 12:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m just happy to see Njal’s saga on the list. I used that when I taught EComp as a companion to the mandatory WCWilliams In the American Grain and the froshies ate it up. It’s a wonderful and much ignored book about a culture that mirrors our own in its obesseions with violence and arcane legalisms.

By on 07/26/05 at 12:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But have you tried “working through” some of these books, Jeff? As a mathematician pointed out earlier in the thread, attempting to learn calculus via reading Newton is more or less impossible.

I also think that Heather MacDonald has a recent article in The City Journal arguing that the politically correct inclusion of so many women writers in the updated list (Austen, Eliot, and O’Connor [unless that’s Frank--probably is]--not to mention the Washington and Du Bois) is a symptom of liberal degeneracy.

By Jonathan on 07/26/05 at 12:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Benito Cereno, huh? Interesting. Well, good—I think it’s excellent and underassigned.

And now they have a woman, but it’s not, as one might expect, Woolf. Gee, wonder why?

By Clancy on 07/26/05 at 12:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s very efficient: every time a cultural conservative critiques “tokenism” and implies that women authors are being included “because they are women,” he or she simultaneously denies that the whole reason they weren’t included in the first place is because they were women.  It was all strict meritocracy before all this identity politics nonsense seeped in!

By Adam Kotsko on 07/26/05 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

D’oh! I didn’t catch Eliot in there.

By Clancy on 07/26/05 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"But have you tried “working through” some of these books, Jeff? As a mathematician pointed out earlier in the thread, attempting to learn calculus via reading Newton is more or less impossible.”

So Occam’s Razor says that the people who learn my this method don’t really learn calculus.  Something which I find quite believable.  A lot of the incredulity around this list appears to be based on the belief that reading the material equates to learning it.

By on 07/26/05 at 01:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m with Rich: I’ve read those books and have the annotations, in my own handwriting, to prove it.  But to almost all of them I must apply the five year rule.  Such is life.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/26/05 at 01:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[The Njal Saga is] a wonderful and much ignored book about a culture that mirrors our own in its obsessions with violence and arcane legalisms.

But quite a different perspective on penis enlargement.

By John Emerson on 07/26/05 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t imagine why someone would think it was useful to study philosophy by reading works on various subjects in chronological order. Grouping material by subject matter seems so obviously correct I have a hard time getting my head around the alternative . . . this must be an incredibly confusing way to learn anything.

By Matthew Yglesias on 07/26/05 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes. Too much attention is paid to history in today’s philosophy departments.

By Jonathan on 07/26/05 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I like the Heideggerian method of reading the history of philosophy backwards.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/26/05 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m a St. John’s alumnus, and I liked it. I wrote a comment about why I liked it and think it’s a good idea, but it was awfully long. I put it up my nearly inactive blog, here.

By on 07/26/05 at 03:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the fix, Mike J. Russell & Whitehead was indeed the big ‘un I slogged through. (With what level of understanding, I know not, having not taken part in a seminar and never having been tempted to go back.) And it & the Newton did sweet null-set all for me in Calc 101.

Do any of the Lit Witt contributors talk about literary responses to Newton, by the way? In terms of dazzled incomprehension, that might be a better match than the influence of Kant.

For the most part, I’m a primary text fetishist, and I certainly enjoyed the Darwin. But it’s hard to picture getting anything from the historical science/math selections that wouldn’t be conveyed better by excerpts, good skeptical histories of the disciplines, and a bit more time spent on post-1950s research.

By Ray Davis on 07/26/05 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Most of the math and science is read in excerpts, actually. Euclid is read in full, but nobody, not even Lobachevsky or Descartes, gets anything longer than a paper read, apart from works that were aimed at a popular audience, like The Origin of Species. Usually the excerpts concern the interesting and fundamental ways in which the authors differ from other authors - so Ptolemy’s opening chapters, to compare to Copernicus, and try to avoid getting stuck in detail (often, where the devil is, but with only four years, and an expanse of intellectual history to cover, and some very detailed devils, you have to make cuts somewhere).

By on 07/26/05 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you for the very illuminating testimony, pf.

By Ray Davis on 07/26/05 at 03:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m actually pretty touchy about St. John’s. However many faults she has, she’s still my mom.

By on 07/26/05 at 03:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Everyone has talked about the booklist as though it were the curriculum.  But a booklist is something less than a curriculum.  So let’s talk about the curriculum.

Four main sequences:  language (Greek the first two years, French the second two years:  Racine and Bouvard et Pecuchet are examples of what is to be translated from French, Racine in the Junior year, Flaubert, the Senior), lab science (biology, chemistry, physics), math (yes, starting with Euclid, Newton’s Principia in the Junior year, Einstein’s Special relativity paper in the Senior) and Seminar (capitalized, even in speech; the history of philosophy, roughly).  When students transfer out of St. John’s, language, science and math tutorials are translated into language, science and math credits, Seminar is translated into Philosophy credits:  Greek Philosophy I, Greek Philosophy II, etc.

There is actually much to be said for such a curriculum.  Someone above damned Principia for being in out of date notation.  That may be so, but Newton always has a physical aim in view, and that aim carries over into Einstein the next year.  And Einstein writes in modern notation (tau dot equals . . .).  The tutor presumably has to explain the notation change, but that’s what tutors are for.  Looking at a single book as part of the reading list in isolation misleads.

It’s worth making the comparison with students in more traditional liberal arts programs.  Most of those will not attempt calculus at all.  Those that do (except the Math, Engineering and Physics majors) will take something called Calculus for Business, which is a very mechanical approach to the subject with as little intellectual content as can be managed.  None of them, except possibly Physics majors, will be subjected to Special Relativity.

Someone above complained about Bouvard et Pecuchet.  I imagine it’s chosen because to translate a passage requires knowledge of only the immediate surroundings of the passage (and the general attitude of Flaubert to his characters).  More complex novels require that you understand the entire novel to translate passages from them.

What makes St. John’s distinct, though, is Seminar.  St. John’s distinguishes it.  Seminar always occurs at the same time.  The bell in the tower rings at 8 PM on Mondays and Thursdays (after dinner) summoning the entire college to Seminar.  Seminar is to St. John’s what Chapel was to Arnold’s Rugby.  It is what binds the college together.  Think about it.  It’s 8 PM on Monday, the bell is ringing, will you be the sole person on campus to skip Seminar?  If it’s unthinkable to skip it, then you must prepare.  Seminar is, in some sense, a religious ritual, where the holy text is the Western intellectual tradition.

One final point.  St. John’s used to, I don’t know if it still does, only hire faculty who were prepared to teach any and all of the tutorials or Seminar.  Jonathan asked above if anyone had read all these books.  There are, between Santa Fe and Annapolis, on the order of 170 St. John’s faculty.  I’ll lay a bet, they’ve all read ‘em.

By jim on 07/26/05 at 08:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For the 1943 list, Jim, bullshit. At least if we take “read” to imply understanding rather than glancing at the words. The scientific works in particular are the products of completely different mentalities. It’d take years of specialized training to beging to be able to understand some of them.

The notation applies to Newton, certainly, but we were referring to a different book that wasn’t actually on the list (and would have been utterly absurd had it been there).

By Jonathan on 07/26/05 at 08:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I’m actually inclined to think Jim’s right.  Sure, it takes years of specialized training to understand those works in their entirety; but cherry-picked selections from them, contextualized by faculty members, seems like a distinct possibility.  (That’s what’s done in intro. to philosophy classes, for example.  The texts selected talk to each other in the ways that, say, reading Kant’s Attempt at Some Relfections on Optimism, New Remarks Offering an Explanation of the Theory of the Winds, Succinct Exposition of Some Meditations on Fire, “On the Making of Books,” and the his work on Martian anthropology don’t.) And I don’t doubt that their faculty is comprised largely of alumni who excelled in the unique system they’ve set up.  (I.e. they could expand on the work they’ve done with the selections they’ve read as undergraduates.  Polymaths do exist, and in an environment that encourages their polymathy, I don’t see why they wouldn’t thrive.) So I think it’s possible, even probable, that Jim’s correct.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/26/05 at 09:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment


You’re still doing it.  You’re looking at a booklist, inventing a curriculum to go with it and then condemning that curriculum.  Which would have been a legitimate enough exercise if you hadn’t ascribed that curriculum to a real college.

By jim on 07/26/05 at 09:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Part of what annoyed me enough to post this was Van Buren’s attitude that he, of course, was as familiar with Cantor and Hilbert as Calvin and Homer; but standards sure are declining elsewhere.

I’m not condemning a curriculum. I asked some questions about the list and what type of curriculum might result from it. What I maintain, however, contrary to Jim, Scott, and anyone else, is that it was highly unlikely for all or even any of the faculty of St. John’s in 1943 to have read, in any meaningful sense of the word “read,” all of the books on that list. Passing familiarity with cribs and outlines, yes, possibly, though I have my doubts about some of the science and math.

Van Buren used this list to overawe his reader. He specifically claims that all the faculty and students “read” all the books. I just can’t see this being the case.

There are good reasons why we specialize.

By Jonathan on 07/26/05 at 09:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment


OK.  I’ve calmed down.  I now take it that your exclamation was directed solely against my last paragraph.

In practice, even if we’ve only assigned a selection from a book, don’t we read the whole book?  I do.  So do all the people I know.  I think it’s a safe assumption that the St. John’s faculty do, too.  They are, after all, collectively teaching the same set of courses each year.

By jim on 07/26/05 at 09:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ever spent any time with the Critique? My edition of Plato runs to 1750 or so densely set pages. My Oxford Study Bible is about 1600, good chunk of which is material like 1 Chronicles. Also encourage you to take a look there, if you haven’t lately. And then there’s Calvin’s Institutes. Only about 1300 or pages there, depending on your edition. Gibbon? Yep. Tacitus? That’s some light fare. Not much to cover in Spinoza, at least. The Cantor, Hilbert, and Russell really top it off, though.

Whole books just couldn’t have been an issue. At least not for the entire faculty. There had to be de facto specializations.

By Jonathan on 07/26/05 at 10:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And, since I’m in a forgiving mood, I’ll even concede that I don’t know what the St. John’s curriculum was in 1943.  My knowledge of St. John’s comes from my soon-to-be-ex-Son-in-Law having gone there and from conversations with a few St. John’s faculty at conferences, spurred by my (not then soon-to-be-ex-, but simply soon-to-be-) Son-in-Law having gone there.  Curricula everywhere have changed in the last sixty years.  Probably, even at St. John’s.

To some extent, I share your irritation with van Doren.  But the point that he was making was widespread.  Snow’s Two Cultures Rede lecture (1959) decries that people don’t know Cantor and Hilbert as well as they know Calvin and Homer. (Snow, famously, used the Second Law of Thermodynamics as his example.) And he quotes G. H. Hardy in the ‘30s:  “Have you noticed how the word ‘intellectual’ is used nowadays?  It seems to have a new definition which certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me.  It does seem rather odd, don’t y’ know.” So the perception predates van Doren.

I don’t think the perception was that standards have slipped, so much.  It’s more that specialization has separated what used to be combined, and that’s a bad thing.  Snow claimed that the potshots the Arts and Science sides of British universities traded were destructive of both.

Since 1959, the separation has become greater.  My own university is breaking a “College of Science” out of the old “College of Arts and Sciences.” My perception is that will be destructive of both.

The American liberal arts tradition, which tried to include both humanities and sciences in a liberal education, then, becomes something to be encouraged.  Break down this wall.  St. John’s, tried then, still tries now, not merely to include both in a liberal education, but to positively integrate them.  I think that attempt is, in the end, to be praised

By jim on 07/26/05 at 10:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting to see that they’ve added music to the curriculum. Very good.

No Wagner, however. I guess they have been reading Nietzsche.

By Rich Crew on 07/27/05 at 07:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It changes year to year. Five years ago, we listened to Tristan und Isolde. There’s a whole year music course, as well, where Don Giovanni and St Matthew Passion are studied in some detail.

Jonathan’s point, that not all of the tutors can know all the material, well, that’s true. And it was a source of no small irritation to me while I was there, especially in math and science classes. It’s not pleasant to feel like you know more than the person you’re paying to assist at your education. But the important points are that the a) tutors are not, like professors are, a resource for the students - if they don’t know, it’s okay, it really is, and b) that expertise in anything is in no sense a goal of the education. (They get annoying when they are ignorant and obstructive - so long as they are willing to think along with the class, that’s far better than being an expert, or, I should say, than showing expertise, since some tutors are experts in some of the fields.)

In practice, it usually means that, for example, in Newton, who has rather crabbed proofs, one person leads the class through each proof, and you hope that the guy who gets called on has done his homework - usually he has. If he hasn’t, there’s guaranteed to be a couple people capable of leading him through it from the floor.

By on 07/27/05 at 08:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

jim; “St. John’s, tried then, still tries now, not merely to include both in a liberal education, but to positively integrate them.  I think that attempt is, in the end, to be praised.”

I don’t really think that the St. John’s attempt is to be praised.  Some people here like to criticize literary studies for a constellation of problems that I might vastly oversimplify as postmodernity, and to some extent I agree.  But the St. John’s approach appears to be premodern, which is worse.

It’s not a matter of lack of expertise.  I understand that the goal of the education is not to become expert in anything, and I wouldn’t insist that people should become experts.  (I will register an uninformed doubt that the professors are really expert in much of what they teach, either, which is a more serious concern).  It’s that I don’t think that this approach really gives you an understanding of modern scholarship at all.

I don’t know what liberal arts majors at other places take, so maybe this is an improvement.  Certainly they don’t take calculus, to take one example.  But just consider the really strange view of history you must get by reading the works in the modern St. John’s list and few secondary works.  It’s not even a matter of the overemphasis on Greece and Rome.  It’s a matter of, how do you do history anyway?  Modern historians don’t sit down and write annals.  There doesn’t appear to be any intellectual interest in anything past mid-20th century, or any *methods* past early 20th c.

And the view of science, as I’ve written before, doesn’t seem to come close to actual science.  Actual science is about forgetting as well as remembering.  There is no reason to have to duplicate the halting steps or missteps of the field’s pioneers.  Yes, this gives you the historical conversation between books that took place, but science is not about historicism.

In literature, too, I fail to see the value of reading a few works so intensively.  I think that people would obtain a broader aesthetic sense by reading more widely.  (I’m sure that St. John’s students do read more widely, but they don’t discuss those books in class.)

I don’t doubt that you need to have good students to go through this curriculum.  In that sense, the overall process may look good compared to those elsewhere, which must take mostly ordinary students.  But I think that a good student would do better at what I understand as the goal of a liberal education with another approach.

Finally, don’t take this as an expression of condemnation.  Clearly it’s not going to hurt anyone for 800 students or so to follow whatever curriculum they like.  It’s just that, well, I don’t agree that it is all that praiseworthy.

By on 07/27/05 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I am appalled.  Jane and George.  How many female faculty members are there at this college?  What is the percentage of female students?


By Chava on 07/27/05 at 11:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This thread is probably be dead, but something should be said about the whole Great Books thing. Names I remember are Robert Maynard Hutchens and Mortimer Adler (a neo-Thomist), both at the U of Chicago I think. One think that I remember this tendency doing is taking control of several major departments at Chicago and I think elsewhere from pragmatists of the John Dewey type. There was a nod toward Oxbridgian education, without the actual Latin, and the Western Tradition, but the adversary wasn’t feminism or multiculturalism, but leftism of all types, and perhaps also the modernizing social science model.

Clearly it was a precursor to the Straussians and neocons.

Rather oddly, because elitism is pretty central to this definition of The Tradition, Adler and Hutchens were involved in several commercial attempts to popularize The Great Books of what we now would call The Western Canon.

Reed College has a 2-year one-class version of the St Johns program (without the science and math) which could amount to about 20% of your four-year program. The first year is required. I thought it was excellent.

By John Emerson on 07/27/05 at 02:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich - you’re right that St. John’s is weak in history, and you’re also right that very little (apart from Faraday’s experimental records, which give a great picture of experimental science in action) of the science on the list gives a good picture of science as it is practiced. But then, science textbooks don’t give a good picture of practice either, if you believe Kuhn. And students get a close picture of several of Kuhn’s favorite moments in science: the births of quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, relativity, and the Copernican Revolution - so, as John Emerson said, good training for a historian of science. - Also, you might be interested to know, there was an 85% admissions rate in my day. SAT scores not required - you had to show you liked the school and understood, and they pretty much let you in. Then there was the whole could you afford it question, but then it’s a private school.

Chava - when I was there, the ratio was like 55/45 male/female. The most popular dean within my memory, with a term of seven years, was a woman, Eva Brann, and at least thirty percent of the faculty are women. I don’t know how well that stacks up against other colleges - probably not too well. Minorities are under-represented among the faculty and students, as well as among the authors. So are lower-class students, but then it’s a private school.

John E. - St. John’s was founded by Stringfellow Barr (later an advocate of World Government, I think maybe a pacifist? - don’t recall, am too lazy to research) and James Buchanan, I think that was his name. Mortimer Adler was a buddy of theirs and gave yearly lectures at St. John’s until his death - students, so I hear, would bring alarm clocks to the lectures set to ring after an hour and a half, and he would usually speak right through the ring, often for as long as another hour and a half. Anyway, Buchanan and Barr packed up and left a few years after they founded it, embezzling some of the foundation money for the college, and it was saved largely due to Jacob Klein, a former student of Heidegger and a friend of Leo Strauss. Strauss was for some years “scholar in residence” at St John’s - he never taught, but he wrote several books there. His books are nutty, but not (I think) as necessarily wingnutty as his followers generally are. Klein’s view of the college was different from Buchanan and Barr, and the current science and math emphasis is largely due to his view of intellectual history. His book on Greek mathematics and the origin of algebra is worth reading, and has been reprinted by Dover. The dean of the Annapolis campus at my departure, Harvey Flaumenhaft, is wingnutty, and the college has definitely been going further that way, both faculty and students. I took a couple courses at the University of Chicago great books program, it was okay, but the conversations were never lively or interesting, and the students almost never spoke - and never ever spoke two in a row. Like badmiton, Canadian doubles or triples or quadruples style, only the professor side never switches. Plus no math or science. Dullsville.

By on 07/27/05 at 03:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Eva Brann? Wasn’t she married to Herr Bitler?

(Monty Python).

By John Emerson on 07/28/05 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I know this thread is dead, but, as they say, but:

I knew an East German student at Middlebury (this would be around summer 1998 or so, I think she was a junior at the time, came down with pneumonia or something equally inhibiting to education; at any rate, she couldn’t finish out the summer), and she had a professor who loved St. John’s, couldn’t get enough of it, and who would quote Eva Brann’s works in class with some regularity (I’ve read a couple, I’ve even, sad to say, read her whole freaking immense book on Imagination, and when they say in reviews “no less than”, whatever it isn’t less than, trust me, you can trust them, it isn’t less than. Monstrous). At any rate, this student, East German you recall, she would freak out: every time this professor would say Eva Brann she’d hear Eva Braun, and every time, she said, her throat would tighten up, her chest would seize up, and, as she described it to me, her eyes would bug out and she’d have difficulty breathing. Before she left, though, we had a good time watching Portuguese sopa operas dubbed over in Russian - the by-now familiar Russian style being to leave the original soundtrack and dub the translation (acted by two actors, if you were lucky, one male and one female, otherwise only one and that one the dullest and most robotic actor Mos Film could dig up) louder than the original, so you had no doubt who took precedence.

By on 07/30/05 at 03:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No thread is dead until the last potential reader dies.

I’ve heard laserdisk/DVD commentary tracks which might have sounded like Mos Film dubbing: “And this is where she finds her brother’s body. No, I guess that’s later. You can see she’s very good in this scene, though. The point is that he’s missing and so she has to ask the fellow at the desk if he’s seen him. That actor was very good, I thought....”

By Ray Davis on 07/30/05 at 12:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps if you read half of these authors/works, you might start to get a real and better life.  Each year thousands of American undergraduates read from lists like this one at colleges across the country.  BTW Mr. Emerson, Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr never embezzled any money, nor was the College “saved” in that sense by Klein or anyone else.  Adler gave annual lectures, the students played annual pranks on him.  But Buchanan and Barr parted ways with Adler, and SJC, especially the tutors, really, really disliked Adler’s superficiality.  Strauss is a serious scholar, despite the garbage said about him by paranoid people who’ve never read a word he wrote.

By on 08/19/05 at 03:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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