The Great Conversation by Robert Hutchins (Book 1 of The Great Books of the Western World)

The Great Conversation by Robert Hutchins (Book 1 of The Great Books of the Western World)

It is fitting to begin The Great Books of the Western World, a set of old books consisting of 54 volumes, with a plea for a true liberal arts education–I just didn’t expect it to be so short. At 131 pages the book is the smallest of the set, and over 50 of those pages are just helps and guides. So around 80 pages is given to convince you why you should be educated, why you should read big books, and what the two have to do with each other.

This first book is classically titled The Great Conversation. It was written by Robert Hutchins (1899–1977), chancellor of the University of Chicago from 1945–1951, about the time this series was first published by Encyclopedia Britannica (1952). He cites seven sources in the ten short chapters, and each citation serves to bolster his central argument, which reduced down to a sentence would be, Americans, you’ve become super dumb and your Democracy, your community, heck, even your humanity, begs you to change, to be restored to your former glory from which you have severely fallen.[1]

Hutchins is obviously here to promote the reading of old books, but his argument is really centered on the indispensable value of a liberal education.[2] Taking a thematic approach, we come away with 4 essential points about education.

1. The Need for Education

Because, you know, the abyss

Western civilization is taking a plunge into the abyss of ignorance. But there is hope. Hutchins says there’s hope in the Great Books. “We are as concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking. We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation.”[3]

Because we don’t care

We don’t read because we don’t care. We’ve just lost our sense of wonder and discovery, the same wonder which once made us great.[4] “To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West is not necessary to burn the books. All we have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations.”[5]

Because our institutions fail us

Despite all our money and time spent in the American educational system, we get very little results. We have time to waste, unlike other less-fortunate societies, and so we waste it.[6] Hutchins asks if any of us ever learned enough while in school. And remember, he’s making statements like these in the 50’s, back when specialization and technology hadn’t yet taken over as much.

“If you are an American under the age of 90, you can have acquired in the educational system only the faintest glimmerings of the beginnings of liberal education. Ask yourself what whole great books you read while you are in school, college, or university. Ask yourself whether you and your teachers saw these books as a great conversation among the finest minds of Western history, and whether you obtained an understanding of the tradition in which you live. Ask yourself whether you mastered the liberal arts. I’m willing to wager that, if you read any great books at all, you read very few, that you read one without reference to the others, in separate courses, and that for the most part he readily excerpts from them.”[7]

Because children are incapable

Children can’t learn well. They are too immature, and yet our culture places all the pressure and power of education on them. Hutchins writes, “Childhood and youth are no time to get an education. They are the time to get ready to get an education.”[8] If all we do is read while young, it’s as if we never read them:

“I have never known a child of any age who had much that was useful to say about the organization of human society or the ends of human life. The great books of ethics, political philosophy, economics, history, and literature do not yield of their secrets to the immature. In the United States, if these works are read at all, they are read in school and college, where they can be only dimly understood, and are never read again. Hence Americans are unlikely to understand and fully; we are deprived of the light they might shed upon our present problems.”[9]

If you read some books as a youth and bank all your intellect on that, you fail. “To read great books, if we read them at all, in childhood and youth and never read them again is never to understand.”[10]

Because Democracy demands it

Do you wonder why you’re treated like a child? Media and advertising treats us like, well worse than children, like animals. Pavlovian dogs waiting to salivate with the bell. If you aren’t educated and fluent with the way things are in the world around you, you will fall prey to those manipulations, those bits of propaganda.[11] You need discernment and that only comes with intelligence.

Because society needs it

“If a society wishes to improve, it will use the educational system for that purpose.”[12] The opposite of education is ignorance, and the only societies based on ignorance are communism, tyranny, etc. If we don’t value the deep Truth, we won’t value education. And if we don’t value education, we will just let it go.[13]

Because we need to understand ourselves

“We cannot hope to make ourselves intelligible to the rest of the world unless we understand ourselves.”[14] And we cannot understand ourselves if we shut our ears to our intellectual heritage. We are defined by our ideas and those ideas have trajectory, both forward into the future and backward from the past. The more we learn about (and from) the past, the more clearly we will see ourselves and our futures, what’s wrong and how to change it.

We need to reevaluate our educational expectations as adults. We need to be reminded that we are in fact in an abyss, that life isn’t supposed to be this black and dank, and we need to see the light with enough clarity to motivate old, rusty joints back into action. Why? That’s point number two.

2. The Purpose of Education

Wisdom

Wisdom is the art of skillful living. It’s having the mental framework to undress the world from its heavy shroud of complexity and manipulate it for good. Too often education is thought of as the proverbial farmer who tears his barns down to build bigger barns, as if amassing knowledge were some stagnant pastime for packrats. But wisdom is about acting, about doing smart things at the right time to make things better. It’s about having the intuition to discern what needs fixing, the knowledge to know how to get it done, and the conviction to see it through, no matter the cost. Education itself is the fundamental process of acquiring the knowledge and insight which lead to intuition and wisdom.[15]

Deeper humanity

The object of a human in search for a liberal education is to “realize [his] full human potentialities.”[16] We are humans, not animals, and when we grow in intellect through education, we deepen our ability to think, say, and do in the world. We deepen and extend our free will, the thing that makes us so very human.

“The aim of liberal education is human excellence, both private and public (for man is a political animal). Its object is the excellence of man as man and man has citizen. It regards man as an end, not as a means; and it regards the ends of life, and not the means to it. For this reason it is the education of free men.”[17]

A Good Mind

“The purpose of education is to develop a good mind. Everybody should have equal access to the kind of education most likely to develop such a mind and should have it for a long as it takes to acquire enough intellectual excellence to fix once and for all the vision of the continuous need for more and more intellectual excellence.”[18]

We know we need education, and we know some of its purpose. So how? How do we increase in knowledge and wisdom? Since this is a book on books, I think you know how this goes.

3. The Way into Education

Read Old Books

Too often we scoff at old books as if they were irrelevant and embarrassingly past their expiration date. This is a lie. Don’t believe it. Their achievements sometimes far outweigh our own.

“Through the ages great men have written down their discussion of these persistent questions. Are we to disdain the light they offer us on the ground that they lived in primitive, far-off times? As someone has remarked, ‘The Greeks could not broadcast the Aeschylean tragedy; they could write it.’”[19]

And beyond the initial argument of out-of-date, lies the more seductive one–that our ideas have progressed so far beyond the ancients that they can’t possibly be relevant. How annoyingly arrogant. It would be cute if it weren’t so devastating.

“Socrates and Plato, as Prof. Jones says, (and even more truly Aristotle) ‘struggled with the local political problem.’ But a very reason they were able to make such helpful comments about social, ethical and political questions was, that they were even more concerned to find out the ‘forms’ of things that were timeless. Without the ‘definitions’ of Socrates, the ‘ideas’ of Plato and the ‘forms’ of Aristotle, their ‘radio commenting’ would have been shallow gibberish, forgotten as soon as 99% of present commentary.”[20]

Read Difficult Books

Most people put down hard books only to pick up a simple one and get bored with it. Either way you end up with a dead stack of books glaring at you. The difference is that hard books taunt you while easy books make you feel good about yourself. They weren’t good enough to keep your attention so you must not need to read them anyway. And off you go into your self-created world wherein reading is for dopes with no life or taste.

Ok maybe that’s not you, but you probably do complain about hard books. You shouldn’t. You should see hard books as a service, a highly valued and rare service. “As Whitehead has said, ’Whenever a book is written of real educational worth, you may be quite certain that some reviewer will say that it will be difficult… Of course it will be difficult… If it were easy, the book ought to be burned; for he cannot be educational. In education, as elsewhere, the broad primrose path leads to a nasty place.”[21]

But don’t worry, because books aren’t as hard as you think. You’re just dumber than you think–you’ll get better, fast.

“The question for you is only whether you can ever understand these books well enough to participate in the great conversation, not whether you can understand them well enough to end it… The decay of education in the West, which is felt most profoundly in America, undoubtedly makes the task of understanding these books more difficult than it was for earlier generations. In fact my observation leads me to the horrid suspicion that these books are easier for people who have had no formal education than they are for those who have acquired that combination of misinformation, under philosophy, and slipshod habits that is the usual result of the most elaborate and expensive institutional education in America.”

Read–For a Very Long Time

It takes a long time to climb out of the abyss of ignorance, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start now–it just means we need to accept a 5–10 year plan and fight the American within us who wants to go through the drive-through.

“The time is short, and education is long. What I’m saying is that, since education is long, and since it is indispensable, we should begin it right away.”[22]

You should write sticky notes all over the place, reminding yourself that life isn’t about fun, it’s about success. A successful life isn’t just a happy one. Your priority must be self-education for life. Life-long self-education. Repeat after me. Life-long self-education.

“It is impossible to believe that men can long be satisfied with the kind of recreations that now occupy the bulk of their free time. After all, they are men. Man, though an animal, is not all animal.… A man must use his mind; he must feel that he is doing something that will develop his highest powers and contribute to the development of his fellow men, or he will cease to be a man.”

Start Teaching Your Children

Don’t just teach them right from wrong; teach them why. Teach them the deep, great ideas of life. The sooner you get them invested into the deep Truth of life, the better, because they will develop a taste for it and habits in it.

“We think the sooner the young are introduced to the great conversation the better. They will not be able to understand it very well; but they should be introduced to it in the hope that they will continue to take part in it and eventually understand it.”[23]

Always be Growing

It is crucial to nurture a learning, questioning spirit. We need to convince ourselves that it is our duty, our obligation, to always be growing, otherwise we will stagnate and fall away.

“What is here proposed is interminable liberal education. Even if the individual has had the best possible liberal education and youth, interminable education through great books and the liberal arts remains his obligation; he cannot expect to store up in education in childhood that will last all his life. What he can do in use is to acquire the discipline and habits that will make it possible for him to continue to educate himself all his life. One must agree with John Dewey in this: that continued growth is essential to intellectual life.”[24]

So we know we need an education, we know the purpose of that education, and we know how to attain it (at least in part), now, what are we to expect from our hard-earned intellectual enlightenment?

4. The Effects of Education

Unites Us as Community

America, and the West, is obsessed with itself. Our obsession with #selfies is a hilarious parody on our worldviews. Millennials are a new breed of human who think the world revolves around them. We need an education “that draws out our common humanity rather than our individuality.”[25] Our communities are collapsed along with our narratives. A historical, broad, holistic education can help to bring that back.

Fresh Perspective

Life gets boring, the world gets stale. But it’s no fault of God’s wondrous creation; it’s just the fault of our broken Wonder. We’ve lost the ability to wonder, mainly because we don’t get the refreshing required from Community: from listening to another’s perspective, learning from it, and letting it change the way you see the world.

“We are tied down, all our days and for the greater part of our days, to the commonplace. That is where contact with great thinkers, great literature helps. In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius. And some of their vision becomes our own.”[26]

Better Learning

Reading the great books teach you to be a better reader. They equip you with the mental skill-set necessary to derive meaning from words on a page.[27] It is widely known that the liberal arts “teach us how to think.” They do. They help us know which questions to ask. They equip us to be better thinkers, askers, and therefore learners.[28]

Better Thinking

Books are long trains of thought, long prepared and crafted just for you and me to enjoy and benefit from.[29] Reading great books give us models for thinking. They furnish our minds with the concepts necessary to make sense of life, to make clear paths for our words and ideas.

“Liberal education seeks to clarify the basic problems and to understand the way in which one problem bears upon another. It strives for a grasp of the methods by which solutions can be reached and the formulation of standards for testing solutions proposed. The liberally educated man understands, for example, the relation between the problem of the immortality of the soul and the problem of the best form of government; he understands that the one problem cannot be solved by the same method as the other, and that the tests that he will have to bring to bear upon solutions proposed differs from one problem to the other.”[30]

Increased Humanity

The problem of industrialization is that, though we enjoy and benefit from assembly line-type labor, it seriously hampers the human spirit. It dampens his creativity and makes life dull. It shrinks his humanity.

Adam Smith stated the case long ago: “A man without the proper use of the intellectual faculties of a man, is, if possible, more contemptible than even a coward, and seems to be mutilated and deformed in a still more east central part of the character of human nature.” He points out that this is the condition of “the great body of the people,” who, by the division of labor are confined in their employment “to a few very simple operations” in which the worker “has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.” The result, according to Smith, is that “the tour poor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.”[31]

For his proposed solution for the humanization of work, see this quote.[32]

Why Should I Care?

If you’re still with me, let me give you a few of the most compelling ideas from the book. Maybe they will help motivate you in a positive way as they did me.

We Don’t Choose our Humanity, Only Our Effectiveness

“The liberal arts are not merely indispensable, they are unavoidable. Nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is whether he will be an ignorant, underdeveloped one or one who has sought to reach the highest point he is capable of attaining. The question, in short, is whether he will be a poor liberal artist or a good one.”[33]

Money isn’t Our Goal

“Millions of men throughout the world are living in economic slavery. They are condemned to subhuman lives. We should do everything we can to strike the shackles from them. Even while we are doing so, we must remember that economic independence is not an end in itself; it is only a means, though it absolutely necessary one, to leading a human life.”[34]

The Task of Teaching

You are a teacher to someone, whether your children or your friends, and one concept I rarely see in leaders is their appreciation for their job. They think their job is to data-dump, to just stand up and blather out all they’ve studied. It isn’t. Their primary job is to make it interesting, because it is interesting, we just don’t see it yet.

“Educators ought to know better than their peoples what an education is. If educators do not, they have wasted their lives. The art of teaching consists in large part of interesting people in things that ought to interest them, but do not. The task of educators is to discover what an education is and then to invent the methods of interesting their students in it.”[35]

Learning is the Highest Common Good

“Learning is in principle and should be in fact the highest common good, to be defended as a right and worked for as an end. All men are capable of learning, according to their abilities. Learning does not stop as long as a man lives, unless his learning power atrophies because he does not use it. Political freedom cannot last without provision for the free unlimited acquisition of knowledge truth is not retained in human affairs without continual learning and relearning. The political order is tyrannical if it is not rational.”[36]

America Needs you to be Educated

“So Montesquieu said that as the principle of an aristocracy was on her, and the principle of a tyranny was fear, the principle of a democracy was education. Thomas Jefferson took him seriously. Now we discover that a little learning is a dangerous thing. We see now that we need more learning, more real learning, for everybody… It is time to take education away from the scholars and school teachers and to open the gates of the Republic of learning to those who can and will make it responsible to humanity."[37]

At the end of the day, if you need one quote to rule them all, you have it, here:

“We do not think that these books will solve all our problems. We do not think that they are the only books worth reading. We think that these books shed some light on all our basic problems, and that it is folly to do without any light we can get. We think that these books show the origins of many of our most serious difficulties. We think that the spirit they represent in the habit of mind they teach are more necessary today than ever before. We think that the reader who does his best to understand these books will find himself led to read and help to understand other books. We think that reading and understanding great books will give him a standard by which to judge all other books.”[38]

I loved the book. I read it twice. I posted a 4k+ word blog post on it. I’m a fan, not because it says anything others don’t, but because it says what needs to be heard most at our time, in our culture. We need a reformation in our educational systems, no doubt. But we also need a change in personal responsibility. We need more renaissance men and women to incite a new vision for a better educational ideal, otherwise we will continue on our downward path. Education itself can’t save us; but it is only through education that we can ever hope to be saved.


  1. And he wrote this in the 50’s! Imagine what he would think of our educational system now.  ↩

  2. “Liberal” here used in its old sense of “free” or “liberated.”  ↩

  3. The Great Conversation, pg. xii.  ↩

  4. “The spirit of western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos” (pg. 1).  ↩

  5. Ibid, pg. 1.  ↩

  6. “One of the most remarkable features of American society is that the difference between the ”uneducated“ and the ”educated“ is so slight. The reason for this phenomenon is, of course, that so little education takes place in American educational institutions.”  ↩

  7. Ibid, pg. 74.  ↩

  8. Ibid, pg. 76.  ↩

  9. Ibid, pg. 54.  ↩

  10. Ibid.  ↩

  11. “The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen 24 hours a day all his life long mean either that democracy must fall a prey to the loudest and most persistent propagandists or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves” (pg. xiii).  ↩

  12. Ibid, pg. 11.  ↩

  13. “An axiomatic educational proposition is that what is honored in a country will be cultivated there” (pg. 56).  ↩

  14. Ibid, pg. 61.  ↩

  15. “The aim of education is wisdom, and each must have the chance to become as wise as he can” (pg. 82).  ↩

  16. Ibid, pg. 59.  ↩

  17. Ibid, pg. 3.  ↩

  18. Ibid, pg. 16.  ↩

  19. Ibid, pg. 9.  ↩

  20. Ibid, pg. 70.  ↩

  21. Ibid, pg. 47.  ↩

  22. Ibid, pg. 60.  ↩

  23. Ibid, pg. xvi.  ↩

  24. Ibid, pg. 52.  ↩

  25. Ibid, pg. 50.  ↩

  26. Ibid, pg. 2–3 (quote from Sir Richard Livingstone).  ↩

  27. “Great books are great teachers; they are showing us every day what ordinary people are capable of… Great books teach people not only how to read them, but also how to read all other books” (pg. 46–47).  ↩

  28. “Great books may even help us to know what information we should demand. If we knew what information to demand we might have a better chance of getting it” (pg. xiv).  ↩

  29. “But, treating the most difficult subjects of human thought, the great books are the clearest and simplest expression of the best thinking that can be done on these subjects” (pg. 78).  ↩

  30. Ibid, pg. 3.  ↩

  31. Ibid, pg. 22–23.  ↩

  32. “Whatever work there is should have as much meaning as possible. Wherever possible, workmen should be artists; their work should be the application of knowledge or science and known and enjoyed by them as such. They should, if possible, know what they are doing, why what they are doing has the results it has, why they are doing it, and what constitutes the goodness of the things produced” (pg. 15).  ↩

  33. Ibid, pg. 5.  ↩

  34. Ibid, pg. 19.  ↩

  35. Ibid, pg. 49.  ↩

  36. Ibid, pg. 64.  ↩

  37. Ibid, pg. 64.  ↩

  38. Ibid, pg. xiii.  ↩

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