Monday, October 5, 2009

"Great Books" and "Middlebrow" Culture

There is an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the Great Books movement and "middlebrow" culture in the U.S. As someone who teaches a quintessential "great books" course, Literature of the Humanities, at Columbia University--not quite a "middlebrow" culture--I found the article interesting.

I found the following few paragraphs interesting and strangely ironic:

In my early 20s, when I was starting out as a graduate student in the humanities, I hosted a small gathering at my apartment. It didn't take long for my guests to begin scrutinizing my bookshelves. (I do the same thing now, of course, whenever I am at a party.) I remember that there were numerous battered anthologies, at least a hundred paperback classics, the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (acquired as a Book-of-the-Month Club premium), probably six copies of PMLA, and several shelves of books that I had retained from childhood, including the Time-Life Library of Art and the Old West Time-Life Series in "hand-tooled Naugahyde leather."

Perhaps the most revered set of volumes from my childhood—proudly displayed—was Great Books of the Western World, in 54 leatherette volumes. I remember I bought them all at once for $10 at a church sale when I was about 13; it took me two trips to carry them home in plastic grocery bags.

"Your clay feet are showing," said one of my guests, another graduate student, as she removed Volume 1 of the Great Books from my shelves. I caught the biblical allusion, but it took me a couple of years to realize the implication of the remark: My background was lacking. If graduate school was a quiz show, then I was Herbert Stempel trying to make it in the world of Charles Van Doren.

The last bit refers to the famous "Quiz Show" debacle that has now been immortalized in film. What I find fascinating about it is that Charles van Doren's father, Mark van Doren, the much beloved literature professor at Columbia University, was a great proponent and foundational supporter of the "great books" movement and the development of the very course I teach now at Columbia. Though it may be different: the teaching of masterpieces of literature versus the mass-marketed book series. Nonetheless, I do wonder if van Doren, who inspired such a great American writer as Jack Kerouac, would disapprove of mass exposure of such masterpieces? I doubt it. His basic philosophy was that anyone who was an attentive reader could learn and teach such masterpieces.


Liam said...

I think the clay feet of the other graduate student was showing more, as she was trying to make up for her own intellectual insecurity (which, as we all know from our own cases, makes up 95% of the grad student emotional structure) by making a rude, flippant, and pretentious remark. Fie on her, says I.

Jared said...

Fie indeed.