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Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins

Studying and leading conversations on the Great Books for more than twenty years still produces that sense of awe and wonder, especially when I discover a new tool to aide in the exploration of wisdom.  Unfortunately, this excitement is often curtailed when I engage many of those within the academy. Once, an educationist from our Education Department, with arms folded humphed at me the term “perennialist” which he meant pejoratively, but which I heard as praise. More than once, I have seen the term “quaint” applied to what we do in our Great Books based programs. Of course, the secularists and dehumanized masses deem these writings down right dangerous. It is the notion of being quaint that I seek to ponder for a bit.

The term quaint, like perennialist, traditional, and related terms are often uttered with contempt today, but these terms have meaning that call for reconsideration. While quaint can be used in a dismissive manner, quaint can also mean attractively unusual or charmingly odd. Spending a bit more time with quaint, we discover that this word’s history has good company and was associated with cunning, well-informed, knowledgeable, clever, elaborate, skillful and even old-fashioned but charming. With this in mind, I share with you, some parts of a quaint tool that accompanied The Great Ideas Program first published in 1959. Keep in mind that the booklet, The Great Ideas Program Family Participation Plan was published in that same 1959. As I read this I kept thinking how far we have “progressed” regarding education and the family in the past fifty some years.

Entitled “A Confidential Memorandum” from Robert Hutchins to parents “regarding being educated by your children,” the words in this “memorandum” are most assuredly quaint.

Yours is a literate home because you are a literate people. And you are literate people not only because you read great books, but also because you are interested in great ideas. Literacy  of course, involves far more than merely the ability to read and write. Many people are not literate, in the full sense of the word, who can read and write very well. The kind of literacy that means something, however, is the kind that produces intelligent thought and action.

It is this kind of literacy that you want your children to have. Unfortunately, their chances of acquiring it in the school today are small and may become smaller if schools become more narrowly technical and vocational.

Of course the true vocation of a man or woman should be the intelligent use of freedom, and, as a matter of fact, our survival depends upon this vocation. So does the happiness of each individual. It appears quite certain, then, that if your children are to be educated for freedom and its enjoyment, their education must be substantially aided and abetted by their parents. Remember, children go to school, but they come back home.

This is one of the prime reasons for your ownership of Great Books and your enrollment in the Great Ideas Program. Certainly other sets of books are decorative, and you might have purchased them. But you didn’t buy just books. Instead you bought a family home education program that will effectively help you to have a literate home environment for the care and formation of literate children.

You may well think that you cannot educate your own children. My parents thought that they could not educate theirs, and I often think that I cannot educate mine. But parents can educate themselves, and children are always willing to help educate their parents. This Family Participation Plan tells you how to involve your children in your education. What you must remember is that your children cannot help to educate you without learning something themselves in the process. It may sound like an underhanded trick to play on your own flesh and blood, but the result will be an education for all concerned. This is the purpose of this Plan.

This first memorandum was followed by “a very confidential memorandum” to the children in this family, also from Robert Maynard Hutchins.

This is a conspiracy to get you to do some reading and thinking. It is based on the assumption that you believe you don’t like books, and this assumption is false. You may not like the books that you have been given to read. They are mostly textbooks, and often textbooks are not good books. As yet you probably haven’t had a chance to learn how interesting good books can be.

Your parents are now enrolled in the Great Ideas Program and are proud owners of the Great Books–the best books ever written. They have every intention of reading them. (They read some of them when they were your age, and one of the sure signs of a great book is that one who has read it wants to reread it.) The trouble is that your parents may insist that they have no time. You can help them by making them take time to read these books. Of course you must play a trick on them, for the way to help is to make them read and discuss the books with you. This is the kind of program that you will enjoy participating in, and these are the kind of books you will enjoy reading. Also, this Plan and its accompanying Personal Consultation Service will answer practically any questions your parents may ask that you can’t answer. Don’t be afraid to use the services.

One thing is sure. These are readings that you will benefit from all the rest of your lives – just as young people have done for hundreds of years before you. These are not the easiest books you have ever read; but I can assure you that they are the most interesting.

I know you’re busy. But you will be even busier later on. Take my advice–don’t wait.

The teachers cannot make you wise–much as they would like to–because these books are seldom read in school. You will have to help yourself, and here is one chance to do so. The world is going to belong to you, but it is a hard world. You will need to know everything you can to get along and to understand at least some of it. Through this Plan and the Great Ideas Program, the wisdom of the world lies open to you–just waiting for you to tap it. I envy you.

More than fifty years since these words circulated, we have advanced to the place of wide-spread ignorance–a level of mass educational trendiness that is stupefying. Of course the American family today is not sitting around reading the Great Books and discussing the Great ideas. Whatever family means today, if sitting around, it is likely absorbed in this season’s sitcom. The need for what is quaint is strong in our common and ordinary day. The old-fashioned may indeed rescue us from our abyss of the drab, dull, cutting-edge, and up-to-date.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis post originally appeared on Musings of a Christian Humanist and is republished here by permission.

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2 replies to this post
  1. #1 for 25% of Whites, 50% of Hispanics and about 70% of African-Americans there is not much of a family; there is a single mother trying to get by one way or another. Children are left to fend for themselves with little discipline and direction. I am a teacher; many of my students come home to an empty house and eat as they please and do as they please (not usually studying. Years ago if I made an easy Biblical allusion such as King Solomon with the two women or the Good Samaritan (the Good Neighbor) most students would have at least have some familiarity with it. Now many say -and these are children from Christian background- that they never read the Bible, never had read it and never go to church. To which I reply the Bible is a great book of literature like Cervantes or Shakespeare and more and any educated person is acquainted the stories, poetry and wisdom of the Bible. 2) the curriculum today is -except for a small (tiny) AP elite- PC and dumbed down. In California neither the American Revolution nor the American Civil war is a major part of the history curriculum. At present the state tests are a series of standardized multiple choice test where 50% is considered “Basic”. Yet still hordes of students are “below basic.” (California is moving to the Common Core which SEEMS to emphasize more writing and critical thinking but I cannot judge what I have not seen and do not know). The basic fact is that most young people do not read. They do not read serious magazines; they do not read the daily newspapers. They don’t even watch the evening news. They are totally consumed in social media, text messaging and talking about themselves, their gossip and social life. The Great Books will endure, as the Greek and Roman classics endured (barely) during the Dark Ages but it will be only for a select few.

  2. One of the great Black historians (acknowledged by John Hope Franklin as the expert on Slavery in Colonial New England), Lorenzo J. Greene, persuaded me, when I was his student in 1962-63 at Lincoln University (Mo.) to begin doing research in whatever subject that interested me. I began in the Spring of ’63 to do research in Church History on my denomination (Baptists). For six years I took notes on every work that I could find, accumulating some 3000 5×8 notecards, covering more than 250 sources. By the time I concluded that epic amount of research, I had become a student in a Master’s program in American Social & Intellectual History, and I wrote my thesis involving that research material. This led in turn to two years of research on another subject (and some 2000 notecards) followed by still more subjects, all of which began to bear fruit in depth of thought and understanding of the nature of ideas and how they influence human behavior.

    Today, that research amounts to perhaps 10,000 5×8 notecards plus a number of notebooks, papers, etc., which has led to a better understanding of our present situation and of the possibility of a better future than we have been led to anticipate. The one book that has come to hold the supreme place in my thinking is the Bible, the work which is the greatest challenge, intellectually, that mankind will ever encounter. Consider this: If the Bible is as it claims, inspired by the Omniscient God, then its ideas ought to reflect the depth of wisdom that would be commensurate with such a source. Since 1969-71, I have been looking at Scripture in that light. One of the things I discovered is that teachings of the Bible area two-sided and apparently contradictory; they are not meant to be reconciled, but to be held in tension. This tension, produced by two-sided ideas, is experienced as a liberating method for dealing with life, providing the wherewithal for one to be objective, detached, observant or subjective, warm, affirming, supportive, as the occasion might demand. This two-sidedness enables and empowers believers to be balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic, in short, God’s best advertisement, a mature Christian.

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