THE GREAT CONVERSATION
By Robert M. Hutchins
The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began
in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever
the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is
like that of the West in this respect. No other civilization can claim
that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. No dialogue
in any other civilization can compare with that of the West in the number
of great works of the mind that have contributed to this dialogue. The
goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue.
The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant
element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to
speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange
of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities
of the race.
At a time when the West is most often represented by its friends as the
source of that technology for which the whole world yearns and by its
enemies as the fountainhead of selfishness and greed, it is worth remarking
that, though both elements can be found in the great conversation, the
Western ideal is not one or the other strand in the conversation, but
the conversation itself. It would be and exaggeration to say that Western
civilization means these books. The exaggeration would lie in the omission
of the plastic arts and music, which have quite as important a part in
Western civilization as the great productions included in this set. But
to the extent to which books can present the idea of a civilization, the
idea of Western civilization is here presented.
These books are the means of understanding our society and ourselves.
They contain the great ideas that dominate us without our knowing it.
There is no comparable repository of our tradition.
To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West
it is not necessary to burn the books. All we have to do is to leave them
unread for a few generations. On the other hand, the revival of interest
in these books from time to time throughout history has provided the West
with new drive and creativeness. Great Books have salvaged, preserved,
and transmitted the tradition on many occasions similar to our own.
The books contain not merely the tradition, but also the great exponents
of the tradition. Their writings are models of the fine and liberal arts.
They hold before us what Whitehead called “‘the habitual vision
of greatness.” These books have endured because men in every era
have been lifted beyond themselves by the inspiration of their example,
Sir Richard Livingstone said: “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
Until very recently these books have been central in education in the
West. They were the principal instrument of liberal education, the education
that men acquired as an end in itself, for no other purpose than that
it would help them to be men, to lead human lives, and better lives than
they would otherwise be able to lead.
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 as 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. Other types of education or training
treat men as means to some other end, or are at best concerned with the
means of life, with earning a living, and not with its ends.
The substance of liberal education appears to consist in the recognition
of basic problems, in knowledge of distinctions and interrelations in
subject matter, and in the comprehension of 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 test that he will have to bring to bear upon solutions proposed
differs from one problem to the other.
The liberally educated man understands, by understanding the distinctions
and interrelations of the basic fields of subject matter, the differences
and connections between poetry and history, science and philosophy, theoretical
and practical science; he understands that the same methods cannot be
applied in all these fields; he knows the methods appropriate to each.
The liberally educated man comprehends the ideas that are relevant to
the basic problems and that operate in the basic fields of subject matter.
He knows what is meant by soul. State, God, beauty, and by the other terms
that are basic to the insights that these ideas, singly or in combination,
provide concerning human experience.
The liberally educated man has a mind that can operate well in all fields.
He may be a specialist in one field. But he can understand anything important
that is said in any field and can see and use the light that it shed upon
his own. The liberally educated man is at home in the world of ideas and
in the world or practical affairs, too, because he understands the relation
of the two. He may not be at home in the world of practical affairs in
the sense of liking the life he finds about him; but he will be at home
in that world in the sense that he understands it. He may even derive
from his liberal education some conception of the difference between a
bad world and a good one and some notion of the ways in which one might
be turned onto the other.
The method of liberal education is the liberal arts, and the result of
liberal education is discipline in those arts. The liberal artist learns
to read, write, speak, listen, understand, and think. He learns to reckon,
measure, and manipulate matter, quantity, and motion in order to predict,
produce, and exchange. As we live in the tradition, whether we know it
or not, so we are all liberal artists, whether we know it or not. We all
practice the liberal arts, well or badly, all the time every day. As we
should understand the tradition as well as we can in order to understand
ourselves, so we should be as good liberal artists as we can in order
to become as fully human as we can.
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, undeveloped 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.
The tradition of the West in education is the tradition of the liberal
arts. Until very recently nobody took seriously the suggestion that there
could be any other ideal. The educational ideas of John Locke, for example,
which were directed to the preparation of the pupil to fit conveniently
into the social and economic environment in which he found himself, made
no impression on Locke’s contemporaries. And so it will be found
that other voices raised in criticism of liberal education fell upon deaf
ears until about a half-century ago.
This Western devotion to the liberal arts and liberal education must have
been largely responsible for the emergence of democracy as an ideal. The
democratic ideal is equal opportunity for full human development, and,
since the liberal arts are the basic means of such development, devotion
to democracy naturally results from devotion to them. On the other hand,
if acquisition of the liberal arts is an intrinsic part of human dignity,
then the democratic ideal demands that we should strive to see to it that
all have the opportunity to attain to the fullest measure of the liberal
arts that is possible to each.
The present crisis in the world has been precipitated by the vision of
the range of practical and productive art offered by the West. All over
the world men are on the move, expressing their determination to share
in the technology in which the West has excelled. This movement is one
of the most spectacular in history, and everybody is agreed upon one thing
about it: we do not know how to deal with it. It would be tragic if in
our preoccupation with the crisis we failed to hold up as a thing of value
for all the world, even as that which might show us a way in which to
deal with the crisis, our vision of the best that the West has to offer.
That vision is the range of the liberal arts and liberal education. Our
determination about the distribution of the fullest measure of these arts
and this education will measure our loyalty to the best in our own past
and our total service to the future of the world.
The great books were written by the greatest liberal artists. They exhibit
the range of the liberal arts. The authors were also the greatest teachers.
They taught one another. They taught all previous generations, up to a
few years ago. The question is whether they can teach us.