by David Denby
“Whether white, black, Asian, or Latino, American students rarely arrive at college as habitual readers, which means that few of them have more than a nominal connection to the past. It is absurd to speak, as does the academic left, of classic Western texts dominating and silencing everyone but a ruling elite or white males. The vast majority of white students do not know the intellectual tradition that is allegedly theirs any better than black or brown ones do. They have not read its books, and when they do read them, they may respond well, but they will not respond in the way that the academic left supposes. For there is only one ‘hegemonic discourse’ in the lives of American undergraduates, and that is the mass media. Most high schools can't begin to compete against a torrent of imagery and sound that makes every moment but the present seem quaint, bloodless, or dead.” ― David Denby, Great Books
I have been reading and discussing the Great Books for more than thirty years with fellow readers in various groups and classes. I recently returned to a book I read more than twenty years ago by David Denby, a prominent film critic. He had returned to the Ivy League classroom to consider the Great Books as a front-line correspondent on the culture wars.
Denby spent an academic year attending Columbia University's famous "core curriculum'' classes in the great books, "Literature, Humanities, and Contemporary Civilization". He recreates his experience of reading, pondering, and discussing classic texts from the ancient Greeks (Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Euripides, and Sappho) to Nietzsche, Freud, and Conrad, all the time maintaining and meditating on his intensely cosmopolitan yet family-centered life. When Denby reads Plato and Aristotle, or for that matter Austen, he contemplates how the "media fog" to which he contributes as a film critic envelops his fellow students; when he reads Woolf, or for that matter Virgil, he considers the transformations wrought in his own lifetime by feminism. He makes a sensible, if gloomy, argument that the Great Books are too hard for today's underprepared and thus overwhelmed undergraduates. Needless to say, based on my own experience, I reject his epiphanies over a feminist critique of Aristotle's Politics. By recording his own intellectual experiences while glossing over his own cultural blindness he does a disservice to those texts he critiques.
Rather than distilling some of the significant ideas of the great thinkers that he read he merely tosses off a rejection of "ideologues" in general with lines like this:"By the end of my year in school, I knew that the culture-ideologues, both left and right, are largely talking nonsense."(p 459) This conclusion may have a grain of truth, but I would rather hear what he learned about knowing and thinking, what lessons still have meaning in the twentieth and twenty-first century, and what truths he discovered that our culture still adheres to with justification.
While he does put himself on the line as a student and as a person by actually reading the classics, his humility should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. At the risk of being too skeptical, based on my own reading of these texts, I found this an unconvincing look at the classics. I would recommend you read the original classics - the Great Books - with an open mind and then, if you choose to, consider Denby's book.