Soul-Making Studies

I’ll admit to being biased here. Teaching a great books course at Columbia — I was a graduate student, my charges were freshmen — was the pedagogical experience of my life. I was never the same again, and I know that many of my students also weren’t, because they told me so, and because, decades later, some of them still tell me so. It confirmed me as a convert to the mission: to great books courses in particular, and to the humanities in general, as unique and indispensable parts of the undergraduate experience. So when that mission is attacked — or defended particularly well — I tend to pay attention. Lately, it’s been both. Last fall, Roosevelt Montás, a senior lecturer at Columbia and former director of its Center for the Core Curriculum, published Rescuing Socrates, a beautiful, powerful, personal argument on behalf of great books programs. Together with another book, The Lives of Literature by Arnold Weinstein, a senior professor at Brown, Rescuing Socrates elicited a rebuttal — in the scornful, condescending tone he takes on such occasions — from none other than Louis Menand. Menand is a professor at Harvard. It has long been fashionable, among a certain kind of wised-up academic, to dismiss the humanistic enterprise as hopelessly naïve and retrograde. Such is also the case with another recent book, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age, by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, professors of Germanic studies at Ohio State and the University of Virginia respectively. The authors describe the development of what we now call the humanities (as an idea, an ideal, and an institutional structure) across the German nineteenth century, with inroads into the American twentieth. But their attitude toward that ideal — the belief that the humanities can play a unique role in

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