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Long live Great Books education

SANTA FE

I am here for a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of St. John’s College, one of the few institutions of higher learning in America that I like. And they like me! I praised St. John’s and its regimented, we-read-Aristotle-in-Greek-and-you-should-too curriculum in a book I wrote a few years ago.

The “Johnnies,” as the graduates call themselves, emerge from college ferociously well-educated and not devoid of quirks. At their Annapolis, Md., campus, coxswains have been known to shout orders to the crew team in Greek. At Santa Fe, I found myself staring at an odd little booth, labeled “Telephon” — in Greek characters, of course.

On Facebook, that aspirational netherworld of happy kittens and supportive “friends,” I list myself as a St. John’s graduate. A man can dream, can’t he?

The so-called Great Books curriculum has traveled a sinuous path since the 1930s, when the Laurel-and-Hardy duo of University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins and his gnomish sidekick Mortimer Adler (“How to Read a Book”) foisted their educational plan on undergrads. Great Books reading groups were briefly modish. Adler and Hutchins famously led a discussion of Plato’s “Apology” before an audience of 1,500 businessmen, labor leaders, and ordinary folks at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall.

The annoying, brilliant Adler used to show up at the St. John’s campuses well into the 1960s, inveighing against cultural diversity and intellectual relativism, and defending the handiwork of the out-of-favor dead white men who created the Western canon.

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The Great Books education has been floundering for decades. Almost every American high school graduate would rather attend a third-tier liberal arts college than wrestle with Anselm’s “Proslogion” — that’s what St. John’s sophomores will be discussing on Dec. 1 — at a college that offers almost no elective courses.

St. John’s experiences every problem faced by US liberal arts colleges, only more so. And it created its own problem: The classes are hard. Freshman washout rates have traditionally been much higher there than at name-brand colleges that socially promote half-literate dipsticks up to graduation.

Bereft of a large applicant pool and perennially strapped for cash, St. John’s and the Great Books soldier on. Once the favored curriculum of conservative culture warriors such as William Bennett and Allan Bloom, the mossback reading list finds itself on the educational sidelines yet again.

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When I asked a group of academics at the St. John’s conference if conservative ideologues had taken the Great Books hostage, they scoffed. The liberal arts tradition is “thoroughly radical and skeptical of orthodoxy,” Rhodes College professor Dan Cullen answered. “It can’t work out well for conservatives in the long run.”

Adler’s biographer Tim Lacy agrees. “Conservatives no longer champion the Great Books idea as a solution to problems in higher education,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That curriculum isn’t front and center now. Today the discussion is about lowering cost, disrupting the entrenched education establishment, and promoting basic skills, via the Common Core, for the workplace.”

The Great Books are finished . . . or are they? In 2010, the California-based C.S. Lewis Foundation purchased some of the Northfield-Mt. Hermon campus in central Massachusetts, planning to launch a Great Books college in 2012. “We are going to follow the St. John’s model of Socratic pedagogy,” a Narnia gang member told the Globe. “This is about renewal of the civilization for years and years to come.’’

Obviously they are behind schedule, and they didn’t respond to my inquiries. According to their website, the college remains “in the early stages of fund-raising, state filing, and renovating the campus.”

The Great Books are dead — long live the Great Books!

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Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.