It's back-to-school time, which means that thousands of university students across Canada will be encountering the Great Books, many for the first time. As someone who has the privilege of teaching them the canon, the approach of fall makes me excited all over again to try to open up its riches to eager young minds.
When I co-authored a book 13 years ago lamenting the decline of liberal education in Canada, I wondered whether the study of the great books could prevail against the forces of political correctness on the left and economic globalization on the right. Happily, the study of the canon has more than held its own.
I think that's because the majority of students have the common sense to realize that great books are not dreary, ideological justifications for the pursuit of class- or gender-based power. While great philosophers, novelists and poets are certainly capable of lapses into bigotry or special pleading, what marks their efforts is the attempt to rise above their time and place to say something large and meaningful about human existence.
In that spirit, here are my three candidates for great books about education: Homer's Odyssey (as translated by Richmond Lattimore, Harper & Row, 1965), Plato's Republic (Basic Books, 1968, translated by Allan Bloom) and Émile, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Basic Books, 1978, also translated by Bloom).
What do I mean by education? Simply put, the development of a whole human being through the fullest cultivation of our moral, imaginative and intellectual faculties. All three of these books discuss what such an education might look like, albeit in very different ways. They are about education and at the same time educational. Moreover, all three engage in a direct dialogue with one another, which we, as readers, are invited to join.
Homer's Odyssey tells the saga of the Greek hero Odysseus's attempt to find his way back home to Ithaca after 10 years of fighting in the Trojan War. As he travels, he is deepened by the many perils and strange lands he encounters. Behind the tales of magic and adventure is the story of a father and a son who have lost each other and are searching for a way back home. Odysseus' son, Telemachus, embarked simultaneously on a search for his missing father, matures into a man by trying to live up to his father's expectations.
Like many of the great books, Homer's epic poem is an allegory for the journey of the soul from one's particular time and place to a transcendental perspective where the mysteries of human existence are illuminated. After this journey to the outer bounds of insight, we can return to our own time and place better able to appreciate both its shortcomings and its virtues.
Athena, the goddess of wisdom, is the special guide for both father and son. She is fond of Odysseus because he is subtle like her, a "man of many turns." Odysseus's prudence and curiosity make him a more reflective hero than the brutal valour of Achilles, the hero of the Iliad.
In Plato's Republic, an exploration of the perfectly just community, Socrates calls Homer the educator of the Greeks. Odysseus's prudence makes him a far better model for young people, according to Socrates, than the headstrong Achilles.
Nevertheless, Plato's approach is very different. Whereas Homer presented his poem as a divine revelation, Socrates relies on reason. He wants to find a rational basis for convincing his young listeners to prefer justice to tyranny. Socrates gets the young men to think about how citizens in a perfect city should be educated. In thinking about how to educate others, they willy-nilly educate themselves.
The Republic also sketches a cycle of transcendence and return in the famous myth of the cave. We journey upward from the dark cave of ignorance toward the beautiful sunlight of the truth. Having glimpsed it, we can reconcile ourselves to the here and now with a window on eternity. Thus, even Socrates makes a concession to the poetic. Not everything can be explained in purely rational terms.
Rousseau's Émile is about how a boy can be protected from the vanity of civilization and reared strictly in accordance with nature, with simple needs and a healthy character. This book is directly linked to the earlier two. Rousseau praises Plato's Republic as the greatest work on education, and he models his ideal boy partly on Homer's Telemachus.
But Rousseau prefers the poetic emphasis on the emotions as the key to wholeness, rather than Plato's emphasis on reason. The founder of Romanticism, Rousseau believed that the Enlightenment had elevated a calculating rationality to the exclusion of every natural sentiment. Most arrestingly, while both Homer and Plato agree that the soul can be educated only through the most painstaking ascent from base desires to the cultivation of the heart and the mind, Rousseau argues that every human being already possesses this happiness as the effortless gift of nature. We needn't strive to achieve it, only safeguard it from the vain pretensions of civilization. Thus, what both ancient writers thought only a few could achieve successfully, Rousseau makes the possession of all mankind. Whether that was a sublimely generous view of democratic education or an excess of egalitarian folly is one of the questions I will be asking my students to think about starting this week.
Waller R. Newell is a professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University. His next book, The Soul of a Leader: Character, Conviction and Ten Lessons in Political Greatness, will be published next spring.