If I think about it, I am saddened that I received the invitation later in life. I wish I had received and accepted the invitation in High School, or college, or certainly graduate school. It was not all my fault, I was not told about the invitation until about twelve years ago. Since that time, I have invited hundreds and hope to invite many more.
What is The Great Conversation? The actual wording I am most familiar with comes through the writings and lives of Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins. Since the 1960’s those two men and a handful of others fought valiantly against social and cultural trends that would all but be the end of the Great Tradition, the Great Books, and the Great Conversation. While things have gotten considerably worse since these intellectual warriors declared a strategy of intellectual health, there are loving resistance fighters and pockets of resistance found here and there.
Robert Hutchins said: “Until lately the west has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through Great Books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of this tradition. There never was very much doubt in anybody’s mind about which the masterpieces were. They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind call the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind.”
Since Hutchins originally penned these words, various “isms” stormed the gates of the academy and established themselves as the norm. My wife (a librarian, yes, there are still a few of those left also, yet to be replaced by “media specialists”) and I were discussing several works of “Young Adult fiction” and both agreed how extremely dark they were, and concluded that where God is murdered, despair ensues.
Later, in the same essay, Hutchins said of Liberal education, “The substance of liberal education appears to consist in the recognition of basic problems, and knowledge of distinctions and interrelations and subject matter, and in the comprehension of ideas.” With the ongoing debate about the meaning and value of a Liberal education, it should surprise no one that we have no way of addressing basic problems, and our ability to make distinctions has evaporated. The common inability to connect even the most readily connected shows what happens when we abandon education that is natural to and formatve of the human mind.
It was Mortimer Adler, who later wrote, “the goods of the mind are information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.” That is, we naturally desire these things for the mind. And yet, we have become inundated with trivial disconnected information, bombarded with surface knowledge, given a shallow understanding, and who really, talks about wisdom any longer? If Adler is right (and he is) that wisdom, “is generally acknowledged to be the highest good of the human mind, ” then we are in serious trouble being part of human history that no longer even uses the term.
You do not need to be an historian to know that “there is a clear break between this century and the twenty-five centuries that precede it in the tradition of Western civilization.” We are paying dearly for our ignorance and rebellion. We are reaping the consequences of ignoring the invitation to join that Great Conversation. Our only hope, on a humane level, is to hear the invitation and join in that conversation. There is much knowledge, understanding, and yes, even wisdom found in that conversation.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.