I have been reading a new book by Roosevelt Montás called Rescuing Socrates. It’s about a program he has directed at Columbia University that requires all incoming first-year students to take a year-long course based on some variation of what could be called ‘the Great Books’. It’s made me think about the very similar course I took at Stanford many years ago, which was required for all first-year students. I don’t know the official title, but we students just called it ‘Western Civ’. The connection is not surprising, since our course was based on the Columbia course. We even used their book of collected readings as a basis; I remember that it was called Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West.
Now, courses like that have been out of favor for years; Columbia is a holdout in still making it a requirement. At Stanford, the requirement was dropped after a series of protests in the late 1980’s, where protestors chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go”—a chilling demand, if you take it literally. I understand the point: it’s very easy to turn a requirement like this into a claim for the superiority of the dominant culture, with all its flaws. But that doesn’t negate the importance that such a course can have. For me, as for Montás, it was life-changing. I was being shown that it was alright to ask fundamental questions about who I was, what my life was about, how society should be organized—and much more. Not only that: such questions formed the basis of an ongoing conversation that had been going on for two thousand years, a conversation I could join.
Actually, I had been headed in that direction while I was still in high school. I remember that when I was about sixteen, I made the conscious decision to put aside my ‘childish’ interests and get serious about my life. I had spent my early teenage years reading mostly science-fiction, but now I wanted to read what adults read. My first try was to read a collection of plays by George Bernard Shaw.
But that was a problem. First, Shaw (with all due respect) was hardly the most obvious or helpful choice. Unfortunate, but I had no way of knowing that; he was just a name I plucked out of the poorly populated regions of my knowledge of serious literature, one that seemed like it might not be too difficult. No one in my family had gone to college, and although I was in a reading group with my favorite English teacher where we read great novels, I was looking for something more—a connection I didn’t know how to make.
Second, I would probably have done better to stay with science-fiction. The questions that the science-fiction I loved most tended to raise were pointers in the direction I wanted to go. In my senior year of high school, I wrote a short story whose plot I shamelessly stole from the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Asked for a our creative-writing magazine to write a single sentence about the story, I drew on the fundamental Buddhist teaching of the Eightfold Path to give my view of what science fiction is for: “The ninth path,” I wrote, “is maybe.” And how did I come to know about the Eightfold Path? Thanks to my World History teacher, who had a great love of Indian civilization. A little of that love rubbed off on me, preparing me at some level for the unexpected path my life would take.
So, even in high school I had the leanings. But I needed guidance. And that’s what Western Civ gave me. It wasn’t just the ideas, it was getting explicit permission to think about them. Montás writes that for him the three authors who matter most when he took his Great Books course (I’m simplifying a bit) were Plato, Augustine, and Gandhi. When he wrote that, I thought about who meant the most to me. Plato (or Socrates), for sure, and Augustine mattered as well. But then I wasn’t sure. What kept coming to mind was a short assigned reading from a work by the fifteenth century monk Luca Pacioli, in which he introduced the idea of double-entry bookkeeping. A strange choice, since I’ve never been that fond of numbers, and even today I’m awkward around spread sheets. And I don’t recall that I got that much out of the reading. But something about it fascinated me: the idea that even in the most ordinary human endeavor, some great new knowledge might be hidden. That’s what it was about—an invitation to search out knowledge wherever it turned up, to trace my own path in the company of previously unknown guides.