Beware: Hodgepodge of learning omits great books

Reconsidering the elective system during the Cold War

Harvard's President Charles Norton Eliot introduced "the elective system" in the undergraduate curriculum in the late 19th century. Taking non-required non-sequential courses! Take courses you want! Explore topics freely! It was a revolution.

In 1952 (yes that many years later — but of course it was the politically paranoid 50s) George Boas was writing in the AAUP Bulletin* that the elective system was “devised for a society of free men who knew what they wanted to study and who could be tested for the aptitude in making their choices.”

But, he adds — and here comes a particular kind of conservative backlash — but... “it did not take long for some people to point out that this might lead to a hodgepodge of learning which would omit the greatest that had been thought and said.” Great Books, in other words — the very practice of Great Books, following from the conservative argument Boas cites against academic liberalism. But not the Great Books curriculum fully deployed.

For if we really did Great Books fully, we’d notice that “each later author has been a rebel against the dominant traditions of his time. But of course such lists usually stop at a date well before our own times and we are not usually aware of precisely what harm to tradition was done by the men who figure on them.” And finally, to clinch this argument: “If you were living in the early days of Christianity, you would have seen the same kind of confusion and intellectual anarchy as you hear about today. But what is called confusion is the outspokenness of recalcitrant individuals. When they are dead, they are spoken of as heroes and prophets. But while they are alive, they are noncooperative, radical, and heretical.”

The Elective System did not create the confusion and anarchy that conservative arguments against it feared. The true study of “required” Great Books discloses the same confusion and radicalism. Finally this is not about radicalism and heresy. It's about apparent control. Boas' essay for AAUP was called “The New Authoritarianism.”

The image above and at right is taken from a defense of the Elective System that President Eliot wrote for the New York Times in 1885.

* vol 38, no 3; Autumn 1952.