The first thing to say, of course, is that JD was right–I got the name of the Theodore Dalrymple wrong. It’s Farewell Fear, not “Forever” Fear.
But I want to go back around to something else.
Some time ago, I said on this blog, and meant, that only about ten percent of high school students could really handle a course in the Great Conversation–that only about ten percent would ever be qualified to go on to “college” as I defined the term.
I said it, and I meant it, but I meant it exactly the way I said it.
Very few high school students will ever be qualified to go on to that kind of work, and about half of the ones who qualify aren’t interested.
But that is not the same thing as saying that only ten percent of the population will be interested in taking part in the Great Conversation or capable of doing so.
A true liberal arts education is very demanding, and as far as I know it’s the best way we’ve arrived at so far to hand down the Great Conversation in all its complexity.
But the Conversation itself is a constant part of all of us.
It’s not just geniuses and demi-geniuses who want to know why death exists and what it means, or where morality comes from and what it consists of, or if life has purpose and direction and what it is, or how other people live and think and feel.
I’d think that pretty much anybody who isn’t functionally brain dead thinks about these things.
And although only a minority talks about these things or reads about them or writes about them, that minority is far larger than the ten percent who will be able to handle doing a regression analysis of the Nichomachean Ethics or situating Beyond Good and Evil in both event and intellectual history.
There are a lot of things here that I think are confusing.
For one thing, I think being able to situate all this in place and time and the history of ideas is a very good thing. It prevents a lot of misinterpretation. It puts at least some brakes on the human tendency to read their own preferences into anything that’s labeled “important.”
But if the Great Conversation was an academic exercise only, or even principally, it wouldn’t matter at all, and it wouldn’t have come down to us. The first universities arose in the Middle Ages in Europe. There had already been an awful lot of water under the bridge.
People take part in the Great Conversation on a lot of different levels and in a lot of different ways. They do it in novels of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery–and even in the “mainstream” ones. They do it in movies and video games. They do it in song lyrics.
Like I said, part of me feels that you really have to be close to brain dead not to do it–although I’ve met enough people who don’t, and who resent people who do, to make me wonder what goes on in people’s heads.
It isn’t even true that only people who have been formally educated in the liberal arts who read or discuss the actual authors in the tradition.
Penguin Classics makes a living putting out volumes by virtually every recognized writer in that tradition, and they’re not making money with them as CATs (course adoption texts).
There are people today who are reading their way into the Great Conversation, picking up used books here and free-for-e-readers books there, plowing their way through first one branch and then the other, trying to fit it all together in their heads.
That approach is messy and wasteful of time and effort–I know, I spent my late childhood and adolescence working that way–but it’s not the same thing as not being part of the conversation at all.
What I’m getting at here is that saying that only about ten percent of the population is ever actually capable of real college work is not the same thing as saying that only ten percent of the conversation can think or read about these things at all.
The people who can do these things is a systematic and comprehensive way are vital, because they are the only way we keep the entire history of ideas alive and available.
But almost everybody joins the Great Conversation in one way or the other.
We couldn’t stop them if we tried.
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