Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Great Conversation, A Note

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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.

Written by janeh

October 13th, 2013 at 10:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'The Great Conversation, A Note'

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  1. Well said, and an important thing to say. I might go further and say that even those who refuse to discuss such matters must at the least give some thought to right and wrong behavior and how such things are derived, and that those “trying to fit it all together in their heads” may have the advantage over the graduates of some of our more select–and more carefully guided–courses.

    But don’t tell me. Tell the critic who says a Leigh Brackett story can’t have anything to say about colonialism because it’s set on Mars and published in a pulp magazine, and that Tolkien says nothing about power because he embodies it in a magic ring.

    For that matter, have a word with the person who explained that using a Klingon or Romulan for cultural criticism was such a very different thing than using a Chinese, or someone from Islandia or Utopia. (What was her name? Jane something?)

    Anyway, you’re right We can skip the RRL, but we can’t evade certain questions it ought to address.


    13 Oct 13 at 1:25 pm


    I didn’t say they didn’t count.

    I said I didn’t trust them.

    How do I know when I see a Martian or a Romulan that the writer is trying to say anything about the human condition?

    How do I know the writer isn’t trying to create a character as UNlike human beings as possible?

    Then we have nothing to do with the great conversion.

    If the character is presented as human, I can at least assume that the writer is trying to talk about humans.


    13 Oct 13 at 2:49 pm

  3. Oh, goody. Another Jane v Robert SF fight. Popcorn anyone? :-)


    13 Oct 13 at 2:57 pm

  4. I think as long as the author is human, they cannot avoid saying SOMETHING about humanity, and the state of being human, no matter what they write. Romulans or Martians, yes, they ALWAYS say something, sometimes very profoundly, about humanity. Just because the story is set in Beijing doesn’t mean doesn’t say something about Cleveland, if you see what I mean.

    Have we forgotten our “compare and contrast?” Exploring how a non-human might be, or think, or act, can only be enlightening in contrast to humans.

    When we get to read authors who are NOT human, then we’ll have something really alien to explore. Until then, it’s only speculation, within the scope of human imagination. Just like inventing God, our aliens are always ourselves, or aspects of ourselves. The more alien they are, the more revealing of the limits of our imaginations.

    If an author is creating that “as unlike humans as possible” character, their success or failure is revelatory of humanity, too.


    13 Oct 13 at 3:33 pm

  5. “How do I know when I see a Martian or a Romulan that the writer is trying to say anything about the human condition?”

    Well, I’m a primitive from another critical era: I’d pay attention to what the author said. When the STAR TREK people present me with aliens who are actually interfertile with terrestrial humans but who differ from the nominal humans in philosophy and social organization, I watch “Journey to Babel” or read THE ROMULAN WAY as a comment on how we humans choose to do things.

    When the author says, though, that “these aliens DON’T think like us because they evolved out of carnivores/herbivores/migratory animals or whatever” then I settle back to read one of Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League stories: “The Master Key” perhaps, SATAN’S WORLD or THE MAN WHO COUNTS.

    Careful attention teaches much. And so when a certain “alien” observes that “You may find that wanting is a more pleasant thing than having…It is not logical, but it is often so.” I do not think Spock is saying anything exclusively applicable to Vulcans. And when Nicholas van Rijn observes that what seems reasonable to us as omnivores may not seem equally reasonable to a race descended from carnivores, he also is telling us something about being human, but not in the same way.

    Now, who brought the popcorn? NOBODY??


    13 Oct 13 at 4:46 pm

  6. OK, Mique, one bowl of popcorn please!

    And Robert, Speaking of carnivores, have you read the Larry Niven Man-Kzin war series?


    13 Oct 13 at 9:12 pm

  7. I’ve read many of the Kzin stories–Niven’s and some of the others he’s let play with them. The average is good, but generally I prefer Poul Anderson’s aliens as better thought through and Anderson as the better story-teller, so he’s my first example when I need someone who has created “an alien who thinks as well as a man, but not like a man.”


    13 Oct 13 at 9:44 pm

  8. Hijacking the Blog again. Those too young or too far frm the US to remember him might want to take a look at the obits on Tom Foley, a former Speaker of the House. This one’s fairly typical:

    Then notice what they don’t say. There’s always a very brief reference to him inheriting the job on the resignation of Jim Wright. There is NEVER any mention of how spectacularly corrupt Wright was, and how Foley and his colleagues were being very quiet about it. (Can you say “accessory?”)

    Usually, there’s talk about how much Foley loved the district he represented. The obits never mention that once he lost his seat, he never went back to the place he allegedly loved. Somehow, on the fairly modest pay of a US Rep, he’d acquired a 4,000 square foot house with heated indoor pool in a trendy part of DC, and when he left the Congress, his not having practiced law in 30 years qualified him for a $400,000 job–in 1995, mind you!–with a DC law firm.

    The corruption of our political class is so all-pervasive, that they no more notice it than I notice air–that is, only when they or I can’t get enough. Our journalists, as the obituaries prove, don’t hold “honest graft” against their subjects.

    I don’t know how you come back from where we are, but the intervening crash is going to be spectacular. I just wish I could read about it in a history book instead of living through it.


    19 Oct 13 at 9:41 am

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