Has the Death of the Great Books Been Greatly Exaggerated?

 

I saw this article in my news feed, lamenting the collapse of interest in The Great Books. Articles much like this one show up often in my news feeds. The collapse of interest in The Great Books, the Classics, traditional curricula, etc., is “common knowledge” amongst conservative intellectuals.

I don’t have sufficient data to disprove that this “collapse” is occurring, but anecdotal evidence makes me skeptical. In the past, there were essentially three ways to be exposed to The Great Books: 1) They were assigned in a classroom. 2) They were assigned by parents who owned a high-quality home library. 3) A reader would stumble upon them in a public library.

Now, it may be true that if you only look at those three vectors you might indeed see a decrease in the rate of exposure to The Great Books. Maybe they aren’t assigned in class as much as they once were. Maybe they are included in fewer home libraries. Maybe they aren’t featured as prominently in public libraries.

Thanks to the popularization of the Internet, however, those are no longer the only exposure vectors available. It’s doubtful that they are even the most important exposure vectors any longer.

My social media feeds are chock-full of posts quoting great literature from history, which encourage me to seek out the sources of these quotes. This is easy to do thanks to modern search engines. I can then download the source material for free from sites like gutenberg.org.

One could counter with the old line, “yeah, but how many kids are really going to do that? You can’t say that your experience is typical.”

Firstly, this is the same sort of argument that people made against Andrew Carnegie’s mission to build public libraries across the continent. “What’s the point of spending all this money on libraries for people who aren’t motivated to read?” The idea that people won’t learn unless forced to do so has little empirical basis. In fact, the opposite is often argued, that people are less likely to learn when forced to do so.

Secondly, I’m not arguing that my experience is typical. Instead, I argue that experiences akin to my own may be trending upwards rather than trending downwards.

I cannot prove that people are reading The Great Books at greater or lesser rates than they did in the past. However, I can prove that people are downloading The Great Books at relatively high rates.

First, we need to define The Great Books. For convenience, I’m going to use Mortimer Adler’s reading list.

The #1 title on the list is The Iliad. According to Gutenberg.org, The Iliad has been downloaded over 11,000 times in the last 30 days alone. The #2 title on the list is the Old Testament. According to Gutenberg.org, the King James Bible has been downloaded almost 4,000 times in the last 30 days.

Here are lists of Gutenberg’s most-downloaded titles. Most of them are on Mr. Adler’s reading list. The top download is Pride and Prejudice, which was downloaded almost 50,000 times in the last 30 days.

Furthermore, the article which provided the impetus for this rant laments that the kids don’t learn Latin these days. According to Gutenberg.org, Latin for Beginners has been downloaded 1173 times in the last 30 days.

I don’t think I need to go through the download stats from Gutenberg for all the books on Mr. Adler’s reading list to make the point. If the thesis is correct that interest in these sorts of books is on the decline, would it not mean that in previous decades Pride and Prejudice was purchased and/or borrowed more than 50,000 times per month in the United States? I’m skeptical that retail and library records would bear out that statistic.

I also note that Gutenberg.org is just one source for these books. There are other sites where one can download classic works, like feedbooks.com and archive.org, not to mention good old Amazon.com or the website operated by one’s local public library. In the case of the Bible, there are plenty of online sources for every imaginable translation. BibleGateway.com is the 308th top-ranked website in the USA, according to Alexa, out of the millions of websites that exist.

Considering that the US literacy rate is at an all-time high, I would not be at all surprised if I was shown data that suggests readership of The Great Books is also at an all-time high.

After all, what percentage of the population even had access to The Iliad in 1900?

There are 50 comments.

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  1. DrewInWisconsin, Influencer Member

    Misthiocracy secretly: Furthermore, the article which provided the impetus for this rant laments that the kids don’t learn Latin these days. According to Gutenberg.org, Latin for Beginners has been downloaded 1173 times in the last 30 days.

    Homeschoolers.

    • #1
    • March 27, 2019, at 9:53 AM PDT
    • 14 likes
  2. Stina Member

    DrewInWisconsin (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly: Furthermore, the article which provided the impetus for this rant laments that the kids don’t learn Latin these days. According to Gutenberg.org, Latin for Beginners has been downloaded 1173 times in the last 30 days.

    Homeschoolers.

    I didn’t think you could find text books on gutenberg.

    I get the free classics on Amazon kindle when I see them. My interest has been limited, though. I have a large Louisa May Alcott collection, as well as Rhetoric.

    But I have a decent home library, with Utopia, Tess of the D’urbervilles, a few Dickens, and a couple philosophy books from my grandmother’s collection.

    • #2
    • March 27, 2019, at 10:25 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  3. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Stina (View Comment):
    I didn’t think you could find text books on gutenberg.

    They’ve got lots of textbooks, but of course they are all published before Jan 1, 1924.

    That being said, only one textbook makes the Gutenberg Top 100: Calculus Made Easy (4,481 downloads in the last 30 days)

    Note: This assumes a very strict definition of “textbook” which does not include original scientific and/or philosophical works like Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, Hobbes’ Leviathan, or Machiavelli’s The Prince.

    • #3
    • March 27, 2019, at 10:49 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  4. JoelB Member

    It’s the homeschoolers doing all that downloading.

    • #4
    • March 27, 2019, at 10:50 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  5. Stina Member

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    Stina (View Comment):
    I didn’t think you could find text books on gutenberg.

    They’ve got lots of textbooks, but of course they are all published before Jan 1, 1924.

    That being said, only one textbook makes the Gutenberg Top 100: Calculus Made Easy (4,481 downloads in the last 30 days)

    Note: This assumes a very strict definition of “textbook” which does not include original scientific and/or philosophical works like Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, Hobbes’ Leviathan, or Machiavelli’s The Prince.

    That’s interesting… and I might just have that textbook when my college was giving away a ton of ancient books. I got an old DiffEQ text, too… and trig and logic.

    • #5
    • March 27, 2019, at 10:53 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. Hank Rhody, on the blockchain Contributor

    Misthiocracy secretly: One could counter with the old line, “yeah, but how many kids are really going to do that? You can’t say that your experience is typical.” 

    As a rule on these things I never take my own experience to be typical. Nevertheless, you make a pretty good point.

    • #6
    • March 27, 2019, at 10:54 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  7. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    JoelB (View Comment):

    It’s the homeschoolers doing all that downloading.

    I’m open to the hypothesis that homeschoolers are a large percentage, but I’d need to see data to prove they’re responsible for the majority of it.

    I’m inclined to imagine that large proportions may also include retirees who finally have time to lie back and study for the pure pleasure of it, and/or college graduates whose day jobs fail to provide adequate intellectual stimulation.

    • #7
    • March 27, 2019, at 10:57 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  8. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Stina (View Comment):
    That’s interesting… and I might just have that textbook when my college was giving away a ton of ancient books. I got an old DiffEQ text, too… and trig and logic.

    They have lots of old children’s books as well. My personal favourite is the The Orbis Pictus, the earliest known picture-book for children. First published in 1658, the text is printed side-by-side in both English and Latin.

    Sadly, it has “only” been downloaded 364 times in the past 30 days.

    • #8
    • March 27, 2019, at 11:13 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  9. JosePluma Thatcher

    My opinion has always been that there is about the same proportion of readers and thinkers in the population. It used to be that there seemed to be more because theirs were the only voices that survived. Now, all the “marching morons” have their own loudspeakers and quickly overwhelm the erudite and studious. The mass of unqualified college students swamps the few true scholars. The cheerleader and the quarterback take center stage while the quiet girl or guy reading in the corner are ignored.

    • #9
    • March 27, 2019, at 11:43 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  10. Front Seat Cat Member

    Loved this post and I found it full of positive information. I hope you are right. While I prefer actual books to reading on an electronic device, I know that has become old school. My only concerns are the following:

    1. The censoring that we are starting to notice in bookstores and on campuses etc.
    2. Also, you have to wonder the control that certain companies (with definite agendas) have over education, searching, and personal info. Yes – like Google, Apple and Microsoft. At one point, your preferred reading will be part of your personal profile if you know what I mean…
    • #10
    • March 27, 2019, at 11:55 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  11. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    Hillsdale College has one of their Free Online Courses on the Great Books. Ten lectures by Hillsdale faculty, available to all. And all Hillsdale students take GB courses as part of the standard curriculum.

    • #11
    • March 27, 2019, at 12:08 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. dnewlander Member

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    My opinion has always been that there is always about the same proportion of readers and thinkers in the population. It used to be that there seemed to be more because theirs were the only voices that survived. Now, all the “marching morons” have their own loudspeakers and quickly overwhelm the erudite and studious. The mass of unqualified college students swamps the few true scholars. The cheerleader and the quarterback take center stage while the quiet girl or guy reading in the corner are ignored.

    In case anyone is wondering about the quotes around “marching morons”, here’s the cite:

    https://mysite.du.edu/~treddell/3780/Kornbluth_The-Marching-Morons.pdf

    • #12
    • March 27, 2019, at 12:27 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. dnewlander Member

    The first thing I did when I bought my first ebook reader in 2008 ($250!) was to download a ton of stuff from Gutenburg that I’d always wanted to read.

    The next thing I did was to write a Perl script to strip out the garbage “this was downloaded from Gutenberg” text and reformat the book the way I wanted. :)

    • #13
    • March 27, 2019, at 12:30 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  14. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    Loved this post and I found it full of positive information. I hope you are right. While I prefer actual books to reading on an electronic device, I know that has become old school. My only concerns are the following:

    1. The censoring that we are starting to notice in bookstores and on campuses etc.
    2. Also, you have to wonder the control that certain companies (with definite agendas) have over education, searching, and personal info. Yes – like Google, Apple and Microsoft. At one point, your preferred reading will be part of your personal profile if you know what I mean…
    1. I’d need to see some data first before I could agree that censorship in bookstores and on campuses is increasing. It seems to me that bookstores have always been selective about which books they choose to offer for sale, and “banned books” have always been a thing in schools. The American Library Association website has lists of “most challenged books” going back to the 1990s.
    2. The level of control that large companies have over the availability of information has been a perennial concern. When I was a wee student, one overriding concern was about the amount of power that large publishers like Pearson plc had over educational texts. The dominance of the big three TV networks over American minds was a perennial concern for over 50 years after World War II.

    The price of liberty has always been eternal vigilance. I’ve yet to be convinced that current trends suggest that threats to liberty are increasing, though the nature of the threats do indeed change over time. The existence of decentralized virtual “permanent records” for all of us is indeed a new challenge for lovers of liberty.

    • #14
    • March 27, 2019, at 12:31 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    My opinion has always been that there is always about the same proportion of readers and thinkers in the population. It used to be that there seemed to be more because theirs were the only voices that survived. Now, all the “marching morons” have their own loudspeakers and quickly overwhelm the erudite and studious. The mass of unqualified college students swamps the few true scholars. The cheerleader and the quarterback take center stage while the quiet girl or guy reading in the corner are ignored.

    Were the “marching morons” of 1968 really any more erudite and studious than those of today?

    • #15
    • March 27, 2019, at 12:33 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  16. dnewlander Member

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    My opinion has always been that there is always about the same proportion of readers and thinkers in the population. It used to be that there seemed to be more because theirs were the only voices that survived. Now, all the “marching morons” have their own loudspeakers and quickly overwhelm the erudite and studious. The mass of unqualified college students swamps the few true scholars. The cheerleader and the quarterback take center stage while the quiet girl or guy reading in the corner are ignored.

    Were the “marching morons” of 1968 really any more erudite and studious than those of today?

    Probably, yes. They had at least been exposed to challenging ideas, unlike most people today.

    • #16
    • March 27, 2019, at 12:50 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  17. RightAngles Member

    The bad news is that our colleges and universities are dropping the ball. Women’s Studies programs are scraping the bottom of the literary barrel to teach writers because they’re women rather than because they’re good writers. And Yale students got together and presented a letter to the administration demanding that they stop teaching Shakespeare because he was a white European male. I wish I were kidding.

    • #17
    • March 27, 2019, at 2:06 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  18. RightAngles Member

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    My opinion has always been that there is always about the same proportion of readers and thinkers in the population. It used to be that there seemed to be more because theirs were the only voices that survived. Now, all the “marching morons” have their own loudspeakers and quickly overwhelm the erudite and studious. The mass of unqualified college students swamps the few true scholars. The cheerleader and the quarterback take center stage while the quiet girl or guy reading in the corner are ignored.

    Were the “marching morons” of 1968 really any more erudite and studious than those of today?

    Probably, yes. They had at least been exposed to challenging ideas, unlike most people today.

    But in 1968, college freshmen had at least read most of the Shakespeare plays (I’d already read several in middle school) and had been exposed to the great literature and poetry of Western Civilization.

    • #18
    • March 27, 2019, at 2:08 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  19. Amy Schley Moderator

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    My opinion has always been that there is always about the same proportion of readers and thinkers in the population. It used to be that there seemed to be more because theirs were the only voices that survived. Now, all the “marching morons” have their own loudspeakers and quickly overwhelm the erudite and studious. The mass of unqualified college students swamps the few true scholars. The cheerleader and the quarterback take center stage while the quiet girl or guy reading in the corner are ignored.

    Were the “marching morons” of 1968 really any more erudite and studious than those of today?

    Probably, yes. They had at least been exposed to challenging ideas, unlike most people today.

    But in 1968, college freshmen had at least read most of the Shakespeare plays (I’d already read several in middle school) and had been exposed to the great literature and poetry of Western Civilization.

    Maybe … in 1968 my dad had been promoted to sixth grade even though he was functionally illiterate due to dyslexia. Luckily he was intelligent enough to catch up to his peers and is now an adjunct professor himself. 

    • #19
    • March 27, 2019, at 3:12 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  20. JosePluma Thatcher

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    My opinion has always been that there is always about the same proportion of readers and thinkers in the population. It used to be that there seemed to be more because theirs were the only voices that survived. Now, all the “marching morons” have their own loudspeakers and quickly overwhelm the erudite and studious. The mass of unqualified college students swamps the few true scholars. The cheerleader and the quarterback take center stage while the quiet girl or guy reading in the corner are ignored.

    In case anyone is wondering about the quotes around “marching morons”, here’s the cite:

    https://mysite.du.edu/~treddell/3780/Kornbluth_The-Marching-Morons.pdf

    I was waiting for someone to pick up that classic literature reference. Not at all surprised it was you. 

    • #20
    • March 27, 2019, at 3:22 PM PDT
    • Like
  21. dnewlander Member

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    My opinion has always been that there is always about the same proportion of readers and thinkers in the population. It used to be that there seemed to be more because theirs were the only voices that survived. Now, all the “marching morons” have their own loudspeakers and quickly overwhelm the erudite and studious. The mass of unqualified college students swamps the few true scholars. The cheerleader and the quarterback take center stage while the quiet girl or guy reading in the corner are ignored.

    In case anyone is wondering about the quotes around “marching morons”, here’s the cite:

    https://mysite.du.edu/~treddell/3780/Kornbluth_The-Marching-Morons.pdf

    I was waiting for someone to pick up that classic literature reference. Not at all surprised it was you.

    I actually only read it for the first time about a decade ago.

    At a bar, naturally.

    • #21
    • March 27, 2019, at 3:26 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  22. RightAngles Member

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    My opinion has always been that there is always about the same proportion of readers and thinkers in the population. It used to be that there seemed to be more because theirs were the only voices that survived. Now, all the “marching morons” have their own loudspeakers and quickly overwhelm the erudite and studious. The mass of unqualified college students swamps the few true scholars. The cheerleader and the quarterback take center stage while the quiet girl or guy reading in the corner are ignored.

    Were the “marching morons” of 1968 really any more erudite and studious than those of today?

    Probably, yes. They had at least been exposed to challenging ideas, unlike most people today.

    But in 1968, college freshmen had at least read most of the Shakespeare plays (I’d already read several in middle school) and had been exposed to the great literature and poetry of Western Civilization.

    Maybe … in 1968 my dad had been promoted to sixth grade even though he was functionally illiterate due to dyslexia. Luckily he was intelligent enough to catch up to his peers and is now an adjunct professor himself.

    I’m not talking about students with learning disabilities.

    • #22
    • March 27, 2019, at 3:56 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  23. Worldwidestebs Inactive

    Excellent point by OP. As a secondary point, there is a difference between someone who can read words and someone who is literate.

    • #23
    • March 27, 2019, at 4:09 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  24. jeannebodine Member

    I’m skeptical of your skepticism. About 10 years ago, I downloaded the English Literature curricula from approximately 100 middle schools and 100 high schools. Not data of course, but it appeared to me that literature as taught in most schools is just another tool for “social justice”.

    I started to do the same for college English departments but it was too depressing (started with Swarthmore – big mistake!). When you consider that you can get a B.A. in history at Bowdoin College without taking a single US history course, you begin to understand the gravity of the situation. Orange Man Bad pales in comparison to the scope of Western Civilization Bad. 

    I definitely agree with the comments on homeschooling – perhaps it can save civilization. 

    • #24
    • March 27, 2019, at 5:01 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  25. Saint Augustine Member

    There’s hope!

    • #25
    • March 27, 2019, at 5:12 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  26. RightAngles Member

    jeannebodine (View Comment):

    I’m skeptical of your skepticism. About 10 years ago, I downloaded the English Literature curricula from approximately 100 middle schools and 100 high schools. Not data of course, but it appeared to me that literature as taught in most schools is just another tool for “social justice”.

    I started to do the same for college English departments but it was too depressing (started with Swarthmore – big mistake!). When you consider that you can get a B.A. in history at Bowdoin College without taking a single US history course, you begin to understand the gravity of the situation. Orange Man Bad pales in comparison to the scope of Western Civilization Bad.

    I definitely agree with the comments on homeschooling – perhaps it can save civilization.

    It’s been going on for a long time. In the 90s I met a woman who had a degree in English from the University of Michigan, and she had never read a Shakespeare play. Her husband hadn’t either (Michigan State). When he was there, they had dropped the humanities requirements for business majors, and this man had never even seen a poem in his life. He had a master’s degree (MBA) and was one of the most uneducated people I’ve ever met. Both he and his wife went to college in the 70s.

    He once told me that he had an English teacher who announced on the first day of class that they wouldn’t be made to memorize any rules because that “stifles creativity.”

    • #26
    • March 27, 2019, at 5:14 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  27. Saint Augustine Member

    There’s other cool stuff.

    YouTube probably spreads tons of misinformation about the great books–alongside the funny cat videos. (Not that there’s anything wrong with cat videos.) But things like YouTube also open up university-level instruction in great books available to literally billions of people who just have to search-and-click.

    My very low-quality video on a book from Aquinas has this reaction:

    I don’t know who BriboGarabet or Glenn Gillet are, but they look like young people interested in Aquinas. That’s promising news for the world. My video based on Plato’s Meno has 31k hits; it’s not exactly the popularity of “How Jurassic World Should Have Ended,” but there are people who want to know about Plato, and that’s a good thing.

    • #27
    • March 27, 2019, at 5:20 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  28. Amy Schley Moderator

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    My opinion has always been that there is always about the same proportion of readers and thinkers in the population. It used to be that there seemed to be more because theirs were the only voices that survived. Now, all the “marching morons” have their own loudspeakers and quickly overwhelm the erudite and studious. The mass of unqualified college students swamps the few true scholars. The cheerleader and the quarterback take center stage while the quiet girl or guy reading in the corner are ignored.

    Were the “marching morons” of 1968 really any more erudite and studious than those of today?

    Probably, yes. They had at least been exposed to challenging ideas, unlike most people today.

    But in 1968, college freshmen had at least read most of the Shakespeare plays (I’d already read several in middle school) and had been exposed to the great literature and poetry of Western Civilization.

    Maybe … in 1968 my dad had been promoted to sixth grade even though he was functionally illiterate due to dyslexia. Luckily he was intelligent enough to catch up to his peers and is now an adjunct professor himself.

    I’m not talking about students with learning disabilities.

    I get that. But he wasn’t diagnosed with a learning disability until middle school. He just failed upward because social promotion was a thing even then. If a kid could get to middle school without learning to read in 1968, I don’t find it outlandish to think that there were kids in college about that time who didn’t get introduced to classic education.

    • #28
    • March 27, 2019, at 6:02 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  29. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Interesting post.

    First comment: Adler’s list is way, way, way too long. 137 authors, many with multiple works. We need a shorter list. Personally, I’d say something like:

    The New Testament
    The Old Testament
    Homer (count Iliad and Odyssey as one)
    Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
    Tolstoy, War and Peace
    Selected Shakespeare (definitely including Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet)
    Milton, Paradise Lost
    Locke’s essays
    The Federalist Papers
    Orwell, 1984

    I know there are hundreds of great books, but you can get much of the information elsewhere. You don’t have to read Tacitus and Livy in order to understand Roman history. You don’t have to read Euclid and Galileo and Euclid to understand physics and astronomy. I’m listing the top 10 that I think you should read yourself.

    I’m at 7+ of the 10 on my list. I haven’t read Paradise Lost. I’ve read parts of Locke. I can’t exactly recall how much I read of the Federalist Papers.

    Any other suggestions? Not just good books — but books you really, really need to read yourself — no Cliff notes.

     

    • #29
    • March 27, 2019, at 6:15 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  30. Hank Rhody, on the blockchain Contributor

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):
    You don’t have to read Euclid and Galileo and Euclid to understand physics and astronomy.

    Heck, I might have to read Euclid a third time before I get it.

    • #30
    • March 27, 2019, at 6:17 PM PDT
    • 1 like
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