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Books on Our Nightstand

Below are some of the books that Gutenberg’s tutors read during the last year. Amazon links are included if you would like to learn more about these books.

Post below the books on your nightstand.

 

Dick Booster: The Law by Frederick Bastiat

Written two years after the French Revolution of 1848, The Law appeals to the French people reminding them of the proper sphere of the law and government.

 

David Crabtree: In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

Tells the story of an American ambassador escaping from Nazi Germany with his family. A page turner from the same author as Devil in the White City.

 

Jack Crabtree: The Character of Nations: How Politics Makes and Breaks Prosperity, Family, and Civility by Angelo M. Codevilla.

In this cross-cultural study, Codevilla illustrates that as people shape their governments, they shape themselves. Draws broadly from the depths of history, from the Roman republic to de Tocqueville’s America, as well as from personal and scholarly observations of the world in the twentieth century.

 

Tim McIntosh: Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman.

Friedman’s thesis is that our public problems are not intellectual, but emotional. We live in a time that rejects strong, decisive leadership. Leaders ought to recognize that good leadership demands “differentiation,” the ability to maintain emotional strength despite inevitable sabotage from our “leadership-toxic climate.”


Eliot Grasso: Art in Action  by Nicolas Wolterstorff.

Eliot writes: “This was the best book I read all year because it not only explained clearly many issues I’ve wanted to voice about institutionalized art, but it also offered a better way to think about art in the world using a Christian philosophical framework. In short, Wolterstorff disagrees with the idea that art is defined by the fact that it is a mere object of contemplation. Rather, Wolterstorff argues that art is an instrument by which we achieve other actions.”

 

Charley Dewberry: Principles of Political Economy by John Stuart Mill.

A classic in which Mill discusses the desirability of sustained growth of national wealth and population, the merits of capitalism versus socialism, and the suitable scope of government intervention in the competitive market economy.

 

Literature and Philosophy: Contrary or Complementary?

Literature and philosophy: their goals, methods, and pleasures seem so opposed. Literature tells fictions; philosophy dispels them. Literature loves beauty; philosophy loves truth. “There is an old quarrel,” wrote Plato in 380 B.C., “between philosophy and poetry.” However, even Plato was a master of literary philosophy. Such a marriage of literature and philosophy might give birth to an exceedingly rare experience: feeling ideas. Fyodor Dostoevsky and William Shakespeare achieved this marriage, and the results of their inquiries are not in wordy monologues but fulfilling narratives.

 

In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov pits his philosophical convictions against his own conscience. Guilt and law, Raskolnikov asserts, are both simply “prejudices” that society presses on individuals. Some men, supermen, rise above guilt and law and do what they please. Raskolnikov plans to confirm his philosophy by committing a murder. The murder is a consequence of his philosophical belief (“No superman is subject to guilt!”) and an attempt to prove himself a superman.

Likewise, Macbeth’s philosophical convictions push him toward life or death. The whole of Macbeth can be viewed as a debate over the nature of manhood: What is a man? How should a man act? Should sympathy curb a man’s ambition? When Macbeth has second thoughts about assassinating King Duncan, Lady Macbeth challenges him as failing in his manhood:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And [if you did it] you would
Be so much more the man.

Macbeth eventually concedes to Lady Macbeth’s vicious definition of manhood. Both Shakespeare and Dostoevsky shove these philosophical positions to their maximum conclusions.

At the end of the play, Macbeth is a monster. Yet we can still feel sympathy at his lament that life has become a meaningless cycle of days:

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov carries his philosophy to its maximum conclusion. He murders the money-lender and her sister, then crabs into his psyche where guilt pursues him like a hunting hound. For a few days, he hides beneath his stony philosophy. But upon receiving a gentle letter from his mother, Raskolnikov begins to cry. One minute, lethal pride. The next minute, sympathy. Dostoevsky’s readers feel Raskolnikov’s philosophy yanking him back and forth.

Dostoevsky and Shakespeare’s achievement comes, in part, from never forcing their characters to be philosophical mouthpieces. Macbeth and Raskolnikov both become monsters, but they do not cease to be human. These characters resist simplistic philosophizing because, no matter their beliefs, they remain a baffling salad of impulses. They are, in short, us.

Neither Shakespeare’s and Dostoevsky’s characters nor their conclusions are tidy. They wrote narratives, after all, not philosophies. Yet both litterateurs endorse philosophy as a lamplight to understanding. Their marriage of literature and philosophy helped make them masters of both. Their works, like any healthy marriage, use the strengths of each to bolster the weaknesses of the other.

 

[This edited excerpt is from “War between the Bookshelves” by Tim McIntosh. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]

 

Rare Air, Impracticality, and Other Stigmas Against the Humanities

A father recently visited campus. He wondered if Gutenberg was right for his daughter.

The man was a bright, no-nonsense sort of guy. He owned a furniture store that he hoped his daughter would someday inherit. He enjoyed meeting the faculty, sitting in on discussion, and Gutenberg’s price. But he couldn’t leap one hurdle. “It just seems so impractical,” he said. His daughter did not attend Gutenberg.

Are degrees like Gutenberg’s impractical? As Gutenberg’s admissions officer, I hear this complaint too often. It is a strong deterrent for some students. But is it deserved?

I must admit, studying the humanities has rarely been done for practical benefits. The Odyssey never taught anyone to bake bread; Jane Austen never taught anyone how to build a suspension bridge. For this reason, I advise prospective students to go into engineering if that is what they want.

But many students enter college not knowing what they want. Yet even these students view the humanities with skepticism. The humanities, according to some of these students, suffer from a “rare air” stigma. These students imagine that humanities classes are populated by slightly batty Homer students who sip chamomile tea and pontificate on wildly abstract subjects.

Guess who caused this rare-air stigma? Those in the humanities did.

Yes, many tweedy humanities professors have taken unwarranted pride in discussions of ancients like Homer and Virgil. “We are above it,” they seem to say. “Let others toil in the impurities of the marketplace; we prefer the rare air of the Acropolis.”

I wish these professors would drop this pretension. These professors (secure in their own job and income) help create an anti-market idealism in their students. Refusing to work for “the man” became (especially in the 1960s) a badge of honor. But this misguided idealism did little to slow “the man”; he is alive and well in the marketplace. The only thing this idealism accomplished was keeping many idealistic students unemployed. Instead of merely warning students against selling out, humanities profs should encourage their students toward industry and fruitfulness.

There’s another reason I wish professors would drop this “rare air” stigma: The professors don’t exist above the marketplace. Their students and their jobs are prone to the same economic peaks and valleys as shoe manufacturers. Study of the humanities spikes during bull markets and sinks during bear markets. During the Roaring Twenties, the humanities thrived; during the shoestring thirties, the humanities faltered. (It got so bad in 1935 that The Princeton Tiger cartooned liberal arts grads receiving loaves of bread with their diplomas.) The humanities popped again during the booming sixties and stagnated again during the seventies.

Again, the humanities do not exist for the purpose of becoming wealthy. Studying great books like The Odyssey and Pride and Prejudice is for maturing our innermost being. We read these books to cultivate, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest” inside us. This is our primary mission.

But our primary mission ought not blind us from the fact that we, too, are part of the marketplace.

Today, we are in the middle of the market against the humanities. A recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences shows that recent undergrads have fled the humanities for “practical” majors. Furthermore, at Yale and Harvard, humanities-majors have dwindled, while “practical” majors have increased.

Hopefully the relatively good news coming from economic sectors will encourage students to reenlist in the humanities. But, even if we begin booming again, we might suffer from students believing our degree is impractical.

But are the humanities impractical? Not at all. In fact, I am convinced that humanities students are better prepared for the contemporary marketplace than many “practical” degrees. But you’ll have to wait for my next blog post to hear why.

 

Good to Hear

Classical Conversations is a home-centered education movement that emphasizes classical tools of learning. Looks like Gutenberg has some supporters there. (See this post: http://www.classicalconversations.com/easyblog/college-profile-gutenberg-college.) We’re glad about that.

Speaking of classical education: Gutenberg is planning a winter conference (February-ish) on a classical approach to education. We’ve got a couple of big guests (who we’ll announce later) who will be part of the conference. Details soon.

 

The Great Books in the Information Age: The Difference Between Puzzles and Mysteries

The gossip about Enron’s misdealings began in 2000. A couple of experienced investors had a hunch that Enron’s profits were inflated. The investors withdrew their support. Other investors soon followed. Soon Enron’s stock collapsed like a house of cards. When the dust settled, Enron had lost $11 billion in shareholder revenue.

Prosecutors began digging through Enron files hunting for “smoking guns,” for incriminating documents detailing Enron’s corrupt deals. But prosecutors never found locked-away documents. On the contrary, every corrupt Enron deal was posted online. Anyone with a computer could look at them.

Despite the fact that the deals were online, the complexity of the deals prohibited them from being understood. The byzantine intricacy of the deals was almost unfathomable. (One business professor spent two months just diagramming the deals.) The Enron scandal was not a puzzle that could be solved with a missing piece of information. It was a mystery shrouded in an ocean of information.

The Enron scandal was not a puzzle but a mystery. Puzzles are solved by locating missing pieces of information. Mysteries, on the other hand, are problems solved despite an over-abundance of information. This difference—between a puzzle and a mystery—was articulated by national-security expert Gregory Treverton in 2007. During the Cold War, explained Treverton, the CIA was charged with solving puzzles. The CIA searched for particular pieces of information, like the number of missiles in the Soviet Union, their range, and the amount of damage they could inflict. Once operatives found that data, the puzzle was solved. But the nature of the threats facing American security are increasingly mysteries. Toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime was a puzzle (and fairly easy to accomplish). Predicting what would happen in post-Hussein Iraq was a mystery.

Imagine a game of hide-and-go-seek with your son. Finding him is a puzzle. With the right information (his location), you will solve the puzzle. But predicting your son’s reaction upon being found—that is a mystery. Will he giggle, pout, shriek, or cry? To predict his reaction, you would reflect on a large number of factors: his general mood, his breakfast, his competitiveness, the quality of his sleep, the affection between you two. And even after careful consideration, you might not successfully predict his reaction. The complexities are too numerous.

Life’s biggest questions are mysteries. Will you and your fiancé have a happy marriage? Will you succeed at your new job? Will that candidate make a good senator? Does your worldview work? These are mysteries that cannot be uncovered with a new piece of data. “Mysteries,” writes journalist Malcolm Gladwell, “require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much” (“Open Secrets,” New Yorker, January 8, 2007).

Contemporary education focuses on puzzle-solving. Universities train students to excel in increasingly narrow disciplines like cell-biology and computer programming. Of course, there is a need for such specific training; we need cell-biologists and JAVA programmers. But an education that focuses exclusively on puzzle-solving leaves life’s bigger mysteries impervious to inquiry. Gladwell suggests that our open society needs more mystery solvers: “slightly batty geniuses” with “language abilities” and the ability to “understand different religions and cultures.”

A classical great books education, in my opinion, is superb training for an open society. Gladwell seems to agree. He lauds a small group of men—the Bletchley Park analysts—for their mystery-solving ability. During the Second World War, this small group of British analysts cracked the Nazi’s incredibly sophisticated secret code. Their accomplishment was a wonder of mystery-solving. It should be no surprise that most of these analysts were educated—not in puzzle-solving—but in the classics.

 

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