Thursday, August 20, 2009

On Empty Notebooks and Empty Minds

The holidays are almost over. We spent the first half of August in Germany. Hence the lack of posting.

One of the first things I read back in the U.S.A. was Alex Beam, A Great Idea at the Time. The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (New York: Public Affairs, 2008). The book is being "remaindered," and that's the time when I purchase a book of its type.

It's interesting and gives some insight into the peculiarly American phenomenon of the Great Books movement is characterized by a combination of high ideals, low intellectual standards, and rampant hucksterism. I found historically interesting the disdain Mortimer Adler had of Leo Strauss and "Straussians" in general, though the book does not really investigate the significant continuities and discontinuities of these movements to any extent.

I also found the chapter on St. John's (Annapolis) interesting. One of the slogans characteristic of this program is "a full notebook betokens an empty mind" (173). This pretty much sums up everything that is wrong with St. John's and the Great Books. While it is true that a full notebook may indeed be the sign of someone who does not see the forest for the trees, an empty notebook is a much better indicator of a mindless person, that is, a person, who does not find it necessary to take note of anything in order to reflect on it later, to develop her thoughts and critically develop them. Sustained intellectual development without proper note-taking is absolutely impossible for most of us.

The slogan goes well with the disdain for reading texts in their original language, the aversion to footnotes that contextualize and explain the historical background of a book, be it great or not, and the fetishization of the supposedly "Socratic" discussion of texts in what would be a vacuum, if it were not pervaded by the inevitable prejeduces of twentieth-century interior decorators of the vaguely intellectual kind.

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