The Great Conversation

Since education is long, and since it is indispensable, we should begin it right away.

The Great Conversation by Robert Hutchins is the introductory volume to the 1952 edition of the Great Books of the Western World. Its thesis is that a liberal education is necessary for all citizens of a democratic society.

Hutchins argues that one of the defining, unique features of the West is its spirit of inquiry; it is a “Civilization of the Dialogue.” Liberal education is an attempt to identify and understand basic problems and how one problem bears on another through the major contributions to that Dialogue. The liberally educated person is conversant in all fields, although he may not specialize in any of them.

Historically, liberal education was reserved to those with leisure and political influence, i.e., the upper class. Hutchins argues that in the modern world, where all have leisure (through technology) and political influence (through democracy), it is necessary for all to be liberally educated.

Hutchins notes that although liberal education is the historic norm (for those who were educated at all), since the early 20th century there has not been much of it taking place in educational institutions:

The object appears to be to keep the child off the labor market and to detain him in comparatively sanitary surroundings until we are ready to have him go to work. The results of universal, free, compulsory education in America can be acceptable only on the theory that the object of the schools is something other than education, that it is, for example, to keep the young from cluttering up homes and factories during a difficult period of their lives, or that it is to bring them together for social or recreational purposes.

Sixty years since Hutchins wrote these words, the situation he describes is, if anything, worse than when he wrote them.

What if schools were to educate the young and adults were to continue educating themselves? Hutchins says simply, “We could talk to one another then.”

Hutchins stresses the ideal of “interminable liberal education” throughout one’s life. With propaganda (both private and public) beating on us all day long, independent judgment is more difficult to maintain than ever before, but it is also more necessary because of our responsibilities as citizens. Thus we need “constant mental alertness and mental growth”; the best way to achieve this is through participation in the Great Conversation.

I believe Hutchins makes a great case for liberal education. Later chapters make it clear that he was preoccupied  with the issues of his own day (e.g., fear of nuclear war), and he makes one or two unfortunate statements about the “necessity” of world government, but these do not detract from the relevance of his argument. After reading this book-length essay, I am more motivated than ever to embark on this project of reading the Great Books.

For next week, it’s Volume 1 of the Gateway to the Great Books series. This is also an introductory volume, and the majority of it is index material, so I plan to get through it in just one week. For our purposes, the important sections are the “Letter to the Reader” (pp. 1-15) and the “Introduction” (pp. 15-108). I’ve been unable to find the full text of these essays online, but beginning next week I expect to be able to post links to all the reading material.

[This post was originally published on Through the Great Books’s parent blog, The Western Tradition.]


About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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4 Responses to The Great Conversation

  1. micheldaw says:

    Preparing to start this for 2014. I will be 3 years behind the rest of the group, but it is a start!

  2. Brenda says:

    If anyone is interested in joining a new Goodreads group to read Gateway to the Great Books, please feel free to join us! We will begin in January 2014 by reading Volume I: Introduction and Syntopical Guide. Here is the link to join:

  3. Beth says:

    Just thought your followers might like to know that many, if not all, of the volumes in the Great Books and Gateway sets are available online through I will be embarking on my journey into the Great Books shortly. I look forward to reading your comments as I complete my reading. BTW is the Journal of Faith and the Academy available to read online?

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