I teach in one of the oldest ‘Great Books’ university programs in the United States. We still require all our incoming students to take the same sequence of intensive courses, in small sections, using roughly the same syllabus, and centered on the Western intellectual tradition.
Because my classes are both small and intensive, it is natural for the students to see it as forming a community of inquiry, a perspective I try to invite all my students—even in much larger classes—to take. This community is part of larger ones: the campus community of students and faculty (well over a thousand people) who are engaged in the course at any given time, the thousands more on campus who have been part of the same experience, and, as the college likes to remind people, the wider group of alumni who often find that our Core Curriculum is what binds them together.
What I’d like to explore here, though, is the idea that my students are also entering into another community: the community of all those who have engaged in the sympathetic and careful reading of the works on our syllabus. This community—or set of communities—unlike the others I mentioned above, spans a great deal of time or space.
Early on in the course, we discover how Vergil is both a remarkable poet in his own right and a careful reader of Homer, adapting and extending the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey in his Aeneid. I can’t remember when I first heard the comparison, but I ask the students to consider whether we might think of the Aeneid as a sort of Homeric fan-fiction. But Vergil, too, was reading Homer with the help of the Alexandrian tradition of literary analysis, an existing community of readers coming to grips with poems that were already ancient to them. Later on in the course, we see how Dante embeds Vergil into his poem as his guide and mentor Virgil, altering his name according to a medieval tradition and absorbing him into the Christian cosmology of the Divine Comedy.
One of the distinctive features of this type of community is its recursive or embedded nature—the way that our own ideas and arguments become part of a conversation that sustains and even revitalizes the texts that others have long been reading and, thereby, make them available for still others to follow. I try to draw my students’ attention to this model of a conversation across time and space because they often think, on first encountering the texts, that they either have nothing important to say about them or that what they have to say has to do with their particular identities or modes of situatedness.
It is not, of course, that reflection on oneself is inappropriate in the encounter with a text of cultural or intellectual significance. One of the virtues that liberal education is most conducive to cultivating is intellectual humility, and such humility involves a mode of self-consciousness. But my hope for my students is that this mode of self-consciousness makes them more open to texts with which they lack an initial affinity. Helping my students overcome such aversions is a central part of my own pedagogical task, to serve and guide my students as Virgil serves and guides Dante through unfamiliar places.
Moreover, the preliminary and typically hesitating arguments that my students make to one another in their attempts to grapple with these texts and their meaning are a first step toward keeping the texts alive. What is characteristic of the type of work we favor teaching in courses like ours is the ability to prompt such responses no matter the antecedent interest of an intelligent and committed reader. That is what makes a great book great.
Tradition is more often seen as a source of oppression than of insight, but it is the right word for the open-ended and intergenerational conversation I am trying to describe. Crucially, we must realize that when an intellectual tradition comes to be unquestioned, it dies. (That is the proper response to the worry about oppression.) That is to say, when we take there to be knowledge stored up in a set of texts and not in a community of inquirers, we stand in danger of failing to become part of such a tradition.
My students, though they come from a very wide range of backgrounds—and varying levels of enthusiasm for the ideals of the program—tend to share a hunger for community. No doubt their hunger has something to do with the false modes of community that modern life provides. In the work of our class, in entering into the vast conversation around the works we study, my hope is that we may all find some nourishment.
Dhananjay Jagannathan is an assistant professor of philosophy at Columbia University. His essays on politics, religion, literature, and music have appeared in Plough Quarterly, Breaking Ground, and Athwart. He co-authors the Substack newsletter The Line of Beauty with Tara Isabella Burton.