We recently purchased the Great Books of the Western World for ourselves and for our children. I have slowly been reading the first book which is entitled The Great Conversation – The Substance of a Liberal Education by Robert M. Hutchins. This book is . . . . stellar (I feel like a dolt because I simply do not have the words to describe it). I wish I could quote you the whole book, but I will leave you snippets of it over the next several days to think on. Mr. Hutchins is discussing here the importance of the Great Books . . . .
The books contain not merely the tradition, but also the great exponents of the tradition. Their writings are models of the fine and liberal arts. They hold before us what Whitehead called ‘the habitual vision of greatness.’ These books have endured because men in every era have been lifted beyond themselves by the inspiration of their example. Sir Richard Livingstone said: ‘We are all tied down, all our days and for the greater part of our days, to the commonplace. That is where contact with the great thinkers, great literature helps. In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius. And some of their vision becomes our own.’
Until very recently these books have been central in education in the West. They were the principal instrument of liberal education, the education of men acquired as an end in itself, for no other purpose than that it would help them to be men, to lead human lives, and better lives than they would otherwise be able to lead.
The aim of liberal education is human excellence, both private and public (for man is a political animal). Its object is the excellence of a man as man and man as citizen. It regards man as an end, not as a means; it regards the ends of life, and not the means to it. For this reason it is the education of free men. Other types of education or training treat men as means to some other end, or are at best concerned with the means of life, with earning a living, and not with its ends.
Hutchins, Robert M. The Great Conversation. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952