The tragic view of liberal education
So many great books, so little time - there's the rub with a
curriculum that tries to be genuinely broad and well-rounded, says
author John Barth. Here's his argument, in this copyrighted text of
the commencement address he delivered May 18  at St. John's
College in Santa Fe.
Barth is the widely published author of several articles and books,
including "The Sot-Weed Factor" and "Giles Goat-Boy."
By John Barth
A commencement address must always commence with a joke, even if the
somber-sounding title of that address is "The Tragic View of Liberal
As I happen not to have any appropriate jokes of my own, I'm going to
borrow one from Bill Cosby, who gave the commencement address at
Goucher College in Baltimore this time last year. It is a joke that,
as Cosby warned his audience, contains one naughty word - and then he
added, "At least, it used to be a naughty word."
It seems that a distinguished physicist and a distinguished
philosopher happened to die at the same time, and approaching Heaven's
gate they were informed by the gatekeeper that, because of temporary
overcrowding, God was admitting only those deserving souls who could
ask him a question that even he couldn't answer; all others would have
to wait in Limbo indefinitely.
The physicist reflected for a moment and then posed the most
intricate, difficult problem in quantum mechanical theory - which God
solved on the spot. The philosopher then put the most elusive question
in metaphysical/ontological/epistemological theory - to which God
unhesitatingly gave an irrefutable answer.
As the two great thinkers shook their heads in awe, an elderly couple
humbly approached and whispered in the deity's ear; he scratched his
head, then shook it and promptly ushered them into Heaven.
"Excuse us, sir," the physicist and philosopher then respectfully
inquired, "we can't help wondering what in the world those folks asked
that even you couldn't answer." To which God sighed and replied, "They
asked me, `When will our kids ever get their shit together?'"
End of joke - which, anyhow, I suspect applies less to graduates of
this institution than to those of most others - and beginning of
"Tragic View of Liberal Education."
For me to natter on here about the importance of "great books"
curricula like St. John's would obviously be preaching to the choir -
but I'll do at least a paragraph's worth of that, anyhow, for reasons
to be set forth presently.
Having been born, raised and schooled in the state of Maryland and
having subsequently lived and worked there for more of my life than
not, I became acquainted early on with the program at your original
campus in Annapolis.
If I ended up matriculating at Johns Hopkins instead, that was
because, from high school, I had gone up to Juilliard's summer program
to test against reality my then-ambition to be a professional jazz
drummer and orchestrator. I aced my courses but failed my reality test
with flying colors, came home to think what to do next and found I had
won a state scholarship to Hopkins that I'd more or less forgotten I'd
So, with a shrug of the shoulders, I went there, faute de mieux - a
most happy faute, as I came to realize later.
In my undergraduate and graduate-school years there half a century
ago, the St. John's curriculum was spoken of and its pros and cons
debated or, anyhow, discussed now and then, in class and out. We
compared and contrasted it with our own quite admirable two-year
lecture courses in Literary Classics and Classics in the History of
Thought - mandatory in those bygone days for all Hopkins Arts &
What were those pros? What were the cons, as we saw them from the
perspective of Baltimore back at mid-century?
The pros, as I've said already, go without saying in this venue - or
would so go except that: 1) some of them are even more evident now
than they were 50 years ago; and 2) saying over and over what goes
without saying - at least vis-Ý-vis the craft of fiction writing - was
for decades my pedagogical speciality: staring down first principles
and unexamined assumptions until they blink and make Full Disclosure.
What is "fiction"? What is a "story"? Et cetera, as I've said more
than once elsewhere.
So, what's to be said - once more, with feeling - for a curriculum
devoted to the study of a more-or-less-agreed-upon roster of "the best
that has been thought and said," in Matthew Arnold's notorious
formulation, or, at least, as representatively much of that best as
the ever-evolving consensus of a good college faculty believes can be
fruitfully addressed between undergraduate matriculation and the
Well, what's to be said for it, needless to say, is that it not only
edifies and instructs - any old good curriculum does that - but
permits discourse within a shared frame of reference richer and more
stable than this season's pop music, films and TV shows, which a
colleague of mine used to lament were the only points of cultural
reference that he could assume to be shared by his undergraduate
students - not Homer and Sophocles and the Bible, not Virgil and Dante
and Shakespeare, but "The Sopranos" and "Friends" and Britney Spears
and N'Sync, all of which in just a few years will seem as quaintly
dated and otherwise limited as "Leave it to Beaver" and Boy George and
Tiny Tim. (I don't mean Charles Dickens' Tiny Tim.)
It is this urge for a richer shared frame of reference that has
prompted those "one city, one book" programs that you may have heard
about, in Seattle, Chicago, Buffalo, Rochester and elsewhere - the
urging by city officials that every adolescent and adult in town read,
say, Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" or Ernest J. Gaines's "A
Lesson Before Dying," their reading to be accompanied by discussions
and other events in the city's libraries, bookstores and community
centers, as a low-cost way to nurture civic pride and community
spirit, while propagandizing benignly against racism - in the case of
the two novels just cited - and offering teen-agers a healthy
alternative to television and video games. Who could possibly object?
No show of hands necessary.
One may fidget at the choice of Harper Lee and Ernest Gaines - serious
and competent writers both - instead of, say, Flannery O'Connor and
Ralph Ellison, finer literary artists with no less moral passion in
the matter of racism. And one fidgets at the idea of any single book -
instead of, say, Dr. Eliot's five-foot shelf of 418 Harvard Classics
or the 88 distinguished names (who can resist saying 88 key names?) on
the St. John's College reading list last time I looked - as a shared
frame of reference for dialogue on racism or anything else, including
the topic of shared frames of reference.
But one has to start somewhere, no? It's just a question of where -
and in raising that question, we find ourselves confronting possible
reservations about great books curricula, which, doubtless, also go
without saying in this venue, especially on this happy occasion. So
let's review a couple of them, anyhow.
Never mind, for starters, the half-serious objection of my
undergraduate mentor at Johns Hopkins, the late aesthetician and
historian of ideas George Boas, who liked to tell us that the problem
with the Annapolis curriculum was that it left out not only all the
bad books - which, like bad art, may be indispensable to defining and
appreciating the good - but also all the arguably great books that
happen to disagree with the ones in the canon.
We can dispense with these teasing objections because, in the first
instance, mediocre-to-bad books and art are sufficiently inescapable
that we needn't include them in our curriculum, although it certainly
useful to point them out from time to time and to argue with them.
As for the second instance, any respectable clutch of great books will
contain sufficient contradiction or at least disagreement on, e.g.,
the nature of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, to escape the curricular
sins of pasteurization and homogenization.
The real problem, it goes without saying - and this is what Professor
Boas was good-humoredly pointing out to us sophomores - is that there
are so many great or at least important books that no four-year
undergraduate survey - much less his two-year survey - can be more
than a radically selective, though not arbitrary, sampling. And this,
mind you, was the 1940s and ¹50s, before multiculturalism and
political correctness hit the fan.
Dr. Eliot's aforementioned shelf - which I myself read or at least
thumbed right through in numerical sequence while working as a
night-shift timekeeper in Baltimore's Chevrolet assembly plant one
undergraduate summer - had come to look quaint, indeed, by the
century's latter decades: all those Protestant sermons, instead of the
"Mahabharata" and "Gargantua and Pantagruel"! Alessandro Manzoni's
novel "I Promessi Sposi," instead of Murasaki Shikibu's "Tale of
Genji" and James Joyce's "Ulysses"!
For all its merits, by the 1960s it was as obviously dated a cultural
artifact as its most judiciously updated and multiculturally
sophisticated present-day counterpart would doubtless be seen to be
half a century from now.
The difficulty, of course - as you probably knew before you enrolled
at St. John's but were no doubt reminded of during your freshman
orientation here and every semester thereafter - is succinctly put in
the title of Isaac Babel's earliest known work of fiction: "You Must
What a title: "You Must Know Everything"! That imperative implies,
among much else, that you must read everything; must, indeed, have
read everything, which of course you cannot; which you could not, even
if history refrained from growing both longer, as recorded time
accumulates, and wider, as cultures evolve and intercultural
connections multiply - thus, ever enlarging the mass of what Umberto
Eco calls "the already said."
You cannot read everything; could not, even if you were a certain
fellow Hopkins graduate student who seemed to me and his other seminar
mates to have read nearly everything already and whom we suspected of
staying up all right reading the corpus's few remaining unread
volumes, in their original languages, while we lesser beings slept;
and who, I later learned, was, in fact, doing just that, more or less
- he being not only a polymath but a tireless insomniac, a charming
and generous fellow of such cripplingly vast erudition that, to this
day, he is scarcely able to complete a sentence, much less publish a
coherent essay, because every word he utters sets off so many synaptic
hot links in his mind that he has difficulty getting from subject to
verb to object, astray in the hypertextuality of his splendid
Yet even he, as he'd be the first to insist, is far, indeed, from
having read all the books worth reading, much less from having reread
them - we recall Vladimir Nabokov's insistence that "all great reading
is rereading" - a dismaying idea, when one has finally reached the end
of Dr. Eliot's five-foot shelf or of the ten folio volumes of
Somadeva's "Katha Sarit Sagara, The Ocean of Story."
No: We cannot read all the books, not to mention spectating all the
important stage plays, films and graphic and plastic arts, auditing
all the music, acquiring a working knowledge of all the languages and
arts and sciences.
A fascinating section of our Hopkins commencement program is the pages
and pages of doctoral-dissertation titles in the several sciences -
titles of which, more often than not, I cannot understand a single
word; can only shake my head in awe at the staggering multifariousness
of human intellectual curiosity.
We "must know everything," but we cannot, and, inasmuch as we cannot,
our pursuit of higher education, both during and after our college
years, involves us in an exemplary paradox: Since time, attention,
energy and opportunity are all finite, we must radically exclude and
delimit, if we are to learn anything at all well; yet, in doing so, we
may very possibly leave out things that, had we discovered them or
they us, might have been keys to the treasure that we were scarcely
aware we were seeking; or, if not the keys, at least elements of the
The tragic view of life and/or of history is that there are no
ultimate victories, just different ways to lose, the only "victory"
being to go down heroically, or, anyhow, as nobly as we can.
The tragic view of liberal education is that, even at its best, as at
St. John's, it is so necessarily, unavoidably limited that all it can
attempt is to afford us some experience of, for example, informed
close reading and critical thinking, and to make us aware that there
remain continents of knowledge out there that one lifetime could
scarcely scratch the surface of, even were we to devote it all to
reading and studying - which we must not, since education comes so
much from hands-on doing and experiencing as well as from reading and
Our Hopkins mini-version of your great books curriculum was
commendable. But how fortunate for me that, to make ends meet, I
worked as a book filer in the university library, where I lost myself
back in the stacks sampling what I was supposed to be reshelving -
what I call my Ý la carte education.
In class, we had distinguished lecturers on Homer, the Greek
tragedians, Virgil, Dante and company. But it was off the cart that I
discovered Petronius's "Satyricon" and Apuleius's "Golden Ass" and
Boccaccio's "Decameron" and the unexpurgated "Thousand and One Nights"
and "The Ocean of Story" - all which I regard as important to my
But who knows what-all I didn't happen to discover or do or meet that
might have made me into a very different, not impossibly a quite
better, writer, not to mention a better human being?
But that way lies fruitless discontent, and I do not at all intend the
tragic view of liberal education as a despairing or even a pessimistic
view, only an unblinkered one.
I remember wishing, as a green undergraduate and apprentice writer,
that I could at least know the names of everything, if not the things
themselves - "all trades," as the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins puts it,
"their gear, tackle, and trim," every rock, bug, plant, star, body
bone, lingo, culture.
I remember feeling like a newcomer to a party that had been going on
for millennia and worrying that maybe all the best jokes and stories
had been told already. Twenty-five centuries' worth of poets getting
off good metaphors for the ocean and the sunrise, for example, since
Homer's "wine-dark sea" and "rosy-fingered dawn."
Could I or anybody hope to come up with yet another? And how would I
know that I had, unless I reconnoitered the entire existing inventory?
Which, of course, I could not; only comfort myself with the
speculation that my thousands of predecessors, so far from exhausting
the stock of good dawn and sea images, might for all we know have
scarcely made a dent in it. No doubt the number of possible zingers is
finite, but then so is the number of stars in the galaxy, not to
mention the universe - finite, but astronomically large.
Therefore, take heart, adviseth the tragic view: One's education is at
best fragmentary and will never be anything like complete, but at
least it can know itself to be so and can achieve some compass and
coherence. It has to start somewhere, and inasmuch as we happen to
dwell in this historical/cultural latitude and longitude rather than
some other, it seems not unreasonable to begin - although we will not
end - with some judiciously chosen reading list therefrom, recognizing
it to be neither more nor less than our point of departure - or 88 or
418 points of departure - not our journey's end.
Will there be objections to the list? Of course there'll be, and
welcome to the great conversation!
Are there arguable alternatives to the tragic view of liberal
education? No doubt there are - including the tragic view of the
But that's a sermon for some other occasion than this. For now, my
warm congratulations, indeed, on your education thus far. Welcome to
the party! Gaudeamus igitur! On with your stories!
Copyright 2002, John Barth.
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