Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Great Conversation: Then and Now

When Robert Hutchins was 30 years old, he became the president of the University of Chicago, a respected and advanced school, in 1929.  While there, he and Mortimer Adler and others worked on the creation of “The Great Books of the Western World”.  Hutchins wrote the first of the 54 volumes in the set and called it “The Great Conversation.”  He and the other founders were convinced that the ancients and a few more moderns, up to Freud, were essential to living well and understanding the world.
I admired the book for its emphasis that science cannot do everything.  The essence of science is repetition.  Trying something and then trying it again, maybe with a little change, to unravel the mysteries of nature.  We cannot (yet?) live our lives more than once so we cannot experiment with going to college and the trying again, where at the same age, we don’t go to college, to see which is better for us. 
One of my favorite advisors had graduated from the University of Chicago and he complained about too much emphasis on the great books.  How well would you understand today’s world, he said, if your scientific knowledge stopped with Galileo (1564-1642)?
Today, we have a much bigger Great Conversation going on.  The internet involves people all over the world conversing with each other and not only with words, either.  Videos, including sound and color, are exchanged and viewed by millions 24 hours a day every day of the year.  Of course, music and voice and other sounds zoom around this planet all day and all night, too, as do all forms of art and photography.
I am not going to take time to check but I am quite confident that every author in the Great Books of the Western World series has most or all of that author’s works on the internet, often in more than one place.  In addition, great books of several non-Western worlds are also available, in both original languages and in multi-language translations. 
Non-Western participation in today’s Great Conversation is about to rise, I bet, since the governing body of the internet has just approved the use of non-Latin characters in the names of places on the internet.  The great books conversation was usually one way, such the great author was dead before others who lived much later matured to the point they could read and understand the writing.  Today’s great conversations are multi-way.  An email goes to many recipients who respond to each other and include additional people at lightning speed.  The email and web pages include forms of communication far beyond what was possible in Hutchins’s day.
Of course, it is not all peaches and cream.  Lies, fraud, nastiness and vulgarity also circle the globe and hurt and damage every second.
Still, the great conversation is going on and expanding. 

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