Book Review – The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means To Be an Educated Human Being


The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means To Be an Educated Human Being, edited by Richard M. Gamble, published in Wilmington, Delaware by ISI Books in 2009.

The editor tells us, in the introduction to The Great Tradition, that “this collection . . . is intended to supply an arsenal of the liberal arts for those who would wage war . . . on the side of an education rooted in the classical and Christian heritage.”  The editor sees the “Great Tradition” from which the collection is drawn as that sequence of philosophers (used in its broad and proper sense) who have shared the idea that the goal of education is happiness or human flourishing.  As such, the collection includes authors of varying traditions in other senses: Eastern and Western; Christian, Pagan, and Jewish; Catholic and Protestant.  

“Weighing in” at just under 7oo pages the book provides a generous sampling of authors from the tradition.  One of the pleasures of the book is that, for those moderately well-versed in things “liberal arts,” the readings include a fair smattering of “new” names.  Along with Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Augustine, Petrarch, Erasmus, Milton, Newman, and Sayers, we find Isocrates, Vitruvius, Basil the Great, Rhabanus Maurus, Aeneas Silvius, the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum, Weil, Sertillanges, and Oakeshott.  The latter list is not made up of authors unknown, to be sure, but ones too little known by the homeschool educationalist.

The selections, which are mostly excerpts from larger works, are preceded by brief comments about the author and the selection itself.  Each selection touches on the question of the purpose of education, some more directly than others.  And, like all good great book educators, the editor choses works, not that agree in every point, but which contribute substantively and importantly to the conversation about the question at issue.  The excerpts are long enough to give a real sense of the authors, but short enough for quick reading, and, if we take the purpose of such a book to be introducing us to authors and works that we will be inspired to seek out in their unabridged glory, it is highly successful.

I would describe this book in a similar fashion to the manner in which I describe the Intermediate level Traditio Nostra courses here at R.A.S.  In it we find great books, abridged and arranged with helps for ease of understanding.  A homeschool educator would do well to read a selection a week, leaving plenty of time between excerpts for the rich content to enlarge his understanding of what he is about.  Taking such an approach would, among other goods, alleviate the tendency to think of liberal education as a monolithic, curricular structure in which success is to be gotten, if only the right sequence of great authors is read, such as one encounters from time to time.  The book illustrates the great variety of opinion and approach that can be had, while still maintaining a common vision of the purpose of man and education.  I am making my way through the book in something like the fashion just described and recommend it heartily.    

By Kenneth J. Rolling

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