Alan Ryan’s new history of political thought sticks too closely to the traditional liberal scriptby Mark Mazower / November 14, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Left, JS Mill is one of Alan Ryan’s favourite thinkers, right, President Woodrow Wilson promised a world made safe for democracy, but fell far short (photos: Getty Images; Culver Pictures, Inc/Superstock)
About a century ago, leading Anglo-American universities transformed their teaching. Their new role, as they saw it, was to act as nurseries of a democratic citizenry, and of its elite in particular. What most of these institutions thought they needed was not more scientific and technical specialisation—this horribly Teutonic approach, they felt, ended up breeding smart cannon fodder for the Kaiser—but rather a return to the ancients, linking them in new ways to the problems of modern democratic life.
To ensure that successive generations of students understood the responsibilities that awaited the thinking citizen, universities established new “Great Books” courses. Their aim was to introduce the young to the accumulated wisdom of canonical texts of liberal thought. Thus emerged “the Western tradition.” This had a narrative arc all its own. Typically it kicked off with a Greek victory against the Persians and ended up with the Greeks’ modern English-speaking heirs, whether in Oxford or New Haven, dishing it to the Huns, and later the Nazis, whilst keeping other threats such as the Soviets at bay.
In the 1970s, this approach came under fire. “Western civ” was decried for Eurocentrism and purged from many undergraduate curricula. But as in clothes, so in intellectual fashion: if you wait long enough the pendulum usually swings back. Today, universities that gave up their Great Books courses a generation ago are looking for ways of restoring them. This is not because they wish to turn out a new generation of imperial proconsuls. Nor, in an era of globalisation, are they stupid enough to think there is much mileage in uncritically reaffirming Western superiority. Rather, political philosophy is popular again; a time of sweeping domestic and international institutional crisis is also one which pushes students back to first principles.