Chasing After Windmills: A Response to Charley Dewberry’s “Not All Great Books Colleges Are Alike”

Note: I wrote the following thoughts a few months ago. At the time, however, my alma mater was in the middle of its #SaveGutenberg campaign, so I set these thoughts aside for a more appropriate time. Now that Gutenberg has reached its fundraising goal, I feel that I can publish these thoughts in good faith.


When I was an undergrad at Gutenberg College, I heard a lot about “the other” Great Books schools. I put the other in quotation marks because they were always referred to in a sort of cautious, otherizing tone. “The other” Great Books schools were “unlike” Gutenberg. They were either bastions of postmodernism, rejected authorial intent, and were comparable to the sophists of Socrates’ time or centers of ideological dominance.

Particularly targeted was St. John’s.

I remember it being said that the St. John’s campus in Santa Fe had one of the highest college suicide rates in the country.

It was implied that, when you do a Great Books education without God and the Bible, suicide would often result. The connection was, when you experience an upheaval of your worldview, if you don’t have biblical teachers willing to help you put it back together, you can reach that overwhelming moment of despair — “See St. John’s, for example.”

(By the way, just to set the record straight, St. John’s isn’t even on the list of the most stressful colleges, let alone most suicidal colleges.)

As it so happens, after I graduated from Gutenberg, I went to the St. John’s in Santa Fe. After spending four years studying “Western Civ,” I was curious: What does “Eastern Civ” look like? What are the Great Books of the East? As it turns out, St. John’s in Santa Fe was the only Great Books school that offered a M.A. in that very category.

So off I went to Santa Fe. I was honestly nervous.

I had all these images in my head of what this postmodern God-hating school of sophistry would look like.

I was worried that discussions would be all over the place and hold no meaning to real inquiry.

But as I settled into my oversized leather chair around the golden-hued wood table for my very first class, I was shocked. The conversation was not only stimulating, organized, and relevant to the text and the author’s ideas, it was more so than at Gutenberg. And mind you, that was the very first class. We — on our first day, with most of the people in the room not coming from a Great Books undergrad program — were engaging in a dialogue that was more disciplined and textually relevant than my senior class at Gutenberg ever accomplished.

I was not prepared for that.

I came to realize over the 12 months I was at St. John’s that pretty much every preconceived notion I had inherited from Gutenberg about the Santa Fe program was untrue.

In particular, the tutors were the most gifted Socratic conversationalists I have ever encountered. They knew the perfect question to start a dialogue that would last the whole two hours of class. They knew the right questions to throw in at the right times to keep us focused and interested. They knew when to guide the discussion away from personal tangents and back to exploring the author’s ideas — and when it was appropriate to lead the conversation away from the author’s ideas and into abstract thinking about ideas themselves.

I was reminded of this disconnect between the way I thought other Great Books schools were with the way at least one of them actually is when I read the latest News and Views from Gutenberg College. The dean of Gutenberg, Charley Dewberry, wrote an article entitled, “Not All Great Books Colleges Are Alike.” And it starts off exactly how I imagined it would:

“One of the distinctive features of Gutenberg College’s Great Books curriculum is that we are committed to the notion of ‘authorial intent’—that is, a work ‘means’ what its author intended to communicate.”

Dewberry continues this idea in the next paragraph:

“At the other end of the spectrum philosophically from Gutenberg is a view I will call ‘postmodern,’ which explicitly rejects the authorial intent view.”

I am familiar with this sentiment, as I’ve heard it many times in many different ways. There is Gutenberg, and then there are the other schools.

This is the same, tired trope I’ve heard a million times before (though this time dressed up in a bit more nuance), from Gutenberg College to Summit Ministries to my early Christian homeschooling days: you are either for us or against us, us versus them, Biblical Worldview™ or Bust.

Some group somehow has this unique grasp on x — in this case, Gutenberg has a unique grasp on how to approach reading a book.

I don’t understand, first, how it makes sense that Gutenberg believing an author’s work means what the author intended it to mean is unique to Gutenberg in the Great Books world. The Great Books world isn’t vast. It’s not Gutenberg versus the postmoderns. If you look at the list of the “15 colleges keeping the Great Books ideal alive,” that Gutenberg itself references, it’s not an overwhelmingly “postmodern” list. Gutenberg, Hillsdale, and Mercer are conservative Protestant (and so are New Saint Andrews and Torrey Honors Institute at Biola, which aren’t on the list for some reason); College of St. Mary Magdalen, Thomas Aquinas, and Wyoming Catholic are conservative Catholic; Shimer, Columbia, St. John’s, Lawrence, University of Chicago, and University of Dallas are the godparents of the Great Books ideal itself; this leaves Harrison Middleton, an online school, and Yale, which describes itself as having “a little different” approach.

Second, I can only speak from my experience at St. John’s, but I never met a Great Books tutor that would say a work did not mean what its author intended to communicate. That was the whole point of class, figuring out what in the world Lao Tzu meant in the Dao De Jing, or what “Brahma” meant within the context of the Upanishads!

We weren’t allowed to postmodernize or personalize anything — “Well, I feel that Brahma means this to me, because I once had this personal experience…”

In fact, Gutenberg — not St. John’s — was the place where I experienced dismissal of authorial intent in favor of abstraction, personalization, and ideologizing. Time and time again at Gutenberg — not St. John’s — classes would be entirely derailed to pursue subjects completely unrelated to the text, or with the tutor going on a lecture about his or her personal beliefs for an hour, or bringing a certain ideology to bear on a subject to override authorial intent or free inquiry.

Gutenberg, not St. John’s.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed many of the “non-authorial intent” conversations at Gutenberg. That’s what made Gutenberg special to me. The whole experience was less a classroom setting and more a “Christian misfits” support group. It was less a college and more, you know, a study center.

While I loved Gutenberg and all its quirks, I have no qualms saying that Gutenberg took “authorial intent” far less seriously in terms of academics than St. John’s. And after hearing about how the other schools were the same, I cannot help but wonder if they might take authorial intent more seriously, too.

Dewberry continues:

“Even among Great Books colleges, approaches to texts cover a wide spectrum. Some aim at understanding the author’s intent; others aim at determining a work’s impact on modern culture; while the approach of still others is somewhere in the middle.”

I cannot help but read that and wonder: What colleges? Which professors? Dewberry goes on and explains why different colleges have these different approaches, but it begs the question — is this an abstract concern, or a concern grounded in actual experiences of classroom pedagogy?

Gutenberg was all about reading “background” books (from a primarily religious bent), interpreting books not according to authorial intent but with a “does this fit our worldview or not?” perspective, letting tutors launch into lectures on their personal opinions, letting students take a discussion on the Illiad and turn it into a debate on predestination versus free will, and determining how a work impacted modern culture.

Again — that’s not necessarily bad. But that’s not how Gutenberg markets itself.

It markets itself as an advocate of authorial intent. But the product does not match the label.

Dewberry then talks about “pre-understanding”:

“If this entrenched postmodern view is true, then we cannot communicate at all with individuals who are outside of our culture and time; and claiming that we can bridge the gap between us and a writer in the past is nonsense—no amount of information about the author and his pre-understanding can help us bridge the gap. This entrenched postmodern perspective dominates our culture, and it is represented in some Great Books colleges.”

At this point I cannot help but feel that, like Don Quixote, Dewberry is imagining windmills within the Great Books world and chasing after them to make Gutenberg appear unique within that world.

My classes in St. John’s, unlike Gutenberg, were 100% dedicated to getting inside the mind of the authors we read. There was zero talk about postmodernism or pre-understanding or any of this meta-izing about knowledge. We read, we talked, we tried to figure it out, and then we did it all over again. The tutors never talked about how “the others” did it, they never tore them down as being “religious,” they never tried to interpret themselves as unique — we all just read the damn books.

My interest in talking about this is that I wished that, at Gutenberg, we also just read the damn books.

We spent all this time theorizing and moralizing and being lectured instead of reading and discussing. I had no idea how beautiful and stimulating a sincere dialogue could be in the Great Books context until I went to St. John’s. I wish that Gutenberg offered the same.

Dewberry ends with this:

“One final note: I cannot help but wonder how much the entrenched version of the postmodern perspective in Great Books…colleges has contributed to the polarization within our current culture…If no one develops the skills of understanding pre-understanding, then the outcome is assured: no communication is possible. This has serious implications for the future.”

This ends on an ominous note, but it seems like it ends on an ominous note of its own making. Talking about how the “postmodern” obsessions “the other” schools have contributes to polarization mainly just makes me think that, if anything, the polarization is coming from Gutenberg, not the other schools.

If my experience of the allegedly most secular, sophistic Great Books school is indicative of any of the other so-called secular, sophistic schools, then communication is indeed possible.

I know this because I communicated in every class with Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, and others. We sat down around a big table, did our best to figure out what an author meant, and were led by tutors who kept us on track and never lectured. After class, we all went out for margaritas and poblanos and dialogued about Ideas with a capitol I.

A concluding anecdote:

About a month into my time at St. John’s, one student — a Buddhist — asked a tutor this question:

“But what about truth? We’re reading all these books but we never talk about whether what the books are saying are true. Is that ok to talk about?”

The tutor smiled and said,

“Of course it’s ok to talk about! We want you to figure out what’s true. This whole education would be worthless without that pursuit. All of us tutors believe different things about life and we believe those things whole heartedly. But our job as Great Books tutors here isn’t to teach you our belief system. Our job is to guide you as a group to figure what these authors are saying and to encourage you to think creatively about those ideas. Your job, after class, is to go home and figure out what you believe.

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