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April 18, 2006

Lilla, Tarcov talk education and classic textsLilla, Tarcov talk education and classic texts

Professors Mark Lilla and Nathan Tarcov, both faculty members in the Committee on Social Thought and Fundamentals: Issues and Texts, discussed education and the reading of texts yesterday in Cobb 101.

About 20 students attended the discussion, which was the third talk that the Fundamentals Student Advisory Committee has sponsored this year.

Lilla spoke about an article he wrote in November for the online magazine Slate, entitled “College Makeover: Un-American Activities.”

“The classic works we’ll be talking about are Locke on education, Rousseau on education, and Lilla in Slate,” Lilla said, eliciting laughter.

In his article, Lilla wrote, “genuine liberal education is, of necessity, an un-American activity,” because it attempts to “transport students out of the world they live in, making them less certain about what is valuable in life.”

Lilla expanded on this idea, saying that a liberal education should consist of “a crisis that you go through to shake you up a bit.”

For his part, Tarcov said Plato’s Republic, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince are all texts that propose important and interesting conceptions of what education should entail.

Nonetheless, Tarcov said simply reading the great books can sometimes be a fallible approach.

“I’ve seen people read them in ways that seem a total waste,” he said. “One must not overestimate the power of the books.”

Lilla, in one of many metaphors he proposed during the discussion, likened the great books and liberal education to weight lifting.

“I think of them as barbells, and myself as a personal trainer,” he said. “Part of my job is to help develop your muscles, your minds.”