F.R. Leavis, The ‘Great Books’ and a Liberal Education:
Perhaps the case today is not as utterly hopeless—not quite as hopeless—as the Great Books scheme would make it appear, even though such a scheme, fervently advocated with wide and powerful support, suggests that all notion of what a living tradition is like has been lost. But I will, at any rate for the moment, put aside talk about “tradition” (that tricky concept which needs such delicate and positive handling) and make some points that must have occurred to anyone who, as a “teacher,” is concerned with liberal education at a place where, in a modern community, liberal education is at least a recognized and institutional concern: a university. Thinking of correctives to academic tendencies, one tells oneself that there will be this mark of a student’s having spent his time not without profit: he will leave the university knowing to much better effect that there are renowned works he needn’t take as seriously as convention affirms, and others that, though they will repay the right reader’s study, are not for him. For an instance of the first class, there is Aristotle’s Poetics, a treatise prescribed among the Great Books. There may be some point in a student’s looking up the Poetics when he is going into Tragedy under the guidance of Gilbert Murray, Jane Harrison, Cornford, and the other anthropologizing Hellenists. But the man who leaves the university able to suppose that in the Poetics he has studied an illuminating treatise on the foundations of literary criticism has not used his time to real educational profit—even if he has won high academic distinction. It is characteristic of the academic conventionality of the Great Books ethos to endorse the conventional academic standing of the Poetics.