Ask a physics major about energy, and you are likely to hear something about a theory of Einstein’s. Ask a political science major, and you might learn a thing or two about our national government’s dealings with various oil-rich countries. A literature major, in turn, might quote you a poem by Rilke. The reason you will hear such diverse answers is that these three students have spent their time (and energy) on diverse texts — one with formulas and problem sets, one with policies and pie charts, one with poems and essays.
Texts come in many forms: the novel, the treatise, the screenplay, the lyrics of a song. Even the stop sign. Whatever their form, the texts we encounter shape the way we think and feel. They provide the concepts with which we attempt to understand our experience; they offer inspiration and models of behavior. Ultimately, every text we read has an effect, however slight or substantial, on the lens through which we see the world.
All of this may sound obvious enough. Most of us can point to at least a few of the texts that have contributed to our individual opinions and tastes — indeed, many of us list them on our Facebook profiles. But however willing we are to acknowledge the importance of texts for the individual, we tend to neglect what is no less important: the need to have texts in common.
For most of human history, religion has been fundamental in establishing a common text among a group of people — Homer for the Greeks, the Torah for Jews, the Upanishads for Hindus and so forth. The Bible remains a significant common text in certain parts of the country, and even in the more secular regions it retains resonance. Almost any American will have some idea as to what a Good Samaritan is, for instance.
On a more selective scale than religion, education has served as a way for groups of people to steep themselves in common texts. There was a time when being an educated person meant you could converse about Aristotle’s conception of the soul, evaluate Cicero’s thoughts on rhetoric or debate the nature of Hamlet’s madness.
Things have changed. College education no longer concerns itself with teaching students the texts that have been taught for centuries, the texts that constitute what has been dubbed “the Great Conversation.” The primary function of college, it seems, is to produce efficient nuts and bolts for the machine that is the global economy, and increasing specialization among the academic disciplines has ensured that even scholars in the Ivory Tower are becoming less and less integrated by a grounding in common texts.
My concern, however, is not only for the decline of the Great Conversation, but also for the decline of small conversations. Common texts help us to talk to each other coherently and meaningfully. We need shared terms and concepts, shared stories, and shared paradigms of human behavior in order to relate to and reveal ourselves to one another. Otherwise, our conversations and interactions are severely handicapped. They descend into trivialities and banalities, constant chatter about television and day-to-day tedium, or sexual jokes that are neither clever nor interesting. Yes, there is a time for not-so-lofty conversation, a time for talk of ordinary things — but it is foolish to limit ourselves to such talk.
At Yale, we are not united by a common religious text, nor by a common set of “Great Books.” If we have a common text, it is the Harry Potter series (Chief Perrotti’s e-mails are a close second). I like Hogwarts as much as the next person, but it is not enough. What we need are the texts that have stood the test of time and thereby proven that they transcend time, texts that address what is permanent in the human condition and offer something durable in our quest for meaning. If we were to compare the depth and scope of our common texts with those of educated or even uneducated people in the past, we would find the reason for the poverty of our conversations.
I am not at all suggesting that every Yale student read exactly the same things. But would it be unreasonable for us to read some of the same things? Would it be harmful for all incoming freshmen to read Plato’s Republic or King Lear over the summer? Doing so would conflict with our individualistic mindset, but it would also lay a foundation for nobler conversation. The Great Conversation can grow only out of small ones.
Bryce Taylor is a sophomore
in Silliman College.