The Western Heritage Reader is just too long. Don’t get me wrong: Western Heritage is a great class, a foundational one, and a necessity for any truly liberal education. Like many others, I find myself continuously drawing on the thinkers we covered in Western Heritage. But the Reader can be improved. Remember, a first-semester freshman at Hillsdale is trying to drink water from a fire hose. Hillsdale is rigorous, as we are reminded every year by the Princeton Review, and the Western Heritage Reader tries to pack too much information into too short a class.
This leads to an unfortunate paradox: On one hand, the Heritage Reader crams in so much information that students forget much of the material. On the other hand, the course doesn’t offer enough depth into any of the thinkers to do them justice.
“Strength rejoices in the challenge,” we like to say. And it’s true, to an extent. But this pithy little catchphrase forgets that intellectual strength — read “fortitude,” ye scholars of the Ancient world! — is something that develops over time. That’s one of the main themes of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” anyway: The active condition of virtuous character isn’t something that just exists on its own. It comes about by practice. This amorphous “strength” doesn’t just accompany incoming freshmen into their first day at the Dale and start “rejoicing” on its own in the quad. It has to be inculcated. It has to be developed. That’s what Aristotle was getting at in the Ethics: Knowledge isn’t easy, and it doesn’t just materialize out of nothing.
But that reality is lost on the virtus tentamine gaudet crowd (what percentage of the Hillsdale student body actually speaks Latin, anyway?). And who can blame them? The Western Heritage Reader contains a whopping page-and-a-half of the Ethics.
The Reader contains documents from nearly 70 different authors. For one semester, that’s just too many names, too many time periods, and too many ideas. As for historical context, that generally consists of an italicized paragraph or two — sometimes less — directly preceding the text. For instance, St. Augustine, a Doctor of the Church, gets his life story stuffed into three whole lines. Good luck, dear freshmen, keeping Sallust and Suetonius straight, or Epicurus and Epictetus, when all you get is a couple paragraphs summarizing their lives. And Pericles’ Funeral Oration? Turns out that was actually written years later by an exiled Thucydides, and he might have just made it all up. Hope you didn’t skim over those two lines in italics, because that seems pretty important.
This vastness of content also leads to an insufficient depth of material. Hillsdale students read a five-page excerpt from Cicero’s “On Duties” and strut around fancying themselves “Ciceronians.” But the excerpts don’t give a full understanding of the authors’ ideas. And with a title like “the Father of History,” Herodotus seems like he deserves more than three pages, but that’s all he gets. Plato’s “Republic,” too, is a hard book to condense because it’s such a largely ironic text. Nonetheless, these snippets have made their way into the Reader, and often leave the student with an incomplete understanding of their true meaning.
The Western Heritage Reader can withstand a few cuts to some of the lesser players (maybe Widukind of Corvey?) and still offer a comprehensive account of the Western tradition’s development. Most classes don’t makes it through the nearly 800-page book anyway — it always ends up becoming a mad rush at the end of the semester. This isn’t shying away from any challenge, it’s building up the strength to face new ones. And it’s a prudent move to develop that strength in a more conducive way.
In sum, the Western Heritage Reader needs more moderation. Or, to put it another way: Virtue is found in the mean, between the excess of too much content, and the deficiency of too little. That’s a major focus of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” after all, even if my freshman year history class never covered it.
Garrison E. Grisedale is a senior studying Politics.