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What is the "Great Conversation?"

One of the unique strengths of classical education is the emphasis placed on teacher-led classrooms and time-tested content. As noted in a previous post, one way that we accomplish this goal is by familiarizing students with some of the great books of Western and American civilization. To build on what was said in the previous post, it will be helpful to unpack one reason why the great books matter in education: they introduce students to what is often called the great conversation.

Although the concept of a “great conversation” has been around for many centuries, the actual term was first coined by Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer Adler in the 1950s. It refers to the conversation that has been occurring in the Western world over the past 2,500 years about the greatest ideas and questions of humanity. This conversation has covered a wide array of ideas: the nature of law, order, freedom, happiness, beauty, goodness, truth, and so on. Hutchins and Adler taught that the tradition of the West is embodied in this great conversation, a dialogue between writers and thinkers who respond to those who went before them.

In his book Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America, Gene Edward Veith even calls the great conversation the “beating heart of Western civilization.” This claim is no exaggeration. Disagreement among authors of the great books has been common, but so too has a kind of “perennial” thought on a variety of ideas.

Hutchins and Adler were convinced that ordinary men and women will profit from reading the works of Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, Shakespeare, Dickens, and so others who are studied here at Belmont. The insights of certain past writers are of timeless value, and students today can still put their insights into action. If we do not listen to the conversation of the wisest of those who went before us then we, in turn, will lose a valuable source of insight. Ultimately, an immersion in the great conversation teaches students that no great man or woman thinks in isolation. When we teach the great books and enter the great conversation with students, we show students how to think in community with the greatest men and women of our civilization. As G.K. Chesterton once said, we are dwarves on the shoulders of giants. We see higher than our ancestors only because we have their shoulders to stand on.

If you are interested in reading the best books yourself, consider downloading the “best-loved books” of Belmont Classical Academy. It is a great place to begin.

By Darrell Falconburg

Western Heritage and Logic Teacher


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