Back in the late 50s and early 60s, when I was a graduate student in physics at UCLA and Notre Dame, all of us graduate students, in every field, who imagined ourselves to be aspiring academic intellectuals, at some point made ourselves aware of the "big books."
I'm thinking of those magisterial, multi-volume surveys of human history, such as Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Lynn Thorndike's History of Magic and Experimental Science, Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God, Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization, or Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History.
We didn't necessarily read these things cover to cover to cover to cover to cover to cover; we had no time for that. But we made ourselves aware of their contents. These books were the foundation upon which we would build our intellectual lives.
A necessary foundation. Every intellectual life begins with the realization that accidents of birth are poor criteria for truth. In my case, it was awakening to the fact that being born into a Southern American, white, middle-class, Roosevelt Democrat, Roman Catholic family didn't mean that the rest of the world was Southern, American, white, middle-class, Democrat or Catholic. Having delved the "big books," it was apparent that some healthy skepticism was in order.
Which does not mean, of course, that we threw off completely the traditions into which we were born (which is impossible, in any case), but at least we learned to see the epistemological equivalence of other traditions, avoid dogmatism, and seek consensus where we could find it.
The last time I was in Chattanooga (to bury my mother) I was sitting in a cafe next to a young woman who attended a local Bible college. She had her textbooks spread out on her table, from several fields of study, including biology, all of them Christian themed -- the American equivalent of the madrasah schools of Islam.
As I write these words, I am sitting in the College Commons of a Roman Catholic college to which I have given most of my adult life. All of us who work and teach here -- Catholics and non-Catholics alike -- value the best in the Catholic tradition, and freely examine that tradition in the light of modern learning. Textbooks across the curriculum are the same as those used in the great secular institutions of learning, and our faculty is the best we can acquire regardless of faith tradition. The college actively recruits students from other nationalities, races and cultures, not to proselytize or convert, but to broaden the horizons of our mostly white, middle-class, American, Roman Catholic student population. The first priority of the college is to teach our students to think. All of which leads to some lively discussion about what is or should be the mission of a nominally Catholic college,
Meanwhile, I don't know if anyone reads the "big books" anymore. Perhaps in the age of let's-pop-off-to-Thailand international travel and the internet, students are not so likely to be as parochial as we were in the 1950s. On the other hand, a bit of the "big books" spirit couldn't hurt the Bible colleges of middle America or the madrasahs of Pakistan.
(This post originally appeared in April 2007.)