The following is all snobby sounding – sorry about that. If I had more time, maybe I’d rewrite it.
It should go without saying that reading what an author wrote is to be preferred to reading about what an author wrote, but it has its problems. Humans are fundamentally limited – few of us can master more than a handful of languages, and so are, in effect, reading about what an author wrote from the translators’ point of view. Further, there is so much out there worth reading that few of us have the time or energy to make more than a dent in the original sources. To a lesser and less excusable extent, many authors are simply difficult, and it’s tempting to read about that thinker’s ideas in order to have them pre-digested for us.
Nonetheless, the thinking behind survey classes and books that provide summaries of whole fields is dangerous – at best, the reader misses ideas filtered out by the summarizers’ blind spots or biases, and worst, the reader receives simultaneously a dose of the subject’s content hammered into the summarizers’ agenda, and inoculation against every having to think about the subject again. Hearing many college grads talk is like watching the news reports of an event of which you have first hand knowledge – one is often left scratching one’s head, wondering how what actually happened got transmogrified into the story being told.
The Great Books approach, in one form or another, is the only real way to deal with these issues. It’s important to not only read books of enduring value, but to read them generally chronologically. Coupled with the study of at least one foreign language, this experience creates not only a good, independent understanding of the authors read, but also a frame of reference within which to understand successive writers and ideas. No one can understand Kant or Hegel without at least a good dose of Aristotle, for example.
But the main thing a Great Books education does for you is removing, once and for all, the weird modern bias that people today are just generally smarter than those old guys. I’ve heard people denigrate Aristotle because he made a few easy-to-mock mistakes about science, which not coincidentally is also ALL they know about Aristotle. Doesn’t occur to them to compare batting averages and the rest of the batting order – Aristotle was creating all new fields of study out of almost nothing in many cases, applying logic to a world filled with illogic and superstition, without benefit of university systems or hundreds of similarly well-trained colleagues or centuries of precedent. Unlike, say Galileo, who had all of those things. Comparing the two, Aristotle had every reason to accept that heavier things fell faster than light things and no reason to imagine a contrary. But he got, for example, that dolphins were mammals and that the earth was round and that life showed evidence of evolution – even though these things were of relatively minor concern to him, and nobody had ever wondered about them much before. Galileo, on the other hand, was the product of centuries of education and logical thought (which he owed to Aristotle) spread across a university system encompassing Europe, and he had Copernicus and many other learned men to lean on, and he had the telescope invented by another guy – and he STILL screwed up, pouring calumny on people who believed – correctly – that the tides were caused at least somewhat by the moon. Among other things.
The point here is that, having read quite a bit of both Aristotle and Galileo, I can humbly compare the two – based on what they actually said. If I were to rely on survey course summaries, it’s vanishingly unlikely I’d find anything that captures some of what are fairly obvious truths: that Galileo was a very smart man, almost worthy of his place in history – but not even remotely in Aristotle’s league. Once you get that, then the hesitancy of the Aristotelians of his time to accept what he proposed becomes more understandable. Further, an acquaintance with how Aristotle (and Euclid, and Ptolemy) thought makes it pretty clear that Galileo was acting like a baby. It’s not so much that he was proposing to overturn centuries of practice and theory, it’s HOW he was proposing to do it. Just because future generations proved that he was right about a couple things doesn’t mean that his method and arguments were therefore right, or that his opponents were therefore wrong in insisting on stronger evidence and better reasoning than he was able to supply.
I choose this example because it is well known, but other examples abound, and not just in science. Suffice it to say: survey classes are like intellectual one-night stands. It may slake your lust for knowledge, but he probably doesn’t really love you and won’t call. They are not like one night stands in that a much higher percentage of people in survey courses never get that they were used.