Leon Kass on the “Great Books” and Civic Education

August 29th, 2013

Longtime University of Chicago professor and co-editor of What So Proudly We Hail, Leon Kass, recently fielded questions from college students.  

Long an admirer of the “great books,” Dr. Kass named his favorite classic texts and explained their contribution to the human experience: 

Two favorite books that I have taught most often are Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Genesis. The former offers the richest philosophical exploration of human flourishing, with compelling treatments of the beauty of ethical virtue, the indispensability of prudence, and the centrality of friendship (especially the friendship of sharing speeches and thoughts) for human happiness. The paradigmatic stories of the latter show compellingly the enduring moral ambiguities of the human soul, making clear why something more than the teachings of philosophy is needed if human beings are to live together justly and well. Each book separately, and both together, challenge the prevailing moral prejudices of modern times.

Turning to the issue of civic education, Dr. Kass discussed the value of American patriotism in the context of our imperfect, but idealistic nation:

We Americans are the privileged heirs of a way of life that has offered the blessings of freedom and dignity to millions of people of all races, ethnicities, and religions, and that extols the possibility of individual achievement as far as individual talent and effort can take it. We are also a self-critical nation, whose history is replete with efforts to bring our practices more fully in line with our ideals. To belong to such a nation is not only a special blessing but also a special calling: to preserve freedom, dignity, and self-government at home and to encourage their spread abroad. Is this not a sufficient reason for thoughtful patriotism and civic engagement?

Dr. Kass previously taught at the University of Chicago for 34 years, for which his students “revere him as a teacher who, quite literally, changed their lives,” according to George Weigel. 

Check out What So Proudly We Hail’s curricula for resources to promote knowledge of American history and identity.

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