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Rafiki Foundation  |  Training Africans to Transform Africa for Christ
Philosophy Intro Part I: What is the Great Conversation?

Philosophy Intro Part I: What is the Great Conversation?

Discussions of classical education often reference “the Great Conversation” in Western thought. What is the Great Conversation, and why is it so important to classical Christian education? The term “The Great Conversation” was coined in the 1950s by professor Robert M. Hutchins to describe an ongoing dialogue about the deepest human questions, spanning not only time—over 2500 years—but also subjects of inquiry: science, mathematics, theology, and philosophy. Across the millennia, as the Great Conversation has continued, thinkers have built on one-another’s theories, argued ideas, and answered objections to their views. This rich exchange of ideas, this ongoing dialectic [critical investigation], says Hutchins, is at the very heart of Western civilization:

“No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort…The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry…The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potential of the human race.”[1]

While the Great Conversation is peculiar to the West, says Hutchins, it is universally relevant for two reasons: First, Hutchins argues—and rightly so—that one simply cannot have a thorough understanding of the history and culture of the West without some fluency in the Great Conversation.

“We believe that everybody, Westerners and Easterners, should understand it, not because it is better than anything the East can show, but because it is important to understand the West.”[2]

Second, Hutchins emphasizes the fact that the aim of the Great Conversation, like the aim of a liberal arts education, is human excellence, and in turn, the very idea that every human being should have the opportunity to develop human excellence is rooted in principles born out of the Great Conversation.

“This Western devotion to the liberal arts and liberal education must have been largely responsible for the emergence of democracy as an ideal. The democratic ideal is equal opportunity for full human development…”[3]

Most would agree that Hutchins is right on this second point too. Although in the course of human history the democratic ideal of equal opportunity for full human development has shamefully been denied to many—ethnic and religious minorities, women, the poor—that ideal is most certainly rooted in the Great Conversation, specifically Western philosophical thought.

[1] Hutchins, “The Great Conversation,” introduction to the first edition of Great Books of the Western World, p. 48-49

[2] Hutchins, p. 48

[3] Hutchins, p. 50