I wasn't aware of the death of Otto A. Bird, who passed away on June 5th, until I read Dr. Ralph McInerny's piece over at The Catholic Thing:
There are of course two schools of thought on general as opposed to specialized education. The mark of the latter is a major subject with other courses chosen to bolster it. By contrast, an education based on the great books has a random look; worse, it can seem to put a premium on airy generalizations. The only way to resolve the dispute is mano a mano, comparing products of the two approaches. Otto, say, and the average chaired professor today.
Otto studied under Étienne Gilson at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto. His dissertation dealt with the Provençal poets who had been such an influence on Dante. At the time, Ezra Pound had developed a proprietary air toward Provençal poetry and Otto entered into a lengthy correspondence with the fiery poet. Later Otto told me that Étienne Gilson had stated as the aim of the Institute to prepare scholars who could read Dante intelligently. Since Dante is a compendium of the middle ages, bringing together its theology and philosophy as well as its poetry, liturgy and music, this was more that a well-turned phrase.
Otto was both patriarch and paterfamilias, leaving behind four generations whose members seem to have a knack for choosing walks of life somewhat off the beaten path. It is as if, as a family, they were freed from the dominant banalities about success in life. Unlike most academics, Otto did not saunter about with a metaphorical sign board advertising his publications.
One of Bird's many books was Seeking A Center: My Life as a "Great Bookie" (Ignatius Press, 1991) in which, the descriptive copy states, "Bird shows how, by pursuing the methods introduced by Gilson and Adler, he was able to make sense out of the confusion of philosophers and provides an example in an analysis of the controversy concerning the idea of justice. The center that he sought was found in the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas and in the Roman Catholic church to which he became a convert. Bird's story provides unique insights into the development of the Great Books Movement and its influence upon American college education, to which a large part of his life was devoted by way of teaching, and writing through association from the beginning with the set Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica." And here is a bit more about the remarkable professor, from the obituary on the University of Notre Dame website:
In his autobiography, “Seeking a Center: My Life as a ‘Great Bookie,’” Bird described his personal search for truth, and how he made use of methods learned from Gilson and Adler to rediscover the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, which eventually led him to the Catholic Church. That search was, in the words of his Notre Dame colleague, Ralph McInerny, “the journey of an intellect, of a soul, that puts before the reader a vision of the intellectual life one wishes were more palpably present in Catholic colleges and universities than it is nowadays.”
Some related books from Ignatius Press:
• The Unity Of Philosophical Experience, by Etienne Gilson
• From Aristotle To Darwin And Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species and Evolution, by Etienne Gilson (available September 2009)
• In The Light Of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition, by Lucy Beckett
• Ignatius Critical Editions