Great Books Education

Great Books Education History

A Brief History of the Great Books Idea

by Tim Lacy
© 2005 Tim Lacy. This essay was originally written for the National Great Books Curriculum Academic Community. Reprinted by permission.

The Great Books idea originated in late nineteenth-century Britain and the United States. The link between the two countries was Matthew Arnold. Best known today for his widely anthologized poem “Dover Beach,” Arnold (1822–1888) was also a profound prose writer. While he began his career as a poet, he ended it as a critic of Britain’s Victorian culture. In his best-known work, Culture and Anarchy, Arnold promoted the notion that one should study “the best that has been thought and said” in the world. In so doing, Arnold’s hope was that readers would overcome their “stock notions,” or ill-formed and rote assumptions, about the world. By associating themselves with excellence in culture, especially in art and literature, Arnold believed that readers would acquire intellectual standards, or benchmarks. Equipped with these, people could navigate life, and through study of the permanent or universal things be uplifted from their historical circumstances. They would follow Henry David Thoreau’s dictum to “Read not the Times; read the Eternities.”

In the seminal Culture and Anarchy, published in 1869, Arnold said that “culture [was] the love [and] . . . study of perfection.” Implicit in this assertion was that some cultural objects, such as works of literature, are more worthy of attention than others. It followed from this that making them objects of universal study would widen people’s minds and bring culture to the greatest number possible. Arnold believed in democratizing culture. He wrote:

The whole scope of [this work] is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.

Arnold’s thought reflected his concern in expanding minds and encouraging a broader view. Arnold added to his definition of culture by writing that it consisted of an “inward condition of the mind and spirit, not in an outward set of circumstances.” Material trappings, such as clothing, cars, and concert tickets, only distract from one’s pursuit of the permanent, universal things. The internal workings of the mind and the common good matter more than one’s appearance to others — which often depends on fate’s accidents.

In Britain’s Victorian era, Arnold’s “inward condition” gingerly positioned itself alongside of Christianity. As was the case with a number of middle and late-era Victorians, both American and British, Arnold’s writings straddled both the secular world and a “Christian metaphysic.” This era’s intellectuals struggled with the clash between faith and reason, and harbored unrest and doubt because of this unresolved dilemma. To them the unity of a past world, founded on religion and the idea of truth, seemed to be passing. These intellectuals held on to religion, or a unified worldview, by reducing its scope to morals, a “natural theology of the mind,” something spiritual, or simply “a vague hope.” They sought to reduce Christianity to its universally applicable common good. To Arnold, one’s intellectual growth was the goal.

According to Lionel Trilling, however, Arnold’s definition of culture eclipsed the boundaries of religion. Trilling was a Columbia University professor, writer, and an early to mid-twentieth-century “New York intellectual” who was educated in Columbia’s General Honors (i.e., Great Books) program. Trilling wrote of Arnold that religion concentrated on one’s moral powers, but Arnold’s idea of culture demanded the perfection of all of one’s powers; the “good must conform to the best notions of reason and these must involve all the human faculties.” Arnold believed that by defining culture in this way he performed “life-saving surgery upon religion.” Limiting religion to the realm of morality reserved for religion at least one sphere that science could not touch. Unifying faith and reason, religion and science, under culture and the idea of perfection, the “best,” would preserve truths for different realms of study. This was how Arnold sought to transcend the limits of his British Victorian society.

Arnold not only defined culture, he described its positive effects on individuals and society. In Culture and Anarchy he asserted that “the men of culture are the true apostles of equality” — regardless of their outward appearance or their familiarity with the “high” aspects of literary study. Capping off his manifesto on culture and modern man, he wrote:

The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time; who have labored to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanise it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time, and a true source, therefore, of sweetness and light.

It was not strictly Arnold’s ideas of cultural hierarchy that inspired Victorian-era critics to study great works, but also the notion of bringing culture to the common man, of creating a common culture. Arnold’s educational theories inspired a number of late nineteenth-century disseminators of culture. For Arnold and those inspired by him, culture was never clearly a matter of high and low-class endeavors, or preserving high culture from the uncouth lower class: culture was a means by which one could build a defense against a world hostile to free thought. Culture meant preserving the liberal arts, the humanities, from a growing focus on commerce and vocational concerns.

Arnold’s contemporary Victorians, in both Britain and America, acted on his encouragement to pursue “the best that has been thought and said” in books and literature. Another historian of literature, W. B. Carnochan, recorded that “by the late nineteenth century the habit of drawing up lists of books became a mania — or a parlour game . . . with manic overtones.” Victorians did this, according to Daniel Walker Howe, in an era when people “were fascinated by the techniques of persuasion and instruction, of self-improvement and the improvement of others.” While Frederic Harrison appears to have been the first of these British Victorians to explicitly use the phrase “Great Books” in his 1886 work, The Choice of Books, it was Sir John Lubbock who inspired many to define the best books. Lubbock’s list of the “hundred best books” has since served as the most popular Victorian-era reference point for scholars of that age, and even for later Great Books promoters such as Scott Buchanan and Mortimer Adler.

Formerly the principal of the Working Men’s College in Britain, Lubbock presented his book list there in a January 1886 ceremony. The Pall Mall Gazette, in a January 11 “Extra,” published his entire speech and book list. That “Extra” “sold at least forty thousand copies” and elicited much praise and criticism, and even submissions of Great Books lists from eminent Victorians such as Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, the Prince of Wales, William Ewart Gladstone, John Ruskin, Cardinal Newman, Herbert Spencer, and Frederic William Farrar. Lubbock’s speech was listed as one of the “world’s best” in a ten-volume list of orations (1900). Lubbock clearly inspired his contemporaries in the spirit of Arnold.

Lubbock’s speech corresponded with Arnold’s decree to explore the best, but provided practical advice as well. Lubbock began by noting the proliferation of books in the late nineteenth century, but then noted a relatively new problem: the reader’s difficulty in selecting worthy books from the masses of new publications. In addressing the types of “readers the next generation will be,” Lubbock pointed to laborers and mechanics. This corresponds with the findings of a recent work by the historian Jonathan Rose. Urban laborers were more likely to spend their leisure time reading than lawyers, doctors, and shopkeepers. Despite their advanced education, the professional classes’ long work hours prevented them from extended reading.

Lubbock then turned to selecting the best:

It is one thing to own a library; it is quite another to use it wisely. I have often been astonished [at] how little care people devote to the selection of what they read. Books, we know, are almost innumerable; our hours for reading are, alas! very few. And yet many people read almost by hazard. They will take any book they chance to find in a room at a friend’s house; they will buy a novel at a railway-stall if it has an attractive title; indeed, I believe in some cases even the binding affects their choice . . . The selection is, no doubt, far from easy. I have often wished some one would recommend a list of a hundred good books.

Despite providing for his wish after the address, Lubbock understood the tentative nature of such an endeavor. “Every one who looks at [my] list will wish to suggest other books, as indeed I should myself,” he added. His list consisted of eleven categories of not quite one hundred books. Lubbock omitted then-living authors such as Tennyson and Ruskin (too soon to judge, he wrote, despite providing “the keenest enjoyment”), as well as works of science, writing that “the subject is so progressive.”

In today’s terms, the problem with Arnold and other Victorians was that their definition of the best included too many Victorian British writers. It seemed to canonize Victorianism in the Western world. In terms of books, in addition to Aristotle, Virgil, Dante, and perhaps even Rousseau (some British have an aversion to the French), the best to them included healthy doses of British authors such as Macaulay, Thackeray, and even Arnold himself. Excellence in religion, for instance, meant Anglicanism and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the best in philosophy meant John Stuart Mill and John Locke. In a nutshell, to Arnold and his cohorts, pursuing the best included being the best British Victorian one could be. This explains why Arnold’s legacy, especially his nonfiction writings such as Culture and Anarchy, are not universally admired today. Many modern observers feel that Arnold’s and Lubbock’s lists ought to have included more works from other eras, countries, and cultures.

The merit of this view, however, does not invalidate Arnold’s central point to today’s thinkers; namely, that no one suffers for aspiring to understand, to learn, or to read the best books they can find. In fact, people benefit a great deal from learning the benchmarks of the Western tradition and reevaluating their stock notions. This endeavor is akin to learning the core words of a language; once the basic vocabulary and grammar of a language are understood, one is free to create new poetry and literature, to build an innovative culture on that knowledge of the permanent basics. This explains in part why Great Books curriculums are often used as core studies programs in many of today’s higher education curriculums. Once that core is learned, one has a sufficient foundation on which to build a major or specialty.

The present state of the Great Books idea can be traced to American Victorian educators who admired Arnold. They included people such as Charles Francis Richardson, Elizabeth Harrison, Henry Van Dyke, and even Charles W. Eliot and his Harvard Classics. These educators based their writings and thinking on Matthew Arnold’s ideas.

Around this time the book publishing industry, realizing the truth behind Lubbock’s endeavor to list the best books, also attempted to help consumers select books. Although the Great Books idea was not invoked by name, one venture represented a key point in the first stage of the migration of the Great Books idea into America’s popular consciousness. In 1909 P. F. Collier and Son published the Harvard Classics, also known as “Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books.” Harvard allowed Colliers to use its name because Dr. Charles W. Eliot, Harvard’s recently retired and popular president (1868-1909), edited the set. Eliot’s connection to a prestigious institution gave Colliers a legitimizing figure for the sale of pre-selected classic works. Scholars acknowledge Eliot’s prominence among American Victorians, and have tracked his involvement in numerous developments in higher education from the 1860s until after 1900 — especially the advent of the elective system. Historians of the book and publishing industry extensively reference the Harvard Classics in their accounts.

If the general public of America’s Victorian era were not aware of Eliot’s endeavors as Harvard’s president, they likely knew of his public intellectual activities. By the 1890s he had effectively become a leader of public opinion in America and had become something of a cultural critic. One of his endeavors involved promoting better reading among adults through the use of a set of books. His biographer Hugh Hawkins reported that Eliot, in a March 1909 Atlanta Journal article, argued that adults could acquire a liberal education by reading ten minutes a day from a three-foot shelf of books.

Published in 1909, Eliot’s “five-foot shelf” of Harvard Classics consisted of “fifty odd volumes” authored by ancient Greeks, Romans, and modern Westerners. According to another Eliot scholar, Henry James (not the novelist), approximately 350,000 of these Harvard Classics sets, totaling 17,500,000 volumes, had been sold via monthly subscriptions by 1930. The historian Lawrence Cremin noted that those numbers “do not account for all the [additional] numerous imitations issued by competing publishers and advertised as ‘recommended by President Eliot.’” The set was clearly a cultural phenomenon.

The already existing, but still developing, Great Books idea likely catalyzed the popularity of Eliot’s Harvard Classics. The historian Joan Shelley Rubin has connected the set to Arnold’s directive to pursue “the best” in Western civilization. Eliot argued that his set cultivated a “liberal frame of mind”:

My purpose in selecting the [set] was to provide the literary materials from which a careful and persistent reader might gain a fair view of the progress of man . . . Within the limits of fifty volumes . . . I was to provide the means of obtaining such a knowledge of ancient and modern literature as seems essential to the twentieth century idea of a cultivated man. The best acquisition of a cultivated man is a liberal frame of mind or way of thinking; but there must be added to that possession acquaintance with the prodigious store [of civilization’s knowledge] . . . From that store I proposed to make such a selection as any intellectually ambitious American family might use to advantage, even if their early opportunities of education had been scanty.

The set provided a means, therefore, by which education could occur outside of formal educational institutions. Eliot and Colliers may have created a fad, but they also tapped into a deeper desire in American culture: a hunger for the permanent or universal things.

In recounting the Harvard Classics’ story, few have noted an underlying irony. After leaving Harvard, Eliot profited, in a sense, from the changes he instituted while its president. By allowing the diminishment of the classics’ importance at Harvard through his promotion of the elective system, he almost necessitated the various correctives that would follow. The Harvard Classics, and later the Great Books, helped fill this void.

Eliot perhaps did not desire this chain of events, but he nevertheless was central in decreasing the prominence of the classics and the Great Books in higher education curriculums. His reforms targeted the “old-time college” curriculum, defined so ably in Frederick Rudolph’s The American College and University: A History (1968). That program mixed moral and mental discipline with religion — primarily Protestant Christianity — and the ancient classics, and so needed to change. Unfortunately, the elective system also caused a decline in students’ education about the Great Books.

But there also existed a persistent notion in people’s imaginations that, in the course of being educated, one way or another the best books, both ancient and modern, would be a part of that education. That notion fed the sales, ironically, of Eliot’s Harvard Classics. It even fueled a formal reaction in higher education to the elective system. Around the turn of the century some college faculties created core curriculums to compensate for the loss of unity in learning. Eliot’s set anticipated the massive popularity of those who would later propagate the Great Books idea. The Harvard Classics also demonstrated that Great Books comprised a significant element of the nation’s idea of education.

In turn-of-the-century America the Great Books idea was first invoked by name at a few select and established education institutions. In its earliest stages in the United States, the term “Great Books,” despite Eliot’s venture, seemed to belong to elite higher education ventures. This began with a course of that name conducted by Charles Gayley at the University of California at Berkeley around 1900. The trend continued at New York’s Columbia University. At Columbia, George Woodberry, a literature professor, promoted the Great Books idea, and passed along his project to John Erskine and a whole host of students. Among Erskine’s students in the 1920s was Mortimer J. Adler, who would become the best known of America’s twentieth-century promoters of the Great Books idea.

The Columbia manifestation deserves reflection primarily because of John Erskine’s efforts on behalf of the Great Books, but also later due to Columbia’s strong association with New York’s People’s Institute. Erskine first proposed a Great Books course at Columbia in 1917, but his early effort was thwarted. His colleagues’ “rejoinders” to this plan foreshadowed later complaints about the Great Books idea. They complained that:

  1. “A great book couldn’t be read in a week.” — “When is [a student] to eat and sleep?”
  2. Reading X (Great Book) “in translation would be the same thing as not reading [X] at all.”
  3. “Even a two-hour discussion of a great writer would be inadequate for a scholarly grasp of him.” [Erskine agreed with this because of the adverb “scholarly.”]
  4. “An ambitious program like this can lead only to a smattering of knowledge, and not to a real understanding of any one author.”

The criticism affected Erskine negatively. He remembered arguing with “angry colleagues,”

with [his] own degree of heat, that when the great books were first published, they were popular, which was the first step toward their permanent fame, and the public who first liked them read them quickly, perhaps overnight, without waiting to hear scholarly lectures about them. I wanted the boys to read great books, the best sellers of ancient times, as spontaneously and humanly as they would read current best sellers . . . I wanted them to form their opinions at once in a free-for-all discussion.

Erskine also argued for the course on the basis that the Great Books developed in the students “a remarkable store of information, ideas about literature and life, and perhaps an equal wealth of esthetic emotions which they shared in common. Here would be . . . the true scholarly and cultural basis for human understanding and communication.” This comment reveals Erskine’s connection to his direct and indirect predecessors — Matthew Arnold, Charles Eliot, Charles Gayley, Frederic Harrison, Sir John Lubbock, and, of course, George Woodberry. The course encapsulated what Lionel Trilling later called “a fundamental criticism of American democratic education.”

Erskine based his thinking not just on his time with Columbia’s elite students. His enthusiasm for the Great Books and his sense of their importance also grew out of his experience with American soldiers during World War I. From 1918 to 1919 he helped with the demobilization of American troops stationed in France at the war’s end. In that time he developed an intensely democratic conception of people’s ability to absorb the humanist ideals of literature. Amidst troop and equipment movement, demobilization also meant the education of soldiers. Erskine, therefore, spent his time with a diverse set of soldiers at the American Army University in Beaune (Burgundy). He recalled that “no other education experience ever did more for me.”

While observing students in courses there, Erskine gained an understanding of the deficiencies of the average student, such as general illiteracy and their focus on material advancement, but also of their positive capacities. The soldiers demonstrated to Erskine the heretofore “unthought-of potentialities in the American character.” He found their “eagerness and ability to learn” amazing, along with their desire “to study and to deal intelligently with the social problems” of America.

To Erskine, the Great Books could apply to all sorts of people, and would contribute to a common American culture. His experiences and passion would find a partial outlet after World War I when Columbia finally approved his Great Books course in the form of a select course: General Honors. It was in this course that many future Great Books promoters first encountered the Great Books idea.

In addition to the efforts of Erskine, the life of the Great Books idea at Columbia also involved the People’s Institute. As with Lubbock’s Working Men’s College, the People’s Institute was dedicated to educating the working poor and new immigrants. It was founded in 1897 as an offshoot of Cooper Union, a mechanic’s school. Some of Erskine’s students, including Adler, Scott Buchanan, and Clifton Fadiman, teamed with the head of the People’s Institute, Everett Dean Martin, in the 1920s to implement a version of the Great Books idea at the institute.

This community dedicated itself to a form of the Great Books idea in education that would become standard in the twentieth century. This standard included factors that made the Great Books friendly to non-scholarly readers (e.g., those of the People’s Institute). By holding to a non-academic view of the Great Books, Martin, Erskine, and Adler effectively democratized the Great Books idea.

So what was accomplished, in terms of the leaders and readers, at Columbia University and at the People’s Institute? To begin with, so long as the persons involved could read English at least at a middle-school level, these Great Books promoters advocated that readers tackle whole, entire works, with an eye toward discussing the books with a group. After completing the work under consideration, readers were to act in the group session as “debonair amateurs.” The readers were not asked to, and were in fact discouraged from, reading attendant scholarly interpretations, encyclopedias, or works that delved into the historical circumstances of the work’s production. The readers were to confront authors of Great Books face-to-face.

In the context of a generation just coming out of the Progressive Era — roughly 1890 to 1915 — this was novel. The progressives were a group that relied on experts, especially those from respected higher education institutions. This was an age that revered the advice and opinions of experts. A kind of knowledge hierarchy mattered. Martin, Erskine, Adler, and their community advocated that readers tackle the Great Books without Progressive Era crutches, however. They asked readers to enter the world of learning by ignoring, in the short run, the knowledge hierarchy — at least until they were ready for more learning. This is one of the great apparent ironies in the history of the Great Books idea: academics seemingly undercutting the academic world through the reading of Great Books without scholarly aid. These men believed that the excellence of the Great Books was best absorbed while one tried to independently uplift one’s mind to the level of the text.

The books that these men promoted were not significantly different — to the extent of more than 20 percent or so — from Lubbock’s list. Lubbock’s “hundred best books” did contain some non-Western works, such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran, but Erskine’s list stuck with Western, ancient, and modern classics alone. In doing this, not only did Erskine cut out the best of the East, but he also maintained the Great Books’ slant toward Victorian literature. According to the criterion of many of the pre-Erskine promoters, the use of Western works alone was clearly not necessary. This weakness aside, Erskine did still promote his Great Books in terms of a common, Western understanding of universal ideas and ideals. He still promoted the common good, the notion of excellence, and the use of Great Books to reexamine one’s assumptions. He and his intellectual descendants, such as Mortimer Adler, wanted all minds in contact with Arnold’s “best.”

The culture of the New Deal and the Roosevelt era also retained a modicum of respect for the expert. Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust,” for instance, tackled the problems of the Great Depression. New Deal experts sought to reform American society so that it could withstand the temptations of socialism and communism. In this context, the Great Books idea remained on the outskirts of the mainstream. For example, Adler and Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s, advocated that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ works be read. In the early 1930s, Charles Walgreen, the founder of a national drugstore chain, learned that his niece had been “forced” to read these subversive works, and subsequently threatened Hutchins and the university with political consequences (i.e., funding cuts) if they did not stop. The situation was eventually resolved in favor of keeping Marx in the curriculum.

Adler and Hutchins’s primary contributions to the promotion of the Great Books idea were twofold. They both sought increased visibility for the Great Books (Erskine’s Western version) as a crucial education program for all, but they also continued of Gayley and Erskine’s efforts to integrate the Great Books into higher education. Hired around the age of thirty in 1929, Hutchins, along with his wife Maude, were popular, prominent figures in Chicago. Their social position, youth, and good looks increased the visibility of everything in which they were involved — including the Great Books. Hutchins hired Adler away from Columbia one year later.

Adler and Hutchins used the Great Books idea at the University of Chicago to combat the evils of the elective system and professionalism. To them the Great Books idea represented the best alternative to curriculums focused on vocational skills — in which they included higher education institutions that seemed to be overly focused on graduate or professional training. Training in the arts of freedom, the liberal arts, could only be achieved through contact with Great Books in the humanities, not the sciences and skill programs.

To forward their ideas, Adler and Hutchins himself, even while president, co-taught the first sections of General Honors at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1930. This created quite a stir, at both the university and in the city of Chicago. Over time they allowed observers, guest examiners, and guest discussion leaders into the course. These included author-philosopher Gertrude Stein; actresses Katharine Cornell, Lillian Gish, and Ethel Barrymore; the actor-director Orson Welles; and Eugene Meyer (publisher of the Washington Post) and his wife Agnes. Some of the course’s students went on to prominent positions in society, including Katherine Graham (daughter of Eugene and Agnes Meyer, and later publisher and editor-in-chief of the Washington Post) and Robert O. Anderson (founder of the Atlantic-Richfield Oil Company).

Hutchins also formed a group at the University of Chicago in the mid-1930s called the Committee on the Liberal Arts. The committee’s primary mission was to explore how to implement a Great Books-centered curriculum. Committee members included a number of Adler’s colleagues from Columbia and the People’s Institute, including Scott Buchanan, Richard McKeon, and Stringfellow Barr. In trying to accomplish this mission, they discussed details such as how to incorporate music education and science laboratory training into a Great Books curriculum. Philosophical differences splintered the committee, however, before a year had passed.

The most important result of the committee’s work was that some of its ideas became part of the so-called “New Program” at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. Founded as King William’s School in 1696, by 1937 St. John’s enrollment had dropped below 250. Since the advent of the elective system and vocational-oriented curriculums around the turn of the century, the college’s enrollment had undergone a steady decline. It was in a state of crisis. Barr and Buchanan left Hutchins’s committee to oversee the refinancing, renovation, and reconstitution of St. John’s. Their plan to save the college, called the “New Program,” consisted of centering the entire curriculum on Great Books.

The “New Program” was quite innovative. As part of the program, for instance, all faculty were stripped of their department affiliations and were designated tutors for new seminars. One scholar noted that St. John’s carefully avoided defining the Great Books, and that Buchanan “often described the book list as a work in progress.” Buchanan and Barr invited Adler and other sympathizers for lectures. According to education historian Lawrence Cremin, St. John’s served as a successful, “rare instance” of retooling by narrowing the curriculum. Barr and Buchanan stayed at until 1946 — after the college had succeeded in becoming the first education institution with a Great Books-based curriculum. The college inspired other programs, including a satellite school in New Mexico.

Aside from St. John’s College, however, through the late 1930s the Great Books idea was mostly no more than a list of primarily Western books, and a methodology of reading and discussion. A 1940 book by Mortimer Adler, however, called How to Read a Book changed the Great Books idea forever.

Adler’s book promoted the adoption of the Great Books idea in less formal circumstances. Aside from providing readers with a plan for reading nonfiction works, How to Read a Book provided a list of authors and books at the end of the work that he argued deserved the kind of intense reading he had just taught. His list maintained Erskine’s slant of excluding non-Western authors (such as Confucius), and the Victorian slant of including religious texts (such as Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ). However, the key for Adler at this point was not so much the books, no matter their importance, but rather that great reading techniques deserved the best books on which to practice.

How to Read a Book spawned a 1940s popular culture phenomenon: the formation of Great Books reading groups. These groups organized in a grassroots fashion. This reinforced, for a time, the democratic nature of the Great Books idea. Eventually, however, the numbers of groups resulted in the formation of the Great Books Foundation in 1947. While this lessened the ground-up, organic aspect of the idea, it created a central institution, or reference point, for those interested in reading and discussing the Great Books.

The association of Adler with the Great Books idea brought complications. Adler first practiced philosophy in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas. Introduced to Aquinas’s Summa Theologica in the mid-1920s, Adler saw Aquinas as a kind of corrective to his earlier philosophical thinking. Prior to Aquinas, Adler believed that philosophy’s role was to provide the rules, the dialectic, the give-and-take between opposing, valid philosophical points. After Aquinas, he believed that philosophy could provide one with undeniable propositions and self-evident truths. Adler maintained his enthusiasm for Aquinas for nearly twenty years, eventually switching to the older, secular Aristotle. Since a significant portion of Aquinas’ Summa was based on Aristotle, Adler’s switch allowed him to maintain much of his philosophical direction but without the attendant Catholic theology.

For many, Adler’s enthusiasm for these thinkers became twisted with the Great Books idea. Early critics thought that Adler’s version of the Great Books idea was meant to convey Aquinas’ beliefs about philosophical truth and perennial moral values. Some saw the Great Books as annexed to Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism particular. Most did not realize, however, that Adler — despite the inclusion of Christian texts in How to Read a Book’s Great Books list — was irreligious. He later asserted that he had been a pagan from the 1920s to the 1980s. In the early 1980s Adler became a Christian, partly under the influence of his second wife. But this was nearly forty years after his period of being known as a “Thomist.” It is for this reason that, despite Adler’s personal religious and philosophical positions, associations developed between the Great Books idea, Catholicism, and Aquinas that have persisted to this day. Some still think that the Great Books idea belongs to Christian or Catholic schools with overly enlarged core programs or completely prescribed curriculums, such as California’s St. Thomas Aquinas and Campion Colleges.

Throughout this period, the 1940s, audiences basically accepted without question that the books Adler and his community promoted were “the” Great Books. The biggest question from the 1930s to the 1950s was whether anything by Marx or Engels ought to be considered great. Because of the inclusion of these authors in their Cold War-era Great Books reading groups, Great Books promoters were scathingly criticized by the period’s right-leaning ideologues. Once again, as in their earlier avoidance of experts, prefaces, and scholars of great works, Great Books promoters were seen as outside the mainstream.

The next major signpost in the history of the Great Books idea was Encyclopædia Britannica’s production of the Great Books of the Western World in 1952. With this set’s publication, the Great Books idea experienced its apex in twentieth-century American culture. In correspondence with the history of the idea so far, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler edited the set. Their final list of books for that set avoided an overabundance of Victorian authors, as well as any favoritism toward non-philosophical Christian works. The set did, however, per its title, maintain Erskine’s focus on the West. After a few initial dry years, sales of Britannica’s Great Books set picked up during the late 1950s and 1960s, peaking at 50,000 sets per year. Through the Great Books, the Great Books idea became a part of America’s homes, and a reference point in its larger consciousness. More people became aware of the Great Books idea, mostly with positive associations, than ever had been before or since.

Excepting St. John’s College, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago, before Britannica’s Great Books set the Great Books idea had existed primarily in an informal fashion. Prior to 1952, no top-down criteria for book selection had been held up as the absolute authority, nor had anyone publicly and formally articulated the relationship between Arnold’s idea of excellence and the Great Books. These relationships were concretized by Adler and Hutchins. As of the set’s production, the Great Books idea would henceforth exist on solid intellectual ground, but the formalization of these relationships and selection criteria opened the Great Books to in-depth, academic criticism. Some of this philosophical, scholarly criticism has continued to the present.

It is Adler and Hutchins’s 1952 version of the Great Books idea, the Great Books of the Western World, that has drawn the scorn of today’s intellectuals and cultural critics. Beginning in the 1970s, these critics characterized the Great Books idea as though it was thoroughly, only, and properly represented by Britannica’s Great Books. Because of the appearance of Britannica’s set (uniform, numbered, and generally well-made), as well as Adler and Hutchins’s explicit intellectual statements about the idea, many came to see the Great Books as the Great Books idea, and Adler and Hutchins as the idea’s sole spokesmen. The Great Books appeared, then, to critics as a frozen list, elitist, and disparaged as a list of “dead white males.”

What then do today’s learners gain by studying the Great Books, the great works of the West and the world in general? For starters, they encounter excellence and permanent, universal values. Even if the excellence of a particular work is not appreciated, readers sharpen their understanding of what they believe excellence to be. While objective criteria, or standards, do exist in art and literature, the Great Books can support a more subjective, diverse view of culture — so long as excellence is the aspiration. Permanent, universal values must be encountered in the context of the promotion of a common good, a common culture. A few Great Books promoters, Adler and Stringfellow Barr, the former president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, have used the analogy of a puppy gnawing on a bone: our minds are continually sharpened and strengthened through contact with the bone that is the Great Books.

When the Great Books are valued for their intrinsic characteristics, such as beauty of form, intellectual content, and excellence with regard to their field, most debates about the core of varying Great Books lists diminish. A certain “law of inflation,” however, exists in relation to the Great Books idea. When lists of Great Books promoters, excepting some of the early ones that overvalued Victorian works, are found to be unsatisfactory, it is because they are not inclusive enough, especially of Eastern works. Depending on the goals of readers, this is often a valid criticism.

Some criticisms, however, have resulted from a general loss of meaning in the term “excellence.” Many are unwilling to put forward a definition of what excellence means in terms of literature. They fear being exclusionary in the manner of some of the early promoters of the Great Books idea. Also, in the early years of the twenty-first century the number of objects, books or otherwise, thought to represent excellence has been thought to have increased. This plurality of excellences exists, however, because no central standard, such as Adler and Hutchins’s notion of the Great Ideas, is imposed to construct the list. Those who adhere to the “plurality of excellences” thesis resist constructing philosophical or artistic criteria, no matter how valid, that necessitate the exclusion of some works. Despite the weaknesses in Adler and Hutchins’s construction of Britannica’s set, such as their Western focus, they at least were willing to construct clear lines between the “best” and lesser works. They were willing to set a high standard for the Western works they included.

At least one early promoter articulated, if somewhat inadequately and tempered by his time and place, a broad but grounded definition of excellence. The aforementioned Matthew Arnold, in his Culture and Anarchy, argued that anything one reads or thinks about, including even the daily newspaper, which challenges his or her “stock notions” is engaged in the process of gaining culture. This does not mean that one’s mind is necessarily “changed” by what is studied, but rather that the mind is sharpened and strengthened. To my knowledge, Arnold never used Adler and Barr’s “puppy analogy,” but Arnold’s thinking about the great works mirrors their notion. Arnold said the following: “The whole scope of [Culture and Anarchy] is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.” Arnold’s ultimate hope was clearly to promote critical thinking.

It mattered not to Arnold that his, or any other, list was slanted toward the West or East. That criticism would likely baffle him, were he alive to be aware of it. To him the objects of reading need only represent the “best that has been thought and said” in any place or time. The works of Confucius or other books from the East were appropriate foci of study. The role of Arnold’s reader is to gnaw on these works dealing with universal, great ideas — with an open mind and a readiness to replace outdated assumptions and notions of the world.

Recent examples of Arnold’s ideals exist. Earl Shorris’s “Clemente Course,” for instance, relies on values intrinsic to the Great Books idea: excellence, uplift, perennial moral values, discussion, and critical thinking. Shorris’s program consists of providing the less fortunate, such as those in poor or rural communities, with exposure to poetry, logic, history, and moral philosophy through the Great Books. The Clemente Course began in New York City in the mid-1990s, but because of its success has since spread across the United States. The program encourages students to ask the ultimate questions of themselves: How shall we live? What is the good life? How am I to be happy? To Shorris, and to most supporters of the Great Books idea, the success of democracy depends on instilling in its citizens a culture of democracy. That culture is based on universal values — not any one ideology — that promote the common good.

What Shorris, Adler, and other Great Books promoters did, in the spirit of Arnold, was simply provide the reader with objects of excellence in order to assist in the acquisition of culture. Most would accept that many of the books forwarded by Great Books promoters are in fact a subset of the greater part of cultural objects that can inspire the pursuit of excellence and the remembrance of permanent values. Despite mistakes in execution by these early promoters, and their sometimes limited view of the general set of excellence, their attempts to remind citizens of modern democracies that excellence does, in fact, exist was a valid venture. Their efforts are a testimonial to the belief in permanent, universal values, and the persistence of the dream of a common culture. These constitute the greatest goals of their endeavors. These goals, manifest in the history of the Great Books idea, are worthy of being reintroduced to twenty-first-century seekers of knowledge.

About the Author

Tim Lacy, Ph.D. is an intellectual historian with a special interest in the history of the Great Books movement and the author of The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (2013). He can be contacted on LinkedIn.

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