A Great Idea at the Time, Alex Beam. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008.
Summary: Beam narrates the story of the Great Books movement from its beginnings with John Erskine, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, to the publication of The Great Books by Britannica and rise of Great Books groups, the “core wars” and the remnants of this movement still hanging on today.
I have probably been intrigued and tempted by the Great Books idea all of my life. I remember looking with envy at the Britannica set acquired by a friend of mine and was probably saved from acquiring one myself only by my wife’s very sensible questions: “where are you going to put those?” and “are you going to read them?” Still, along the way, I’ve attempted to read at least some of these, usually in annotated editions (the Britannica set is not), guided by Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book and Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan.
So it was with some interest that I picked up Alex Beam’s book which is neither hagiography nor hatchet job, but a highly readable, and a times humorous, look at the Great Books movement and particularly its two principle lights: Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler.
The book traces the beginnings to various “great books” lists, most notably Charles Eliot’s at Harvard, which eventuated in the Harvard Classics, Adler’s initial inspiration. Adler was mentored by John Erskine, who advocated for the great books at Columbia in the General Honors course, which eventually Adler taught as a graduate student in the 1920s. Erskine, Adler, and Clifton Fadiman also taught courses for working adults beginning the dual character of Great Books promotion in the academy and in “middlebrow” circles among working people seeking a broader perspective on life.
Then enters Hutchins who invites Adler to Yale in 1927, and then to the University of Chicago, when Hutchins became president in 1929. Together they sought to reform undergraduate education around a Great Books curriculum and later promoted Great Books groups among the public culminating in the Great Books Foundation to promote these groups. Within four years (by the late 1940s) they claimed there were 2,500 such groups meeting across the country.
William Benton’s involvement was a key moment in the Great Books movement. A consummate salesman and member of a Chicago Great Books group, he acquires Encyclopedia Britannica and proposes publishing a collection of “the Great Books”. Adler, Hutchins, and Erskine oblige and Beam narrates the sometimes hilarious process by which certain books were included or excluded by this committee of white males, selecting largely a collection of books by white males. He also gives a detailed account of Adler’s signature contribution to this project, The Syntopicon, an index of 102 ideas with references to where they arise in the Great Books. Beam describes the questionable marketing techniques used to lure middle-class families to acquire an impressive looking set of books most would barely read.
The rest of the book is an account of the gradually dwindling sales and disappointments of both Adler and Hutchins, the “core wars” which eliminated many of these works from college curricula at most universities, offset by the narratives of those whose lives were profoundly touched by the Great Books, and the collegiate holdouts, like St. John’s in Annapolis and Santa Fe, where the Great Books are the curriculum. He concludes with describing Great Books weekends where, although he is “of a certain age” he is the youngest person in the room.
One wonders in reading this if Adler and Hutchins had two principle faults: inflexibility and codifying the Great Books into a published set. Beam contrasts this movement with Oprah’s book club (which probably has Adler and Hutchins turning in their graves). I would add the attention book recommendations receive from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Neither are recommending fluff books and there is always a spike in books sales around their recommendations. While it is true there are many adults who only read a few books a year, and that mostly contemporary popular fiction, there are those who recognize that something was missing in their education, and are looking for help in enlarging their horizons.
What if, instead of pouring their efforts into dubious marketing of the Great Books sets, Adler and Hutchins had worked to develop annotated works, and good discussion guides, and maybe excluded some of the more challenging and obscure ancient mathematical and scientific works? What if they had shown a more enlightened approach that recognized great works like W. E. B DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk and other works by those not in the “dead white male” tradition? Might they have forged a literacy movement that would have embraced all Americans and avoided the “core wars?” Maybe not, and it is clear that this just was not their vision. What Beam’s book makes clear is that it was this truncated vision, and not the American populace that was to blame for their disappointments.