A Great Idea at the Time:
The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books
by Alex Beam
Public Affairs, 256 pp.
ast year, I was invited to Dickinson College in southern Pennsylvania to debate the meaning of success in higher education. My counterpart in the discussion was Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College, a small liberal arts school in Annapolis, Maryland. We were introduced by our host, and Nelson went first. His speech was erudite, passionate, and replete with classical references. He waxed eloquent about the meaning of knowledge, and how teaching as an enterprise was central to the St. John’s philosophy. I found myself glancing uneasily at my own notes, which had always served me well in the past but suddenly seemed paltry by comparison.
I didn’t realize it then, but I had run headlong into the Great Books of the Western World, the subject of a smart, engaging new book by Alex Beam, a columnist for the Boston Globe. In A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books,Beam traces the history of a peculiar moment in the development of America’s striving middlebrow culture, when hundreds of thousands of families across the nation decided to spend a lot of money on ancient texts that few would ever read. It’s also a story of higher education, and a 140-year-old argument about the responsibilities that colleges have to students.
Beam’s narrative begins in 1869, with the appointment of Charles Eliot to the presidency of Harvard University. At the time, undergraduates at Harvard and other Ivies were forced to take a (literally) medieval curriculum loaded with Greek, Latin, philosophy, rhetoric, and math. Eliot blew the rigid, memorization-heavy program to smithereens and replaced it with an elective system that remains the model for nearly all colleges today. Suddenly, students could choose to learn what they wished, and most were happy with the change.
Not all, though. In 1901, John Erskine graduated from Columbia University convinced that he and his peers paled in comparison to the "superlatively educated college man of only a generation or so ago, who was on speaking terms with the classics in the fields of literature, of history, of philosophy." Appointed to the Columbia faculty after World War I, Erskine pushed for the resurrection of the Great Books, and in 1920 the university began requiring freshmen to read Homer, Aeschylus, Aurelius, and the rest. Nearly ninety years later, undergrads in Morningside Heights are still studying a version of Erskine’s classic core.
One of the first students to take the new course was a jewelry salesman’s son named Mortimer Adler. Brash, abrasive, and unapologetic, Adler would spend his long life promoting the virtues of Aristotle to whoever would listen, and many who wouldn’t. In 1927, Adler’s intellectual passions led him to correspond with a kindred spirit: Robert
Maynard Hutchins, the wunderkind dean of Yale Law School. The oddly tragicomic story of this mismatched pair and what they wrought forms the backbone of Beam’s book.
In 1929, the University of Chicago trustees offered Hutchins, just thirty years old, the U of C presidency. He accepted, and brought Adler along for the ride. Fueled by Chicago’s mercantile vigor, the University of Chicago had quickly established itself as a leading center of graduate research. But the undergraduate program languished. To Hutchins and Adler, the solution was clear: make Chicago a center of Great Books teaching. "The children of the Midwestern bourgeoisie were going to learn metaphysics," Beam writes, "whether they liked it or not."
Hutchins soon became the kind of intellectual celebrity that doesn’t exist in this country anymore, twice gracing the cover of Time magazine. The Great Books idea spread out from Hyde Park, spawning book clubs in libraries, churches, businesses—even prisons—as well as extension courses for wealthy Chicago fat cats and their wives. One of those businessmen, William Benton, sensed an opportunity to capitalize on the sudden enthusiasm. So he bought the money-losing Encyclo-
paedia Britannica franchise from Sears, Roebuck and proposed an official Great Books series—to be selected by a prestigious committee of scholars led by Hutchins and Adler (of course). Nine years later, in April 1952, the Great Books of the Western World were unveiled at a lavish dinner in the Waldorf-Astoria. "You who have brought the Great Books are taking upon yourselves a magnificent burden, the burden of preserving as did the monks of ancient Christendom, through another darkening," intoned one attendee at the orgy of self-congratulation.
But it didn’t work out the way any of them hoped. Benton launched a canny marketing campaign that plumbed the cultural insecurities of the burgeoning middle class, while an army of door-to-door Britannica salesman, some posing as U of C professors, convinced hundreds of thousands of families to fork over $300 for the fifty-four-volume set on the installment plan. Unfortunately, most of the books were all but unreadable, printed in double-columned nine-point type with no explanatory footnotes or guidance for the common man. Enthusiasm peaked in the 1960s, by which time Hutchins had long since left Chicago. His core curriculum was scaled back soon after his departure. A hoped-for appointment to the Supreme Court never came, and Hutchins faded from public view. He died in 1977 convinced his life had been a failure. Adler lived until 2001, tirelessly promoting the Great Books, and himself, with diminishing returns. Like Hutchins, Adler went to his deathbed thinking that he, too, had failed in his life’s mission.
But had they been failures? Beam spends less time grappling with this question than he could have. At the beginning of A Great Idea, Beam promises the reader "a book as different from the ponderous and forbidding Great Books as it could possibly be." In this, he succeeds admirably, using his columnist skills of narration and concision to full effect. Beam has an eye for the telling anecdote and character tic, bringing Adler and Hutchins to life with honesty and humanity. Barely a word is wasted in the book’s lively 201 pages, which can be consumed in one long, rewarding sitting. It’s a story worth telling, and it’s hard to imagine it being told with more verve or appeal. In the end, however, Beam seems unsure of the legacy of the Great Books, and in this sense I think he underestimates them—not the volumes themselves, but what they represent and why they matter, particularly for higher education.
Columbia and Chicago have retained a semblance of a classic core. But the vast majority of colleges employ a worst-of-all-worlds Chinese-menu approach to learning, requiring students to pick a few dishes from a long list of humanities, literature, and science courses. Avoiding Ari-
stotle is a snap, and most students do just that. What’s left is the mirage of a liberal education with no required engagement with the ideas that matter most.
That was a problem in 1929; it’s intolerable in this age of information abundance. The modern struggle isn’t finding information but making sense of it, navigating what the late David Foster Wallace called "Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how and why." The crusade to make the Great Books available has been rendered obsolete by technology. Most texts in the series can be found for free, on the Internet. Anyone with a computer or smart phone effectively owns the Great Books in all their multivolume glory. The challenge that remains is what Hutchins and Adler failed to do: helping people make sense of the Great Books and the ideas therein, so those ideas can, in turn, give people the wisdom to cope with Total Noise.
That takes time, expertise, and focus—the kinds of things colleges are supposed to provide. Yet very few do. The exception that more or less proves the rule is St. John’s College in Annapolis, led by Christopher Nelson, my Dickinson debating partner. For the five hundred or so "Johnnies" in Annapolis, the Great Books aren’t the core curriculum—they’re the whole curriculum, which looks a lot like the pre-Eliot Harvard course catalog circa 1868. It works for them, and Beam views the college and its nonconformist students with obvious affection. But St. John’s is tiny and not building new campuses anytime soon.
Higher education’s abdication of responsibility for guiding students, for being more than an intellectual super
market, stems from mutual self-interest: most freshmen don’t want to study the Great Books, and most professors, burrowed deep into disciplinary micro-specialization, don’t want to teach them. The program also suffers from politicization. Once conservatives like Allan Bloom planted their flag in the Western canon, it became part of the right’s culture war agenda—ironic, given that Hutchins spent the last decades of his life arguing for nuclear disarmament and One World Government.
Liberals need to reclaim the classic liberal arts education, and come to grips with the fact that many of the ideas most worth studying were invented by dead white men. Undergraduates may want total freedom to choose what to study, but colleges have an obligation to balance what students want with what they need. That doesn’t mean wholesale conversion to the extreme St. John’s model or the restoration of ancient Greek, but it does mean some kind of coherent, disciplined curriculum—or curricula, among which students can choose, and on which colleges can compete. Four years is little time in the grand scheme of things, and colleges could do a much better job of helping students make the most of it.
If they do, I think the students will look back in appreciation. I suspect it’s not a coincidence that Hutchins’s University of Chicago touched so many important American lives. Susan Sontag was among those who hopped on a train to the Second City, drawn to the promise of engagement with Greatness. So was Katherine Meyer, who became Katherine Graham. Saul Bellow paid his rent by indexing the books for Adler. Gertrude Stein stopped by to argue the propriety of teaching Greek texts in English translation. Great ideas and great people go hand in hand.
And the more those ideas make their way into broader society, the better off we’ll be. The Great Books mania may have been commercialized, compromised, and naive. But it rested on a faith in hard-won wisdom, what Hutchins considered the true aim of higher education. I’m wiser having read A Great Idea, a Very Good Book indeed.
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Kevin Carey is the research and policy manager of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C.