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Reading minds

Ideas mattered to the Great Books movement

Issue: "2008 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 13, 2008

Admit it: you always wanted to know what Aristotle said about the body politic, or the gist of Plato's Republic, or Kant's general idea about idealism. OK, enough with the projection-I've wanted to know these things since dropping out of college. My reasons were both base and noble: a desire to appear smart, and a hankering for wisdom.

"Getting wisdom" is a suitable ambition (see Proverbs 4:5), and not just for Christians. It was the stated goal of the "Great Books movement" of the early '50s, begun by a couple of academics who saw the trend to research and specialization in the American university as a thing to be decried. Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, and Mortimer Adler, educational gadfly and public intellectual, believed that "the aim of higher education is wisdom"-and the surest route to wisdom was studying the classic works of Western literature. Together they established a Great Books curriculum for the University of Chicago, then branched out to the community with a businessman's seminar.

The seminars were so popular that satellite programs popped up across the nation, about 2,500 Great Books discussion groups by 1951. Capitalizing on the hunger (for knowledge, if not wisdom), Hutchins approached his millionaire friend William Benton, who had recently acquired the Encyclopedia Britannica publishing company. The plan was to codify the seminal works of civilization, publish them in a set of volumes (54 was the final count), and offer them to the public at large. Great Books of the Western World (GBWW) was thus conceived, and made its appearance in 1952.

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It was "A Great Idea at the Time," according to Alex Beam, author of a book by that title. The time was auspicious for several reasons: The postwar GI bill had produced a crop of college graduates, postwar industry had generated disposable income, and advertising had entered a golden age. A widely reproduced chart that divided American tastes into "highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow," though meant as nothing more than social humor, created anxiety in the burgeoning middle class about whether it was classy enough. Two American traits merged to make the Great Books a hit: a desire for self-improvement plus a weakness for high-pressure salesmanship. "The ability to Discuss and Clarify Basic Ideas is vital to success," ad campaigns not-too-subtly promised. The price was a little steep-$250 for the whole set-but what was that, measured against lifelong success?

It seems quaint now, if not paternalistic and Eurocentric. Mortimer Adler might come across as an insufferable know-it-all with a penchant for telling the world "How To" engage in basic intellectual pursuits: How to Read a Book, How to Think About God, How to Speak/How to Listen, etc. He and Hutchins made no effort to pander to modern minds. The Great Books were printed in two-column text, unrelieved by pictures or annotations: "icons of unreadability," according to Beam. It's safe to say that most remained on the shelf, unread.

Yet Adler's enthusiasm shouldn't be dismissed. He believed not only that ordinary Americans should read the classics-he believed they could. Wisdom was out of no one's reach; the impressive sales for GBWW all through the '50s and '60s seemed to prove it, before multiculturalism stormed the university with chants of "Hey hey! Ho ho! Western culture's got to go!"

We've learned to think of ideas as accessories, useful for what they reveal about our virtues and prejudices. And discussing and clarifying ideas may not be as useful these days as obfuscating and confusing them. But to Adler, who converted to Roman Catholicism late in life, an idea could change a person from the inside out.

I used to tell my children that learning was like building shelves for the mind, some of which would come to bear much weight, some little, but all useful for reasoning and classification. (Therefore: Get wisdom.) The Great Books movement, despite the whiff of hucksterism surrounding it, was a noble effort to build mental furniture.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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