A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, by Alex Beam (PublicAffairs, 256 pp, $24.95)

Robert Hutchins didn’t think much of his Yale education, which he said had “nothing to do with any intellectual development.” He didn’t keep this opinion to himself. When the Yale class of 1921 elected him “most likely to succeed,” he delivered a speech titled, “Should Institutions of Higher Learning Be Abolished?” Alex Beam’s A Great Idea at the Time shows what an odd answer to this question Hutchins had in mind. On the one hand, he spent most of his adult life running such institutions, first as dean of Yale Law School, then as president of the University of Chicago. On the other, he had such a peculiar sense of what higher education meant that, had he succeeded in reforming the modern university, it might well have ceased to exist, at least as we know it.

Hutchins’s models of a collegiate education were the medieval Trivium—rhetoric, grammar, and logic—and Quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Technical knowledge was to be strenuously avoided: “Facts are the core of an anti-intellectual curriculum,” he observed. “Facts do not solve problems. . . . The gadgeteers and the data collectors have threatened to become the supreme chieftains of the scholarly world.” The true stewards of the university, said the career administrator, should be those who deal with the most fundamental problems: metaphysicians.

This educational approach produced courses like “General Honors Course 110—Readings in the classics of Western European literature,” which Hutchins taught in the fall of 1930 at the University of Chicago. Students read the Iliad in the first week, the Odyssey in the second. Other weeks, they barreled through The Divine Comedy or Hegel’s Phenomenology. This may sound like the sort of course that all universities taught early in the twentieth century, but we forget how long ago universities abandoned the “Great Books.” By the end of the nineteenth century, Harvard had already dismantled the curriculum it adopted more or less unchanged from the medieval European university and replaced it with something like the modern “elective” system. John Dewey developed this approach still further, empowering ever-younger students to choose the courses they wanted. Dewey had a special scorn for Great Books atavists like Hutchins: “The idea that an adequate education of any kind can be obtained by means of a miscellaneous assortment of 100 books, more or less, is laughable.”

That criticism went unheeded. Some of Beam’s richest pages recount the meetings in which Hutchins and other Classics partisans—Mortimer Adler, in particular—determined that Great Books courses in universities were not enough. The broader American reading public needed them, too. But which authors? A few provoked no debate—Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Tolstoy. But then the squabbling began. Should such a series include Rousseau? Six members of Hutchins’s committee voted for; one, chemist Joseph Schwab, voted against: “Never so few fine statements set in so much crap.” Moliére didn’t fare as well, despite Mark Van Doren’s protest: “Moliére will go out only over my bruised body. He is the perfect comedian . . . universally delightful; he will be read by cooks and Congressmen with equal pleasure. Please keep him in the name of sanity and sophia.” Dickens met the same fate: “Not really against, not really for,” wrote one committee member. “He’s boring.” Apollonius of Perga, on the other hand, got the nod. His third-century geometric treatise, On Conic Sections, was apparently one neither a cook nor a congressman could do without. The final roster either represented the summation of the wisdom in the Western World or, as Dewey would have it, a whimsical patchwork sloshed together over brandy.

Hutchins’s and Adler’s project of compiling “The Great Books of the Western World” originated after Encyclopedia Britannica gifted its publishing division to the University of Chicago. They now had the means to make Great Books readily available and, more importantly, to package them together in a single collection. Hutchins and Adler thought each Great Book should be presented as part of one epochal conversation. (Adler, not surprisingly, called it the “Great Conversation.”) Homer’s problems were Hobbes’s problems, Hobbes’s problems Hegel’s, Hegel’s problems ours. Hutchins and Adler produced a “conversation” spanning 32,000 pages, spread over 54 volumes. Hutchins looked upon the work and called it good: “The Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being.”

Technically, there were only 52 volumes of actual “conversation.” Two served as a kind of guide to the others; I say “a kind of guide” because to use that term for these two volumes understates their weirdness. Adler had determined—it’s not clear how—that the Great Conversation was structured by 102 different ideas: Being, Chance, Infinity, Labor, Family, and 97 more. A team of underlings scoured the Great Books, found references in them to each of the Great Ideas (as Adler naturally called them), and compiled a two-volume index that he dubbed the Syntopicon. One of the underlings was a young Saul Bellow. He led a team of indexers and referred to himself as a “sort of strawboss” for the Syntopicon. Above him, said Bellow, was Hutchins, and above Hutchins “God and St. Thomas.”

Bellow’s quip inadvertently captures the messianism that drove Hutchins and Adler. They thought they were defending civilization against all sorts of enemies: educational reformers like Dewey, who “denied that there was content to education”; a reading public raised on trash and sleaze; and, for good measure, illiberal politics. The Great Conversation, they wrote, was “that dialogue by way of which Western man has believed that he can approach the truth. The deepest values of the West are implicated in this dialogue. It can be conducted only by free men. It is the essential reason for their freedom.” This talk of freedom can seem overdone, especially coming from a mandarin like Hutchins. But he can be very convincing: “The products of American high schools are illiterate; and a degree from a famous college or university is no guarantee that the graduate is in any better case.” Only an “interminable liberal education”—by which he meant, surely, the reading of his 54 volumes—could ensure “effective citizenship in a democracy.” The Great Books might not have created a “world republic of law and justice,” and reading them might not be “patriotic.” But such hyperbole is mostly forgivable in the service of an otherwise compelling description of education’s aims.

The 54 volumes were hawked door-to-door by frequently unscrupulous salesmen. The Federal Trade Commission twice sanctioned the project for deceptive sales practices (the salesmen’s preferred trick was to pass themselves off as University of Chicago professors). Beam recounts critic Michael Dirda’s memory of one such salesman arriving at his parents’ door: “He offered the kind of snake-oil enticements common to all door-to-door fast talkers. I admired his patter and remembered it, a few years later, when I took a job selling Fuller Brush products.”

The sales pitch was strictly middlebrow mercantilism. “A problem?” asked an ad for the volumes. “Consult this evening with the greatest minds of the Western world, grasp their precious wisdom. Start reading immediately at the point of your own maximum interest.” Career stuck in a rut? “The ability to discuss and clarify basic ideas is vital to success. Doors open to the man who possesses this talent.” Bored on a Friday night? The Great Books are a “prime source of self-improvement and an exhaustible fund of adult entertainment . . . the best entertainment is that which elevates as it entertains.” The Great Books would save the reading public from servitude, both to godless totalitarianism and to lowbrow culture. And all this, the ads promised, with only ten minutes of reading per day. At that rate, the cobbler or the congressman would be through the entire set (Syntopicon excluded) in ten years. Boxer and bookworm Gene Tunney touted a quick-and-dirty approach: “Anyone, armed with the Syntopicon, could sit down to this mental feast and select the morsels that are most appealing to the individual or to his interest or mood of the day.”

Highbrow Dwight MacDonald, however, likened the sales pitches to “so many debutantes endorsing the virtues of Pond’s facial cream,” and using the Syntopicon to “being caught in a Rube Goldberg contraption.” He saved his greatest rebuke for Hutchins’s and Adler’s messianism: “In its massiveness, its technological elaboration, its fetish of The Great, and its attempt to treat systematically and with scientific precision materials for which the method is inappropriate, [the fifty-four volume set] is a typical expression of the religion of culture that appeals to the American academic mentality,” MacDonald wrote. Even Allan Bloom, who should have been a friend to the Great Books—The Closing of the American Mind was at least partly a plea for a traditional curriculum—hated the spirit in which Hutchins and Adler treated them: “The whole movement has a certain coarse evangelistic tone that is the opposite of good taste.”

The Great Books set sold well for a few years in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. An updated version released in the 1990s flopped. A Great Books Foundation still limps on, hosting “Great Books Weekends” open to anyone for a few hundred dollars. Back in the quads, Hutchins’s curricular reforms came undone, some almost before he had retired. Only St. John’s College maintains a curriculum built exclusively around the Great Books. Every student takes at least two years of ancient Greek, two of French, four of math, and three of laboratory science, the last taught not through textbooks but through primary works like Copernicus’s On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres and Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry.

Beam sat in on a St. John’s laboratory seminar and found it “flat, flat, flat.” The same went for a seminar on portions of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (example: “Whether the proposition ‘God exists’ is self-evident?”). “Everyone had done the reading,” Beam laments, “but few could make heads or tails of it.” The problem, as Beam sees it, is that the students aren’t allowed to bring to the discussion anything outside the text. Beam imagines “a thousand interesting questions” that would have enlivened the proceedings: “Why did Aquinas feel the necessity of proving God’s existence? Who in the Middle Ages disagreed with him?” But all of these questions, which in one way or another would lead beyond the closed-off world of the Great Books, are out of order at St. John’s, silenced by the fetish of the Great. “You live by the Books, you die by the Books,” Beam writes. And St. John’s, he believes, is dying.

This is a deeply unfair and ungenerous way to end an otherwise entertaining book. Surely no partisan of the Great Books—those at St. John’s included—thinks that questions like Beam’s are entirely out of order. It’s rather that his questions make for bad places to begin. A seminar spent “not being able to make heads or tails” of Aquinas need not be time poorly spent. It might, in fact, form a necessary prologue to the conversation Beam craves.

Beam’s lament, moreover, reveals a deeply middlebrow fantasy shared by many. It goes like this: if only we knew more about the Middle Ages—had more information on Aquinas’s hometown, his antagonists, and his childhood—the Summa Theologica would give up its secrets. We might not even have to read it! It’s a fantasy no different in kind than the vision of mastering the Great Books in ten-minute intervals. And in a book that takes as one of its subjects the creation of middlebrow culture—and which doesn’t mind having a laugh at its expense along the way—Beam ought to have been on guard against his own susceptibility to the middlebrow. If he doesn’t watch out, he soon might find himself flipping through the Syntopicon’s entry for God, vainly hoping to make heads or tails of Aquinas.


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