July 11, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 18

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    Special Collections tells the story of a cornerstone of American education

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    Mortimer Adler, William Benton and Robert Maynard Hutchins pose with the first edition of the Great Books collection.

    Angel, beauty, citizen, desire, education, family, god, habit, induction, judgment, knowledge, love, man, oligarchy, punishment, quality, reasoning, slavery, temperance, wealth.

    What do all these words have in common?

    In the 1950s, many serious-minded, middle-class Americans would know these terms were among the “102 Great Ideas” of Western thought, as formulated by philosopher, professor and best-selling author Mortimer Adler.

    A new exhibition in the Special Collections Research Center takes us back to those heady days, when Adler, Robert Maynard Hutchins, William Benton and many others sought to establish the “Great Books” as the cornerstone of American education.

    Curated by Jay Satterfield, Head of Reader Services, “The Great Ideas: The University of Chicago and the Ideal of Liberal Education” was inspired not only by his academic work on American publishing, but also by one of the most common questions he hears as a reference librarian: “What’s on the University of Chicago’s list of Great Books?”

    “The University never had such a list,” Satterfield said. “But it’s so engrained in the public consciousness that the University of Chicago and Great Books go together. I wanted to unravel the myth.”

    Tellingly, the exhibition begins not with Chicago, but with Harvard University and Columbia University. At the turn of the century, Harvard president Charles Eliot made an early notable attempt to compile a collection of so-called “classic” texts; the Harvard Classics set, which fit conveniently on a five-foot shelf, was published in 1909. In 1921, Columbia professor John Erskine––who was one of the first to use the term “great books,” though Adler and Hutchins popularized it––launched the first Great Books course, a two-year seminar called simply “General Honors.” Among Erskine’s early students were several future Chicago faculty members, including an enthusiastic Adler.

    The exhibition then jumps to Chicago in 1931, Adler’s first quarter at the University, when he and then-President Hutchins began team-teaching a two-year General Honors course modeled on Erskine’s. The course was wildly popular, attracting 80 first-year applicants for just 20 slots, though critics argued that its grandiose scope necessitated a superficial “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” approach to difficult texts. The 1931 final exam would have confirmed their worst fears. A typical question: “Discuss Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, the Old Testament, Plutarch and the New Testament as histories, as biographies and as literature.” To answer it, students were advised to allocate one hour.

    The novelty of young, photogenic President Hutchins teaching a freshman survey course soon attracted the attention of the press, especially when celebrities like Lilian Gish, Orson Welles and Gertrude Stein came to class. The exhibition includes Life magazine’s glowing feature on General Honors from 1945, describing it as the University’s “most famous course” and “one of Chicago’s hardest.” “Of course it wasn’t,” said Satterfield, but the myth was born and still lives.

    While Hutchins wanted to spread the Great Books approach to the entire undergraduate curriculum, other faculty members strongly opposed it. As the debate over the curriculum dragged on, Adler found other ways to advance his canon. In 1940 he published his most famous work, How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education. Adler’s manifesto became an unlikely bestseller, thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign; the exhibition features several full-page ads for the book, one with the eye-catching, 48-point-type tagline: “How to read a love letter.”

    Marketing played an equally significant role in the success of Great Books of the Western World, a series edited by Hutchins and Adler and published by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952. To unite these disparate texts––and as a marketing gimmick––Adler proposed a grandiose idea: an index to every single reference to the Great Ideas contained in the Great Books.

    For more than two years Adler labored on his “Syntopicon,” eventually paring the list to 102 ideas, running alphabetically from “angel” to “world.” A small army of graduate students and researchers was hired to scour the Great Books for references to each idea, a near-Sisyphean task that took seven years, cost a million dollars and earned another multi-page Life magazine spread in 1948. Even then, decades before the feminist movement or political correctness, the Life reporter noticed an interesting oversight: “Woman, not a main idea, is included in Family, Man and Love.”

    At the gala dinner for the Great Books of the Western World series, William Benton, chief executive officer of Britannica, hailed the series as “the most significant publishing event since Dr. Johnson’s dictionary.” The public did not greet the project with much enthusiasm, however. In the first year, 1,863 copies were sold (500 to the original subscribers); this fell to 138 in 1953. Desperate to recoup its losses, in 1956 Britannica resorted to its tried-and-true strategy: door-to-door sales, installment plans and premiums––such as a free Bible and bookshelf for every buyer.

    In an exhibition of fascinating documents, perhaps the most fascinating is the transcript of Benton’s 1964 inspirational speech to division managers, which blurs any remaining distinction between commerce and humanistic endeavor: “For 196 years, the man with his foot in the door has been the great source of our company’s strength,” he said. “His foot inside the door––and inside the door to his customer’s mind.”

    As well as the heyday of the Great Books movement at the University, the exhibition chronicles how the trend spread across the nation: the growth of St. John’s College, the founding of the Great Books Foundation and the Aspen Institute (an unusual combination of resort and continuing-education facility), and even the launch of a short-lived 1949 television show, “It’s a Great Idea!”

    Just 30 years later, however, the timeless classics seemed not so timeless after all. The exhibition ends with Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind––displaying a surprisingly scathing letter from Adler, who excoriated Bloom for not recognizing him as a forbear––and the 1990 edition of Great Books of the Western World, “which completely ignored changes in the intellectual landscape since the 1940s,” said Satterfield, and as a result, “was attacked from all fronts.”

    John Boyer, Dean of the College and unofficial historian of the University, said, “The story that the exhibition tells is fascinating, not only for what it says about the ‘great books,’ but for what it says about American culture more generally. From high-minded professors discussing classic texts with undergraduates in small, seminar-like classes, to clever salesmen selling door-to-door expensive sets of the ‘great books’ to middle-class families, to the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation in Aspen, Colorado––the whole story could only have happened in America,” he said.

    “The Great Ideas: The University of Chicago and the Ideal of Liberal Education,” is on display until Friday, Sept. 6, at the Special Collections Research Center, Joseph Regenstein Library, first floor. Special Collections is open Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.