Before break, I talked about my thoughts on the Great Books program, inspired by the sight of a book on the history of the Great Books. Over break, I actually read A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books. Not only did it prove to be an informative bit of background on the program, it was also entertaining in its own way.
It talks mainly of Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer C. Adler as the masterminds behind the whole idea. Adler was enamored of Plato and the western canon, and Hutchins wanted to revolutionize learning. Hutchins was the charismatic face of the program, president of the University of Chicago and a well-publicized individual; Adler worked hard at putting the enormous selections together. They got together a group of certain prominent educators and friends who were well-versed in the classics, and decided which works should be included (Fourier? Sure. Whitman? Out). Not everything was unanimous, but together they managed to include some 400-odd works in 54 volumes (the second edition has upwards of 500, in 60 volumes), the first being an introduction by Hutchins and the second an unwieldy Syntopicon that divided certain "universal" themes in the books (among them: Angel, Element, Infinity, Justice, Sin, Theology, and Wisdom; 102 themes total, with an introduction for each!). The Encyclopedia Britannica, its publisher, enlisted many aggressive door-to-door salesmen in order to sell the sets of books (a hefty price tag of $500+ for a hefty set), and from that actually managed to make some revenue--at least for a while.
From this canon Hutchins and Adler taught classes at the University of Chicago, mostly geared towards businessmen. They envisioned students who would question and grow from learning the books, having their worldview expanded by the wisdom of the ancients. For a while, their idea was an educational craze, spawning book clubs and discussion groups across the country. Then as the decades rolled on and the post-WWII prosperity of the 50s gave way to the 60s and 70s and the opening of the cultural mindset, the heavily DWM (dead white male) representation fell under criticism, as well as their methods in selecting the books: What kind of good does it do to read 200-year-old outdated science books? Where are the history books? Where are the women/blacks/hispanics/asians/etc? Why do the translations suck and come without annotation? Although they tried to stage a revival to answer some of the criticism by releasing an expanded edition in 1990, the expensively-produced books never made a good kickoff and crashed into the red for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Hutchins died dissatisfied with his life's work, as did Adler, who to the bitter end remained a DWM advocate, arguing, he said, their proof through the trial of time. The more recent works of the 20th century (mostly the more diverse works) had not been around long enough to prove their worth.
There lie many a 54- or 60-book collection, some opened, some not, in several thousand homes in America today. Some people really did have their lives changed by what they read. Others found them unapproachable, irrelevant, a waste of time/money, or filled with errors and DWM supremacy.
Regardless of their criticism, the Great Books are not dead today--they live on in places like The Great Books Foundation, in certain universities with Great Books courses, and even some colleges dedicated to the Great Books--like Shimer. (Sadly, the book devoted an entire chapter to St. John's, but one sentence to Shimer. I think I'm going to write the author.)
It is a curious history indeed. And the book is well worth reading.