The War Of The Great Books


The modern Great Books curriculum was born at Columbia University in 1919 when a professor of English named John Erskine first offered his General Honors course. Its format was simple. Once every week the class would meet and discuss a single classic. Erskine had been dismayed by his students’ lack of acquaintance with the great texts of Western culture and their lack of any common intellectual grounding. This deficiency not only resulted from the new style of higher learning but also reflected a Columbia student body more heterogeneous and less patrician than before. The Great Books, Erskine and his colleagues believed, would be a means of sharing the mantle of culture with the brightest of the immigrant sons.

But Erskine’s General Honors course remained a little-known preserve of humanistic culture on Morningside Heights until it discovered two champions with an eye for public relations—Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler.

In 1929, at age thirty, Robert Maynard Hutchins gave up the deanship of Yale Law School to become president of the University of Chicago. His youthfulness in itself caught the public’s eye, but when he attacked the prevailing form of higher education and set out to establish Chicago as a model of collegiate learning, educational hell broke loose. From the early 1930s until his retirement from the presidency in 1951, Hutchins kept the university at the forefront of public consciousness. “It is not a very good university,” he was fond of saying, “it is simply the best there is.” With its leader twice on the cover of Time magazine, the University of Chicago became identified with its president in a way no other university has since Charles W. Eliot’s tenure at Harvard in the late nineteenth century.

Hutchins accomplished this through a combination of personal magnetism, gritty determination to redirect the inertial forces of the university, and a circle of accomplices who shared his vision. Strikingly handsome and possessing an astringent wit, Hutchins was a “natural-born stemwinding hell-raiser,” wrote one observer. He frequently disarmed critics with his epigrammatic replies. “There are two ways to have a great university,” he responded to alumni unhappy about seeing their alma mater drop football. “It must either have a great football team or a great president.”


The faculty conflict early in his presidency simmered for more than a decade before reaching a boil in a full-scale faculty revolt in 1944. The precipitating issue was Hutchins’s conviction that higher education in America suffered from acute confusion over means and ends and that the cure for this illness should be administered first to the University of Chicago. Hutchins’s “New Plan” of 1931 devoted the initial two years of college solely to general education. Class-attendance requirements were tossed out the window, as was the accounting of course credits. Instead, students simply had to prepare themselves as they wished for the comprehensive examinations, which they could take whenever they felt ready.

Hutchins continued to press for further changes over the next decade. Perhaps the most radical change was his encouraging the early entry of high school students into the college. Combining the last two years of high school with the first two years of college, students could receive their baccalaureate degrees after the usual sophomore year of college.

The Chicago faculty could accept many of these structural changes with equanimity, but not so the philosophy that underlay Hutchins’s effort. For the Chicago president intended to reunify learning along the lines of the medieval universities. Inspired by Aristotle and Aquinas, Hutchins envisioned a higher education based on an updated version of the ancient trivium and quadrivium. The idea that the modern university should surrender its devotion to research and the scientific method in the pursuit of timeless, unified truth brought outraged charges of medievalism and even fascism from academic critics.

Faculty opposition prevented Chicago from becoming a thirteenth-century University of Paris. But it did not stop Hutchins and Adler (who was a product of the earlier Columbia experiment in Great Books) from inaugurating in 1930 a reading course that was the inspiration for the later, much expanded Great Books reading program and the eventual publication and marketing of a series of volumes called the Great Books of the Western World. The Chicago Great Books class—all the more novel for having the president teaching freshmen—attracted national attention and a procession of distinguished visitors.

The actresses Lillian Gish and Ethel Barrymore, Orson Welles, the columnist Westbrook Regler, and the publisher of the Washington Post, Eugene Meyer (his daughter, Katharine Graham, was a member of the class)—all stopped by the classroom to observe firsthand what they had read about in the national press. Gertrude Stein’s visit was the most memorable. Her insistence that “Greek ideas must be studied in Greek, Latin ideas in Latin” was too much even for Adler. When he protested, Stein thumped him on the head.