The War Of The Great Books


Whatever outsiders may have thought, for a generation of students the Great Books course constituted a moment in their lives that remains for many, decades later, the epitome of education. Twenty or so students sat around a large table, with the interlocutors Hutchins and Adler at the head. Adler (the “great bookie,” as Hutchins affectionately called him) would pose a question, field the response, then doggedly pursue the student through a refinement of the answer. Hutchins enlivened the dialectical proceedings, being by turns sarcastic and wry. George H. Watkins, a member of the first Great Books class at the Chicago Law School in 1934, recalls that when the formal two-hour period ended, the entire class frequently moved to Adler’s apartment, where debate continued until midnight; on other evenings Hyde Park bars echoed with the discussion of Aristotelian first principles.

The Chicago faculty wondered how students, many just freshmen, could possibly read a classic a week. The eminent classicist Paul Shorey put this question to Hutchins, recalling that “when I was a senior at Harvard, it took us a whole year to study Dante’s Divine Comedy.” “The difference,” Hutchins shot back, “is that our students are bright.”

Given the faculty suspicion, the Great Books curriculum at Chicago always faced an uncertain future. But Hutchins and Adler’s vision, transplanted to St. John’s College in Annapolis, became the basis for the most thoroughgoing Great Books approach to education in America. The country’s third oldest college, St. John’s was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in 1937 when Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan—refugees from the Chicago wars—agreed to attempt its revival if they could have a free hand. They instituted a completely prescribed four-year curriculum based on discussion of the Western classics by small groups. At St. John’s the tutors (academic rank was abolished) took a back seat to the texts, which were proclaimed the true college faculty. All tutors were to be sufficiently versed in the St. John’s reading list of more than a hundred books so that they could lead discussions of them all. The result, proclaimed an admiring Life magazine, was a student body holding a “broad grasp of the history of ideas that would put to shame the students of larger colleges.” Moreover, St. John’s defined the history of ideas to include mathematics and a rigorous four-year program of laboratory science. But rather than work with up-to-date lab equipment, St. John’s students re-created the landmark experiments of Western science: dissecting an ox heart as did William Harvey; using a replica of Aristarchus’s diopter to measure the size of the earth; and learning to use Ptolemy’s astrolabe.

To this day, students pursue their studies at St. John’s with a sober diligence rare on most campuses. It and its sister institution in Santa Fe remain the collegiate beacon of the Great Books movement even though similar alternative programs have been set up in a number of colleges.


Despite his successes with an undergraduate clientele at Chicago and the establishment of a thriving St. John’s, Robert Hutchins believed that the future of the Great Books movement lay in adult education. The very definition of a “Great Book,” after all, was one that repaid a lifetime of study, and the greater experience that adults brought to their reading would enrich understanding.

The university’s active adult extension division began carrying the benefits of Great Books culture to the public in 1939 by sponsoring off-campus discussion groups. The most influential of these was composed of Chicago’s business elite. This so-called Fat Man’s class resulted from the suggestion to Hutchins by Wilbur Munnecke, university vice-president and a former Marshall Field executive, that businessmen desperately needed the broad understanding and right purposes that the Great Books could provide. Executives from Swift & Co., Hart, Schaffner, and Marx, and other companies were not spared Hutchins’s barbs during the discussions any more than were the undergraduates. But their response was so enthusiastic that they kept coming week after week to the sessions at the downtown University Club. Hutchins’s gift for publicity once again bore fruit. The Fat Man’s class conferred a new cachet on the idea of studying old books.

The years after World War II witnessed a great expansion of Great Books discussion groups. The 167 participants in 1943 had multiplied to some 50,000 in three hundred cities by 1948. Much of Si this growth resulted from the establishment of the Great Books Foundation in 1947.

Realizing that the opportunity for national cultural reform outstripped the ability of the university to administer it, Hutchins asked Lynn A. Williams (one of the Fat Men) to take on the task of selling culture to the public. The Great Books Foundation’s primary mission was to train discussion leaders and otherwise promote the reading of great books. It also issued a number of inexpensive editions of some hard-to-find classics.