The War Of The Great Books


Mortimer Adler led in the planning, including issuing instructions for discussion leaders. The approach of the leaders, he asserted, “can make or break the seminar. The prime requisite ... is that the leaders be interested, vitally interested, in the book and in the group, and that they show their interest.” This can best be demonstrated by “leaning forward and speaking rather quickly and intensely,” said Adler—in an exhortation that was essentially a self-description—so as to “provoke controversy.” But leaders must also be good listeners. “Unless they have fallen into the sinful habit of Intellectual pride, they should really want to know, for their own education, what the other person thinks.”

Propelled by energetic leadership and organizational support, the Great Books became something of a fad. In the fall of 1948 Chicago’s mayor declared “Great Books Week.” Adler lectured at downtown department stores, and he and Hutchins conducted a discussion of Plato before three thousand people at Orchestra Hall. They repeated the performance in Milwaukee. Adler’s endless trips around the country as a kind of “Socratic traveling salesman” carried the Great Books idea to the farthest reaches of America.

Mark Twain defined a classic as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” But Twain was wrong for the decade or so after World War II. Why the renewed curiosity about the classics? Clearly more was involved than salesmanship by Adler or Hutchins. The challenge of a recently defeated fascism and a still-threatening communism involved rethinking the foundation of our democratic faith. Scientific materialism, the new coin of academia, was tainted by its association with totalitarian horrors and now seemed an inadequate base for democracy. Hutchins had been preaching since the early 1930s that an “education for democracy” must rest on the immutable tenets laid forth by the great works of our Western tradition. That message won a wide hearing in a nation hungry for guidance.

There was a level of seriousness about the endeavor that seemed appropriate to the grim new atomic age. The historian Dixon Wecter saw in the Great Books movement a desire to transcend the “pervasive spirit of anti-intellectualism” and “triviality” so often present in the culture. Americans also found an attractive sense of community in the biweekly gatherings. With an international war effort over, people welcomed a return to the neighborhood fires of their local libraries surrounded by familiar faces. “Your friends and neighbors will be there,” a foundation promotional brochure promised. “You will meet your minister, banker, lawyer, company president, fellow workers, doctor, [and] grocery clerk....”

The strict rules the Great Books Foundation laid down for leaders in conducting discussion bespoke, on the one hand, a desire for group conformity. Leaders were instructed to allow only people who had read the selection to participate and to disallow discussion of any book not a part of the series. On the other hand, leaders were to respect and even nurture individualism. That lay people rather than professors led the groups was considered a strength, for they would not deaden discussion by their authority. Further, Adler admonished group leaders to avoid acting like a “teacher who knows the right answers and is imparting his knowledge to the group. … Try to keep it fixed in your mind that you are actually no wiser … than the others in the group.” Nothing was to intrude upon the silent dialogue between reader and author. Following John Erskine’s admonition that the texts should be read “as if they were just out today,”participants were forbidden from citing any historical or critical commentary in making their points. Although the basic intent of Great Books study was to ascertain “Truth,” the real object of most discussions, wrote the sympathizer Edward A. Fitzpatrick in 1951, was the self-expression of members and the subsequent discovery of “the variety of opinions that exists and [that] one’s opinion is as good as another’s.”


Such a purpose may sound too obvious to deserve comment. But in the McCarthyite America of that time, espousing unpopular opinions could make trouble. Librarians, in whose facilities many of the Great Books discussions took place, needed reassurance that the selections would not anger patriotic organizations and religious leaders. And even though Karl Marx was read, wrote one librarian, discussion “contributed to a safer, more understanding citizenship.”

It is difficult to say how successfully Great Books seminars fulfilled this promise. At the least, as one supporter suggested, it was better than “wasting their time in cocktail lounges or bridge clubs. . . .” But the author Ben Ray Redman wondered how much better. Though acknowledging discussion groups to be part of a traditional American passion for self-improvement, Redman doubted that they were an effective means to that end. He questioned Adler’s assumption that the average person can comprehend all the Great Books, especially without the historical background to the text that the program deliberately ignored. Redman’s own experience at a Great Books discussion of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, where the proceedings degenerated into a “muddle of blind-alley arguments, profitless repetitions, irrelevant remarks, silly opinions, and fundamental misunderstandings,” reinforced his skepticism about Socratic dialogue for the masses.