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The War Of The Great Books
What seemed to be just another tempest in the teapot of academia has escalated into a matter of national values and politics. Who would have believed that the choice of which books Stanford University students must read would create so much tumult? And that the controversy goes back so far?
February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
Publication of the Great Books of the Western World ollowed a parallel yet independent path from the Great Books Foundation. William Benton, founder of the Benton and Bowles advertising agency, later an associate of Hutchins at the University of Chicago, a U.S. senator, and a member of the Fat Man’s class, complained of the difficulty of obtaining the classics. A swashbuckling businessman, he had engineered an unusual joint publishing venture with the university and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Benton now suggested to Hutchins that Britannica produce a quality set of the Great Books to be marketed much like the encyclopaedia. Hutchins endorsed the project only on the condition that a way be devised to ensure that the books would be taken off the shelf and read. In attempting to answer Hutchins’s challenge, Mortimer Adler soon found himself embarked on one of the largest ventures in American book publishing.
To say that any individual is qualified to become the authoritative guide to Western thought would seem presumptuous. Yet Mortimer Adler came closer than anyone else to filling that role, with the Great Books of the Western World as the testament to his success. Though he followed the usual academic path of Ph.D. followed by a university appointment (at Chicago, through Hutchins’s intervention), Adler remained always an outsider to academia. Compulsive, combative, intensely intellectual, he was temperamentally incapable of compromise on educational issues. (To this day he is without his bachelor’s degree from Columbia because he disdainfully refused to attempt the required swimming test.)
But if Adler’s neoscholasticism put him at odds with professional philosophers, he has succeeded in reaching a wide public audience in a career now spanning seven decades. Besides being our most famous advocate of the classics, Adler wrote the enormously popular How to Read a Book (published in 1940 and still in print) and conceived the changes for the revolutionary Britannica 3. And most recently his Paideia Proposal has shared in the attention given educational reform.
Adler’s fascination with the classics began in Erskine’s General Honors course at Columbia. While an instructor at Columbia he taught sections of the class and also, along with the later eminent classicists Scott Buchanan and Richard McKeon, taught at the People’s Institute in New York, a sort of Socratic Hull House where Russian Jewish immigrants sharpened their dialectical rapiers.
When Adler met Hutchins in 1927, Hutchins admitted to having no idea what constituted an adequate education. Adler shared with him his convictions about a curriculum of great works and found a ready convert. The two complemented each other well in their long association. Hutchins the administrative patron and revolutionary point man; Adler, the philosophical systematizer and idea man. If Robert Hutchins was the Absalom of the educational world, seeking to overthrow the enthroned order, Mortimer Adler was his Achitophel, whispering encouragement and advice.
Selecting the books to be included in the Great Books of the Western World (GBWW) was assigned to an advisory board, aided by Adler and Hutchins. Authors were divided up rather like a football team—into first and second strings. “We had no differences of opinion about which Greeks to include and only a few about Roman, Hellenistic, and mediaeval writers,” Adler recalled. “Our disagreements became more numerous as well as more acerbic when we considered modern authors from the seventeenth century on.” Many of the second-string authors, including Cicero, Calvin, and Nietzsche, ultimately had to be trimmed from the team of seventy-four greats. The criteria of selection were not simply originality, literary merit, and historical significance but also the importance of the works in speaking to the great ideas that have persisted in Western thought. The editors also determined that because they lacked the perspective to judge the significance of contemporary thinkers, the set would end with William James and Sigmund Freud.
Unlike Charles Eliot’s earlier Harvard Classics (1909-10), comparisons with which Adler constantly made, the GBWW contained a generous number of mathematical and scientific works, included because of the conviction that a liberal education meant acquaintance with all the important ideas. Different, too, from Eliot’s set was the editorial decision to print complete works rather than excerpts. And the 443 titles of the GBWW would be presented, at Adler’s insistence, with virtually no scholarly apparatus or introductions; the authors were to speak for themselves without the intrusion of “lesser minds.”
But even more challenging than deciding what to include and what to leave out was finding a means to make the set something other than a dust catcher on the shelf. Adler tried to solve this problem with an index. Not an ordinary index, but an index of staggering proportion and intent. This “Syntopicon” (a term he coined) would be a guide to the major ideas of Western thought. It would allow the reader who wished to read in the set rather than tackle the whole works to do so by topics, exploring, say, the idea of fate as commented upon by Dante, Goethe, and Marx.