Skip to main content

The War Of The Great Books

July 2024
23min read

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?

Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind must surely be the most unexpected happening of American intellectual life in recent years. It is an erudite, closely argued book of philosophy and cultural criticism. That it should sit atop the New York Times best-seller list for eleven weeks and produce a hard-cover sale of a half-million copies defies publishing’s common sense.

Unexpected, but not unprecedented. The Education of Henry Adams, a gloomy meditation on the course of American development, was a nonfiction best seller of 1919. In recent decades Michael Harrington’s The Other America, a statement of outrage at American poverty, and Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, an indictment of a self-absorbed culture, also won unforeseen acclaim. We embrace our Cassandras. Socrates criticized Athenian democracy and was forced to sip the hemlock; Allan Bloom charges America with mindlessness and becomes a millionaire.

But our society’s admirable habit of rewarding its severest critics does not explain the Bloom phenomenon completely. By raising fundamental questions about the very basis of modern education, Allan Bloom has started a war of ideas within the intellectual community. After an initially warm reception by most reviewers and continued endorsement by conservative thinkers, Bloom’s work came under heavy fire. “A most enticing, a most subtle, a most learned, a most dangerous tract,” Benjamin Barber wrote in Harper’s, “one of the most profoundly anti-democratic books ever written for a popular audience.” The book was scorched by the reviewer David Rieff in The Times Literary Supplement as one “decent people would be ashamed of having written.”

The usual tempest-in-a-teapot nature of academic fights has taken on larger dimensions with the battle passing over into the political arena. On the left, Jesse Jackson joined demonstrators at Stanford University last year protesting the traditional required Western Culture course. They demanded and got a broadening of the reading list to include works of “women, minorities, and persons of color.” Calling this event another example of the “closing of the American mind"— because it appears to replace a concern for classic standards and values with a narrower focus on current problems—the former Secretary of Education William Bennett has mounted the ramparts on the right alongside Bloom, warning of a “nation at risk” because of mediocre schools and exhorting colleges to “reclaim a legacy” of humanistic learning.


We are, in short, witnessing another round in the war between the ancients and moderns first described by Jonathan Swift in his mock-heroic satire of 1697, “The Battle of the Books.” In that struggle set in the royal library, the modern volumes envied the ancient volumes’ privileged position on Mount Parnassus. The ancients’ refusal to come down provoked the moderns to attack. But where the classic authors commanded the heights in Swift’s day, in ours the battle lines have reversed. Science and the apparently limitless march of knowledge overshadow older axioms and make uncertain the very notion of absolute, “classic” truth. The Closing of the American Mind, then, represents something of a rearguard action on behalf of traditional authorities.

But Bloom is not the first to lead an American counterattack against modernist philosophy. His diagnosis of America’s ills (educational shallowness) and his prescriptions for its cure (diligent study of Plato et al.) continue a line of argument developed by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler more than half a century ago. By the same token, the sparks Bloom’s book struck rekindle memories of the reception given their Great Books seminars in the thirties and the publication of the Great Books of the Western World in 1952.

The story of the Great Books—the most ambitious championing of the classics in American history—has several facets. It is an account of our national genius for marketing culture. It is another example of our penchant for self-development. But above all, it is about the search for a proper democratic education and raises the question, Have we of the twentieth century anything to learn from works of the past?

Through the nineteenth century that was a question cultured people would hardly have considered asking. The speeches and letters of the public figures of that century reveal an impressive familiarity with the classics of Western civilization. These were considered the repository of wisdom and culture, and an educated person—by definition—knew them well. But as the old-time classical curriculum of the colleges gave way to the more utilitarian-minded elective system of the new universities, the voices of Plato, Tacitus, Euclid, and even Shakespeare began to wane. Undergraduates sought “useful” learning that prepared one for “real life.” By the 1920s the fragmented curriculum prevailed at many colleges and universities. The Great Books movement began as a counter-revolution to these changes in higher education.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Adler’s Syntopicon sprang from the central philosophical belief that there has been through the millennia of Western culture an ongoing discussion of the primary issues that face all humanity. This “Great Conversation,” the title of Hutchins’s introductory volume to the GBWW, “began in the dawn of history and … continues to the present day.” No other civilization, claimed Hutchins, has had the sort of on-going dialogue concerning truth, beauty, justice, and other cherished values that Western civilization has. “Imagine the greatest minds of all times gathered around a table,” a GBWW sales brochure proposed, “Homer, Plato and Aristotle … and on through the ages to Shakespeare, Gibbon, Darwin, and Freud.”

But producing this “Baedeker to 30 centuries of Western thought,” as Time called it, proved to be a task of far greater magnitude than Adler expected. He won approval from Benton and the Britannica officers in 1943 for a sixty-thousand-dollar budget over a two-year span.

Ultimately the project consumed two million dollars and took eight years. Deciding on the essential ideas of Western thought took two years in itself. These were finally reduced to 102, with further subheadings for all of them. At that point the staff of more than thirty, consisting largely of University of Chicago and St. John’s students (including an aspiring writer named Saul Bellow), pored through 443 works, compiling references to each idea. Before personal computers this meant thousands of index cards laboriously handwritten and then typed by a large secretarial pool.

The entire project very nearly stopped dead in the water. Financial constraints at Encyclopaedia Britannica forced a drastic trimming of the indexing staff for the last two years. Then, as the fifty-four-volume set was finally ready for printing, Britannica decided it could not afford the cost. In desperation Hutchins and Adler appealed to a thousand wealthy individuals to become patrons of the GBWW by purchasing a special founders’ edition of the set for five hundred dollars each. Gentle arm twisting and appeals to join the ranks of Alexander the Great and the Earl of Shaftesbury as patrons of learning had their effect. The needed five hundred sets were sold, and in 1952 the Great Books of the Western World, with its thirty-two thousand pages and more than twenty-five million words, came off the press.

Presentation of the founders’ sets came at a gala dinner in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in April of that year. The patrons, including Alfred Vanderbilt, Nelson and David Rockefeller, Conrad Hilton, John Mott, and Father Theodore Hesburgh, heard eloquent testimonials to the cultural promise of the Great Books. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain commended the “pioneering spirit of America” for seeking to restore to its rightful honor the “notion of tradition.” Hutchins advised that “the fate of our country, and hence of the world, depends on the degree to which the American people achieve liberal education.” The GBWW represented the “placing in the hands of the American people the means of continuing and revitalizing Western civilization....”

For Adler, Hutchins, and their fellow believers, the greatest danger facing America was not international communism but a seriously eroded commitment to the ideal of a liberally educated citizenry. America’s position of leadership in the free world—a responsibility acutely felt and endlessly discussed during the early Cold War years—required our attention to such ageless questions as “What is the good life?” “What is a good state?” “Is there a God?” “What is the nature and destiny of man?” Individuals reflecting on such quesstions were not simply furthering their own education but also building up a store of national wisdom sufficient for any challenge the country might face. Britannica organized a community acquisition plan, persuading wealthy individuals to make sets available to local schools and libraries. The “great conversation,” limited to a few in Periclean Athens, would become in America a broadly based democratic exchange of ideas.


The GBWW’s long-awaited appearance stirred much comment. Most reviewers were sympathetic to the goal of adult liberal education and to the effort involved in producing the set. Jacques Barzun hailed the Syntopicon as a “stupendous achievement.” The distinguished British philosopher C. E. M. Joad introduced a Saturday Review symposium on the GBWW with an endorsement of the humanistic faith with which Hutchins had infused the project. Inevitably scholars quibbled over authors in their areas of expertise who were missing. Barzun was disappointed by the relatively small quantity of imaginative literature, which in his mind betrayed a “high-minded axe-grinding in the direction of intellectualism.” Scientific selections evoked many puzzled responses. The historian of science I. Bernard Cohen thought the science collection only of “archeological value.” In such a dynamic field, he asked, how could the editors believe that Galen and Hippocrates remain standard scientific texts?

While Great Books supporters—the ancients—insisted on the classics’ continuing vitality in providing the answers to contemporary American dilemmas, the moderns just as firmly denied this. Many of John Dewey’s followers saw the GBWW as simply the culminating product of the wrongheaded careers of Hutchins and Adler. The search for eternal truths embedded in a set of great books offended America’s strong pragmatist tradition, which emphasized progressive, changing truth. The philosopher Richard Rorty’s recent critique of Bloom continues the pragmatists’ dispute with Hutchins: “Deweyans cannot see why knowledge should be thought of as a unity (rather than, say, as a bag of tools). The university as flea market … is fine with us.”

Another line of attack was aimed at a troubling corruption of high culture believed implicit in the GBWW. Dwight Macdonald scored some damaging hits against the project in a New Yorker article, “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club.” Besides questioning the assumption that the average reader can appreciate Aquinas’s disquisition on “Whether an Inferior Angel Speaks to a Superior Angel?” or other passages of esoterica without some introductory notes, Macdonald went on to indict what he saw as the raison d’être of the set: the Syntopicon. Adler’s obsession with classifying the great ideas and seeing them as part of a seamless transmillennial conversation tended to universalize the diverse phenomena of life. To believe, as Adler apparently did, that ideas, like words in a dictionary, can be reduced to a row of “definite, concrete, distinguishable entities” is mistaken. “An idea,” Macdonald countered, “is a misty, vague object that takes on protean shapes, never the same for any two people.”

Even worse, in Macdonald’s eyes, was the blighting technique of Madison Avenue in hawking Western civilization’s greatest intellectual treasures. Macdonald could not have known about—but would not have been surprised at—William Benton’s suggestion (deflected by Adler) that “Adultery” rather than “Angel” would be a better eye-catcher to open the Syntopicon. Macdonald did note that after sales of the GBWW lagged in the early years, Britannica brought on its supersalesman Kenneth M. Hardin to direct marketing. Hardin’s decision to go after the mass market, “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,” quadrupled sales. In 1961 more than fifty thousand sets were sold, and GBWW salesmen were living well. But this could be done only through a hard-sell approach, emphasizing, as Macdonald wrote, “Respect for Culture, Keeping up with the Adler-Joneses, and, above all, the Obligation to the Children, who would be forever disadvantaged if their parents failed to Act Now on this Opportunity for a mere $10 down, $10 a month....”

Many parents did act. But did their purchase herald a new age of philosophic wisdom in America?

For Allan Bloom the early promise of the Great Books program was not fulfilled. It was thwarted by what he sees as the philosophic poverty of our universities today. His accusations have aroused even more vitriolic comment than Hutchins or Adler ever knew. Perhaps part of the antagonism stems from the provocative tone Bloom delights in employing. What was once said of Robert Hutchins applies equally well to him: “His way of saying things is so annoying that good men cannot keep their minds on what he is saying.”

But some did listen carefully to Hutchins and were disturbed by what they thought they heard. In the 1930s John Dewey detected a nascent authoritarianism in the Hutchins program. Similar charges are lodged today against Bloom and his governmental counterpart, William Bennett. Why should a diverse student body be subject to a single curriculum? Isn’t this sort of rigorous classical education intrinsically elitist? Who is to determine the “truth” that students will be given? And isn’t the pursuit of social justice, after all, more important than a quest for a holy grail of truth? These criticisms, laden with political and ideological implications, have in the eyes of some tainted the entire Great Books program as being simply an adjunct to a New Right agenda.

Nevertheless, for an American public searching for some moorings of belief in an unsettled world, Allan Bloom seems to have his finger on something important. In the pendulum swings of American culture we are clearly on the return arc from the experimentalism and tradition bashing of the sixties. Political conservatism inspires a similar mood in education. Where Hutchins and Adler appealed to a fear that free world leadership required more wisdom than our colleges were giving, Bloom speaks to a society anxious lest its international competitiveness become compromised by inferior schooling. Just as Hutchins’s Chicago reforms reacted against the dominance of progressive educational theories, so Bennett and others are responding to the liberalized curriculum of the sixties and seventies. It is not surprising that the past few years have seen a raft of studies—E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Cultural Literacy, Diane Ravitch and Chester R. Finn’s What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, and William Bennett’s report “To Reclaim a Legacy” the most prominent of them—bewailing an educational system in disrepair.


Though the battle of the Great Books has increasingly been waged with political cudgels, there is nothing intrinsic to the study of the classics tending toward a particular political persuasion. Bennett is, of course, strongly identified with the Reagan administration, and Bloom is known as a scourge of the academic left. Yet Hutchins was a New Deal Democrat, whose career after Chicago centered on liberal causes fought from institutions (the Fund for the Republic and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions) that to conservatives epitomized dangerous left-wing politics.

In truth, the Great Books are both profoundly conservative and perilously radical: conservative because they assume there is a repository of wisdom containing abiding truths; radical because engagement with them can upend unexamined assumptions and arm one with whetted knives of critical thought. A Great Books education, as William Bennett attested from experience, can “shake you up a little, get you breathing, quicken your senses and animate a conscious examination of life’s enduring questions.”

This may be a laudable goal, but it is a view of education normally alien to a culture steeped in utilitarian values. Americans avoid philosophic speculation, Tocqueville noted, and use tradition only as a source of useful information in their perpetual quest for better ways of doing things. Bloom, frustrated by this characteristically American disdain for the life of reflection, has nevertheless found the country in agreement with him as it undergoes one of its periodic moods of guilt over alleged cultural philistinism. The rush to buy The Closing of the American Mind, the renewed sales vigor of the Great Books of the Western World, and the increasing numbers enrolled in adult and junior Great Books programs testify to a new affirmation that"ideas do matter.”

“Where would Emerson find his scholar now?” Alfred Kazin asked in these pages recently. In Allan Bloom and his call for a return to Socratic wisdom? Probably not. Emerson, who more than any thinker defined the place of ideas in America, desired a “philosophy of insight and not of tradition.” He urged every age to write its own books and warned that reverential study of great books might produce only great bookworms. Still, Bloom shares with Emerson the passionate belief that books “are for nothing but to inspire.” The Great Ideas are not ends in themselves or objects to be possessed, but guides for identifying and achieving the good life.

Yet certain points of agreement do not augur any final truce in America’s battle of the books. Our culture is split between what Emerson called “the party of the Past” and “the party of the Future,” the former upholding tradition and its wisdom, the latter looking ahead to greater days and new ideas. The party of the Future maintains the loyalty of most Americans at most times. That is why the ancients must struggle just to hold their ground. Yet we will not call for their surrender. For as our nation sails swiftly into an uncharted future, we will always throw wistful glances at our past, the only compass that can give us our heading.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.