Marketing Western Civilization

Learning for Everyone

Not a profound essay, but an interesting bit of American popular history.  I knew that the Great Books movement started in the early twentieth century at Columbia and Chicago, but I never knew about its appeal outside of universities:

The Great Books craze began in the early 1940s in Chicago, expanding from Hutchins’s university to an evening seminar in the Loop for the city’s movers and shakers. It then caught on with other intellectually (or socially) hungry adults in the city and state — 5,000 by 1946 — and spread to Cleveland and other Midwestern cities. In 1947, Hutchins and Adler launched the Great Books Foundation, which, using low-cost paperbacks of the classics, spread the gospel outside the Midwest.

Four years later, Mr. Beam reports, there were 2,500 Great Books discussion groups, with roughly 25,000 members meeting “all over the country, in public libraries, in church basements, chamber of commerce offices, corporate conference rooms at IBM and Grumman Aircraft, in private homes, on army bases, and, yes, in prisons.” By 1961, when the marketing push for Britannica’s “Great Books of the Western World” was in high gear, about 47,000 Americans were enrolled in Great Books discussion groups.

Such a phenomenon fascinates me mainly because as someone who believes in intellectual development in churches, I couldn’t imagine assigning homework from the Bible to most Sunday school classes I’ve taught, much less getting a group together to read Aristotle.  I have been a part of a few groups, all church-related, that read novels and Christian books together (the sorts that fall somewhere between the Christian Inspiration section at Barnes and Noble and the theology catalog at Cambridge University Press, intellectually speaking), but in almost all of those cases the hectic paces of our lives devoured them.  I sometimes blame myself for lacking the leader’s personality that could sustain such a group, but I know full well that’s generally not my role in the world.

At any rate, since it is a WSJ piece, there is a brief stab at the modern university, and it goes something like this:

Given what has happened to the study of the humanities in the past two decades — with theory and politics playing a larger role and fewer people reading the traditional canon — it is hard not to feel a bit nostalgic for Great Books earnestness. In academe, there is only what might be regarded as a saving remnant: “Among major universities, only Columbia, where the whole idea began” — around the time of World War I, long before the mania erupted in Chicago — “still force-feeds a much-abbreviated version of the Great Books curriculum to its undergraduates,” Mr. Beam notes. “Tiny St. John’s College, created by disciples of Hutchins and Adler, still devotes all four years to teaching the Great Books, as Hutchins vainly hoped the University of Chicago would do.”

Molly Rothenberg, a student at St. John’s in Annapolis, Md., told Mr. Beam of comparing notes when she was a sophomore with a fellow graduate of the public high school in Cambridge, Mass. St. John’s sophomores study works by such authors as Aristotle, Tacitus and Shakespeare. Her friend was attending Bates College in Maine. “She told me they were studying Rhetoric,” Ms. Rothenberg said, “and they would be watching episodes of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and listening to Eminem. They were going to analyze it. I just laughed. What could I say?”

I have to admit that I share some of this snobbishness–I did pat myself on the back, knowing that of the roughly two hundred forty freshman comp students I’ve taught at UGA over the last three years, not one has escaped without some knowledge (even if it is the knowledge of stuff they should have read but didn’t) of Plato, Boethius, Job, Genesis, or the Psalms in modern translation.  A goodly number of my students, those who did both semesters of my “Apostle Paul Sequence,” have spent two long semesters learning to write while wrestling with some of the Adler list.  I know that some theorists would say that division between “Great Books” and other texts is crass Marxist superstructure, coded markers for social class.  Certainly there’s some merit to that critique, but I also know that while my students spend about twenty bucks to buy their copies of Plato and Boethius, the kids down the hall doing pop culture reviews paid sixty for their anthologies.  My curriculum might have encoded class markers, but theirs costs more at the bookstore.


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