The Best That Has Been Thought and Said

goldis mortimer adler The Best That Has Been Thought and SaidA Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books
By Alex Beam
PublicAffairs, 320 pages, $24.95

In the midst of the Roaring Twenties, hundreds of New York City’s poorest pulled up seats at free seminars every week to discuss Descartes and Shakespeare. At these gatherings, one of their teachers, Clifton Fadiman, reported, “the truck driver grew less arrogant, the immigrant less humble.” One time the discussion was, according to the philosopher Mortimer Adler, “as good as my Columbia groups.”

This was the dawn of the Great Books movement, a 20th-century phenomenon based on the earnest discussion of Western classics. Today the Great Books program survives as a hobby (mostly for old people); a camaraderie-inducing required curriculum at Columbia; and a hot-button issue for the culture war’s geekier foot soldiers.

Alex Beam, a decorated Boston Globe columnist, investigates the Great Books movement in A Great Idea at the Time. At its commercial peak it was “intellectual hucksterism,” he finds—but the offbeat (geriatric), highly structured Great Books reading groups of today are still amusing, and of course occasionally exasperating. This good-natured, meandering cultural history has the characters and plot twists of a novel, but occasionally all the talk about Great Ideas makes the reader crave more penetrating analysis.

Mr. Beam introduces us to Robert Hutchins, who spent his life trying to transcend a religious upbringing—“These were not serious gatherings,” was his childhood observation of church services. Mortimer Adler was trying to get famous: He was “impossible,” Mr. Beam writes, “but he was not boring, and Robert Hutchins liked that.”

Once he became president of the University of Chicago, Hutchins imported the curriculum and Adler from New York. As a fund-raising venture, Chicago began teaching the course to area businessmen in 1943. The idea trickled down: By 1946, there were 3,000 Great Books reading groups across the country, most of them in the Midwest.

A few years later, the university published the Great Books in a uniform edition. The “balls-out marketing push” was based on “snob appeal”—and the sales practices brought down Federal Trade Commission charges, twice.

 

REPORTING IS MR. BEAM’S strong suit, along with his effortlessly unpretentious writing style. But his account is bursting with questions he doesn’t touch. At one point he explodes that there is “plenty to learn from outside the book” (Great Books programs withhold history, biography, etc. from the student), but he lets slide the theoretical issue of context.

The Great Books are taught by the Socratic method, meaning that teachers ask students pointed questions, which usually makes for a lively, aggressive classroom. One early student complained that the method “taught you most about bullying back.” Is melodrama useful to learning about texts? Does learning the texts even matter, or is clever analysis really the point? If not, why the fetishistic care in selecting the books? Mr. Beam isn’t saying.

His historical analysis also flags, and he resorts to block-quoting inapt scholars. For example, to explain why Great Books lost popularity, he imports the argument that today’s Americans are less patient than their grandparents due to the pernicious influence of television. But earlier he insinuates that no one actually ever read their 54-volume Great Books sets—they were furniture.

On the whole, though, A Great Idea at the Time is a good read because it’s exactly what Alex Beam wanted it to be: “A book as different from the ponderous and forbidding Great Books as it could possibly be.”

Glenna Goldis is an editorial intern at The Observer. She can be reached at books@observer.com.