The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 16, 2018

The Not-So-Great Books
Daniel J. Flynn - 04/20/09
pile of books

From every page of A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, author Alex Beam whispers: put down the Aristotle and pick up the remote. Stop reading that Dostoevsky text and start responding 2 a txt. There is a Dog the Bounty Hunter to watch, internet porn to surf, Grand Theft Auto IV to play. Conform.

The Great Books movement, spearheaded by autodidact Mortimer Adler, University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins, and Encyclopedia Britannica publisher William Benton, represented “everything that was wrong, unchic, and middlebrow about middle America,” according to Beam. A confirmed participant in middlebrow culture as a Boston Globe columnist, Beam is the latest bourgeois to attack the bourgeoisie for not knowing their place. The fighter pilot buried with a copy of Adler’s How to Read a Book, the motorcycling high-school dropout transformed into Adler’s St. Paul, and the Utah plumber turned onto the Great Books through Adler’s television appearances all feel the brunt of Beam’s passive-aggressive writing style of oblique put-downs, spotlighted quirks, and condescending prose.

More direct is Beam’s contempt for the trio behind the Great Books. Hutchins becomes academia’s “boy wonder,” Adler his “Hobbit-like sidekick,” and Benton the “hustler extraordinaire” who peddled their 54-volume Great Books of the Western World. If you missed the snake-oil salesman characterization, then Beam reminds you on pages 5, 13, 75, and 197 that “hucksters” pushed the project—and that Beam needs a thesaurus. The trio’s crimes include successfully marketing 1 million editions of the Great Books of the Western World (full of Aristotle and Aquinas, Newton and Einstein) to Middle America.

Count one on Beam’s indictment stems from the Great Books Movement’s raison d’etre, which, in the words of Hutchins’s guiding mantra, was “the best education for the best is the best education for all.” In Beam’s eyes, there is something uncouth rather than uplifting about evangelizing great books through door-to-door sales, in book clubs run by retirees and suburban moms, at resort seminars, and in downtown continuing education classes aimed at businessmen. He divines dollar signs rather than vocation as the motivation for the campaign. Adler, a self-taught immigrant’s son, touted liberal arts education in an age of specialization. As a twentysomething instructor at Columbia University, Adler opened up the school’s Great Books-style honors curriculum to a general public more interested in an education than a piece of paper. That Adler offered the courses free of charge undermines Beam’s smear. Twenty years later, the Batman to Adler’s Robin, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins furthered the continuing education revolution by launching a UC annex in downtown Chicago aimed at Second City businessmen. Rather than a scheme to make a buck, a notion belied by Adler’s dependence on a book-a-minute publishing schedule and the enormous $60 million profits going to the non-profit University of Chicago, the Great Books were an extension of Adler and Hutchins’s life mission. As the title of Adler’s Great Books newsletter proclaimed, Philosophy Is Everybody’s Business. Beam counters that philosophy, for Hutchins, Adler, and Benton, was merely a business.

Beam’s snobbishness toward a movement spreading great books to mediocre minds strangely morphs into egalitarianism when he attacks the project’s contention that some books truly are great. Who’s to say Jane Austin over Danielle Steele, Aristotle over Deepak Chopra, Thomas Aquinas over Richard Dawkins? “America was becoming a land of consumers, and a land of choice. [Harvard President] Charles Eliot was very much in tune with the times,” writes Beam of academia’s trendsetter at the turn of the last century. In contrast, Hutchins, who launched a counterrevolution against Eliot’s free elective system, was very much not in tune with the times. This is the closest Beam comes to a point in his proudly pointless book. He views the Great Books movement, and the core curriculum associated with it, as a reaction to the Deweyite model of education, of which he sees Elliot as a proto-proponent and himself as a latter-day defender.

Just as Beam enlists a century late in the battle pitting the cafeteria curriculum against the core curriculum, he plays Hiroo Onoda to the 1990s campus culture wars over Western civilization, dead white males, and identity politics written to death in a cottage industry of conservative critiques. Scandalized to discover the Great Books of the Western World were not only written before his birth, but by authors who were—gasp—white, Beam repeatedly reminds readers of this find. “No blacks or Hispanics appeared on the list,” “the seventy-four writers, all deceased and primarily Caucasian males,” “the Western canon of predominantly dead white males,” and so on. Might Beam go into shock to discover the Orient’s Great Books were authored by Asians? Who, exactly, did the author think resided in the West over the last several millennia? The models in the United Colors of Benetton catalog? “The Great Books are not in fashion,” Beam taunts. “Harold and Allan Bloom not withstanding, the literary canon has broadened to encompass slave narratives and the utterances of Chief Joseph Seattle, among others.” For this we should be thankful?

Added to the Great Books’ offenses against multiculturalism, “There were no concessions to contemporary taste.” The books, then, are a slur upon our age and its diversity cult. Calling the kettle black, Beam complains that Hutchins “mocked (and of course, simplified) Dewey’s notion that education should conform to young people’s wants.” “All young Americans of a certain age now want to be cowboys,” he quotes Hutchins. “I doubt whether it would be useful for the schools to concentrate on cowpunching in its moral, social, political, scientific and intellectual contexts.” By ignoring last week’s New York Times bestseller list, the Great Books offends the man stuck in his age. It is anti-democratic elitism, Beam avers, for a small group of scholars to decide what books the masses ought to read without consulting modern tastes. But is it not anti-democratic to ignore, as the critics of the Great Books routinely do, the votes of Elizabethan England, Ancient Athens, and Medieval France? That a book is still read hundreds of years after its publication date, and in languages foreign to its author, is a clue that it just might be a great book. That it is prominently displayed near Barnes & Noble cash registers, or talked about at last year’s Modern Language Association panels, is not. Great books fuel a lasting conversation across millennia and cultures. Great books transcend the muck rather than descend into it.

A Great Idea at the Time sneers but doesn’t speak. “For a while, the Great Books were important enough to be made fun of,” Beam informs. His snarky indirectness always keeps open the plausible deniability that he’s really not saying what he seems to be saying. It is a writing style that’s all style, leaving a reader entertained but empty. There is a mood but not an argument. The cowardice in that should not to be overlooked: the latter can be refuted; the former cannot. It is the sucker punch from behind a football helmet.

A Great Idea at the Time is a silly book on a serious subject. A thoughtful critique of the Great Books movement could have been written. There are obvious drawbacks to education without the benefit of instruction. By applying the word “canon,” with its connotations to holy writings approved by a clerical body, the Great Books movement risks cultivating a cult that believes the subjective the sacred. The math and science books included have aged as well as the various popular books that contemporaneous critics thought merited inclusion. There are certainly great books outside of the Great Books just as there are certainly not-so-great books within. Might they have selected this text and not that one?

But such an investigation would require reading the actual texts, which would be quite a task in between newspaper columns on squash matches, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and headmasters addressing sex scandals at Milton Academy and Groton. And as his breezy broadside against the Great Books demonstrates, the provincial author is too preoccupied with what captivates his Boston neighbors today to enter into a discussion with dead white males from across the ocean.

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