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BLEG: Suggestions Wanted for Book Project

June 17, 2013

This week I’m picking up a long dormant writing project. This project covers the transnational history of the great books idea, but is subsumed in a larger focus on “the great books controversy.” My outline is below.

What do you think I should add? What am I missing? How can I make this better? – TL

Mechanics/Assumptions for my part:

1. 20,000 words total
• intro: 750 words
• c-1: 6,200 words
• c-2: 6,200 words
• c-3: 6,200 words
• conclusion: 750 words
2. General audience (esp. teachers), not heavy on scholarly analysis
3. Sources: secondary (mostly) and some archival

I (of V). Introduction (750 words)

Focus: Controversy must be part of the thesis.
Length: Very short, 2 pages or so, no theory
Tentative Argument: Today the great books are seen, particularly by Western educators and cultural critics, as a parochial phenomenon of the West. However, when the idea become more popular, or gained a higher profile, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the idea was to fight the parochialism of nationalism. Comte, Lubbock, Erskine, Adler, Hutchins, and Maritain used the great books idea to promote a particular strain, or strains, of cosmopolitanism. The notion of twentieth-century English-speaking promoters, through the 1970s at least, was to buttress a transnational Western liberalism evolving toward a more inclusive pluralism and tolerance. Although their book lists were not always inclusive, they used those lists for some good ends. Those same midcentury promoters, however, could not reconcile their means and ends with the change to pluralism known as multiculturalism. In addition some promoters, like Adler, ossified. His rigidity brought discredit to the great books idea as a viable means of education in a transnational cosmopolitan world. The great books are now, still I believe, a controversial node in education. In general, they are not seen as an appropriate means for educating youth into an increasingly globalized world. It is helpful, however, to review the goals and desires of the great books promoters, as well as their practical programs for bringing the great books idea to larger audiences. Along the way many barriers were encountered. Some were overcome, and others were not. The latter are useful for understanding the state of the great books idea today.

II. Pre-1900
(6200 words)

Figures: Comte, Arnold, Harrison, Lubbock, Richardson
Themes: Defining and obtaining a liberal education, parochialism, cosmopolitanism
Issues: How controversial? Show.
Topics: Comte’s library, Lubbock’s 100 best books, Mostly an English-speaking phenomenon,
Sources: Lacy, Richardson, Harrison, Lubbock, Carnochan, Curran, Rose, Harden, Moorhead, Guillory

III. 1900-1945 (6200 words)

Figures: John Erskine, Robert Hutchins, Mortimer J. Adler, U of C’s international visitors in 1930s/1940s,
Themes: Pluralism, Philosophy, criticism of middling culture (i.e. self-improvement, cultural compromises), cosmopolitanism
Issues: How controversial? Show.
Topics: People’s Institute, adult education, University of Chicago, How to Read a Book in translation
Sources: Moorhead, Adler, Lacy, Fisher, Hutchins, Nef, Moorhead, Beam, Levine

IV. Post-1945 (6200 words)

Figures: William Benton, Jacques Maritain, M.J. Adler, Robert Hutchins, Borgeses
Themes: Philosophy, Pluralism, Multiculturalism, Liberalism, Conservatism, Culture Wars, Religion, Cosmopolitanism
Issues: How controversial? Easy (in context of post-1970s Culture Wars)
Topics: Britannica, Great Books Foundation (English-speaking iterations, Canada/Australia), World Gov’t, U.N./UNESCO, Criticism of GBs from int’l basis—Macdonald, Frankfurt School, GBWW translations, Britannica’s east-west project
Sources: Adler, Thomas, Nef, Hutchins, Lacy, Beam, Levine, Moorhead, Guillory

V. Conclusion/Postscript (750 words)

– Super short, 2 pages
– Can great books be a legitimate part of any cosmopolitan ideal going forward? How? How still controversial?
– Edu: primary, secondary, college/U, adults
– Earl Shorris, Clemente Course beyond United States
– American University of Iraq
– GBF international


From → Uncategorized

  1. Paul permalink

    Don’t know if this would be of any help but what the hell. When I was at college back in ’72-’76 i attended Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. The Humanities Dept was considered a cutting edge liberal arts dept that specialized in interdisciplinary studies. The building that housed the dept was named after Robert Maynard Hutchins. I don’t know what influence Hutchins thinking may have had on how the curriculum was designed but it might be worth some investigation as to how his ideas may have been utilized. I think the school was constructed in the mid to late 60’s.
    As an aside, history, poli sci, sociology, economics none of these fell under the humanities dept title. Students became humanities majors and drew from the various liberal arts dept’s to build their particular major. That’s my muddled 40 yr old memory of it, maybe it’ll be of some help.


    • Paul: That’s a great anecdote. At that point Hutchins was in CA running his Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (founded w/Ford Foundation money). I think he first moved out there in the 1950s. Perhaps Hutchins got to know some folks at Sonoma State during that time?


  2. Greg Shubert permalink

    Would there be a place here for St. John’s College, whose New Program (1937- ) is an implementation of the Great Books idea in a college curriculum?


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