- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009


By Alex Beam

Public Affairs, $24.95, 245 pages


Once upon a time, the typical college humanities program had an identifiable linear structure that didn’t much differ from one in the natural sciences. The teacher in an advanced course had a good idea of what you already knew that could be used in addressing the next new assigned work. Eventually, you had to have attained some familiarity with what were called “the major works” by the major authors. Along with shared familiarity, there were shared values. It was assumed that the teacher and the students could jointly distinguish a great work from a not-so-great work. It didn’t matter that a great work might also be a work that was difficult to understand owing either to the complexity of its meanings or the remoteness of its historical moment from that of the student.

Coping with a difficult work was interesting, pleasurable and good for your self-esteem. Your confidence didn’t need to be — and usually wasn’t — enhanced by the teacher in some other way, such as by having the latter very concerned to assign only works that one could be reasonably sure that the students would like and could easily “relate” to. By extension, the agreed-upon values of these great works supported your sense of the value of the courses where they were being considered and discussed. Population in English courses swelled. So did the number of literary books that were bought and sold, even if they were difficult. The love of literature was abroad in the land.

In “A Great Idea at the Time,” Alex Beam illuminates the history of that time …with special emphasis on the so-called Great Books movement in America that took its first tentative steps in the early 1920s and then held sway from about 1940 until the late-1960s Vietnam War era when anti-authoritarian fervor, as exemplified by campus riots at Columbia, Berkeley and Harvard, decisively changed things.

With a good deal of humor and gusto, Mr. Beam shows how this movement was colored by the merely human character traits of such persons as Mortimer Adler of Columbia and Robert Maynard Hutchins of Yale and the latter’s Yale classmate, the publishing huckster and one-time senator from Connecticut, William Benton.

The idea of a so-called “core curriculum” or set of required courses in the humanities spread from Columbia where Adler was first teaching in the mid-1920s to the University of Chicago, beginning in 1929 when the young, handsome and brilliant Hutchins became its innovative president. Eventually other universities including Yale and Harvard concurred that there was a body of humanistic thought and awareness contained in Western civilization that every well-educated person should know before going out into the real world … and they made changes in their own course programs accordingly.

In the late 1930s, St. John’s College was founded in Annapolis by associates of Adler and Hutchins as a place where the core curriculum could be the whole curriculum … for all four years of a student’s sojourn. It happily survives to this day. In accordance with the belief that the Great Books could help us to lead better lives, programs were also set up to serve segments of the general public outside the colleges; and some of these happily survive as well.

The movement always had its critics within the academic community. Professors in foreign literature departments - insisted that a work should always be read in its original language, not an option for most students when the goal is gaining a general understanding of the most influential works in the whole of Western civilization. Scientists and historians of science advised against the inclusion of texts by past scientists like Galileo and Newton on the, to me, debatable ground that their ideas, unlike those of literary artists, were rendered obsolete by later developments in the sciences.

Then, there came to be more and more objections that so many of the chosen authors were old white males. The focus solely on the West also began to be questioned.

The movement overreached itself in the early 1950s with the publication by the University of Chicago of a 54-volume set of the Great Books in a not very readable two-column small-print form combined with something called the Syntopicon, consisting of “the” 102 great ideas of the Western world that had been culled by Adler from Chicago’s version of the Great Books themselves. Mr. Beam is very amusing on the quite unidealistic - not to say, illegal - methods of salesmanship that made this strange publishing venture profitable to the University of Chicago for a number of years.

Since 1970, the academic focus has shifted from authors and their times to identities, in terms, for example, of ethnicity and sexuality … with special reference to the experiences of marginalized persons. The focus has also shifted from the past to the present. To illustrate the change, Mr. Beam quotes a jargon-filled declaration by the postmodernist Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick that virtually “any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate an analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition.”

The view has turned inward, moving from authors and their works as set forth on the page to the responses of readers, each sequestered in his or her identity and context. As a result, today’s students know a lot about what they think and like - or at least what they think they think and like - than about what the writers mean to say. This contraction of range is owing partly to the great variety of courses that are now offered and the absence of principles for bringing them into coherence in the service of a common, agreed-upon goal.

As a result, not much is carried forward when a student moves from course to course. The major texts could almost be counted on to teach themselves, since in the course of the history of literature and of ideas, each succeeding generation of writers and thinkers took the works of its predecessors into account. The authors didn’t write in isolation from each other. The works all fit together. The idea that there are Great Books is not the mere invention of any particular person or group of persons living in any particular time period.

The Great Books movement that Mr. Beam is discussing came into existence partly to correct a chronic difficulty in American education where both teachers and students have been generally less well-informed in the humanities and in history than in the sciences. In a way, the wheel has come full circle and now we are faced with the same old problem, but as Mr. Beam shows, the belief that inspired so many teachers and students in the humanities a generation or two ago is still espoused if less loudly and with more circumspection. Both Chicago and Columbia still require such courses; and they seem to be modestly on the increase elsewhere both within and beyond the colleges. Given the erratic history of American education, you can never be sure what will come next. Let’s hope for the best.

• Robert Ganz is a professor of English at George Washington University. His e-mail address is [email protected] earthlink.net


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