Great Books Foundation Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Creation of the Great Books Foundation brought to fruition the lifelong goal of a number of academicians that the Western canon be made readily available to anyone with a desire to learn.

Summary of Event

In July, 1947, the Great Books Foundation, under the chairmanship of Robert M. Hutchins, opened its offices in Chicago. Its purpose was to expand the great books course beyond the University of Chicago, bringing to all of the United States the knowledge of the books then deemed to compose the Western canon. These books ranged from the Bible and Homer’s epics through the works of Aristotle, Dante, William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, and Fyodor Dostoevski. For John Erskine of Columbia College Columbia College General Honors course , a “great book” was simply “one that has meaning, and continues to have meaning, for a variety of people over a long period of time.” The establishment of the foundation and the expansion of its programs represented a giant step forward in adult education in the United States. In a sense, however, the creation of the foundation was merely a new phase in a thirty-year-long dream. [kw]Great Books Foundation Is Established (July, 1947) [kw]Books Foundation Is Established, Great (July, 1947) [kw]Foundation Is Established, Great Books (July, 1947) Great Books Foundation Canon, Western Great Books Foundation Canon, Western [g]North America;July, 1947: Great Books Foundation Is Established[02090] [g]United States;July, 1947: Great Books Foundation Is Established[02090] [c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;July, 1947: Great Books Foundation Is Established[02090] [c]Organizations and institutions;July, 1947: Great Books Foundation Is Established[02090] [c]Education;July, 1947: Great Books Foundation Is Established[02090] Hutchins, Robert M. Erskine, John Adler, Mortimer J.

As early as 1917, a small but influential group of college professors, led by Erskine, expressed concern about the nature and quality of liberal-arts education in the United States. Erskine believed that, in order for all people to have common ground for intellectual discussions, every person should be exposed to the Western canon. Erskine was a professor of English literature with no background in Greek and Latin literature, theology, or political philosophy. Nevertheless, he proposed to teach a curriculum of approximately sixty books in those areas of study, as well as English literature, to be read and discussed at the rate of one per week over two academic years. The General Honors course, as it was originally called, was offered to Columbia juniors in 1921, and it differed dramatically from any course of study previously offered at an American university.

The course was to be taught, or more appropriately, led, by professors who were not necessarily experts in the fields covered by the books. The books were to be read in chronological order, in English rather than in their original languages. The intense course of study—each book would be discussed at one two-hour class meeting per week—left little room for in-depth examination of the material. No written test was given; grades were based upon participation in the discussion group and an oral examination.

Erskine had tried out his idea while serving with the United States Army in France and Germany after World War I. He had led discussion groups of ordinary American soldiers, many of whom had no formal education beyond grade school, and he determined that one could appreciate and benefit from reading the “classic” books without any background in or intense study of the material. Upon returning to Columbia, Erskine convinced the college to adopt the General Honors course.

For Erskine and his students, it was not only the material that was being studied but the manner in which it was studied that was important. The noted philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, who studied under Erskine in the first General Honors course from 1921 to 1923, later became a leading advocate of the great books program. For him, the experience of studying the great books under Erskine was perhaps the most fortunate circumstance of his life. Adler said that the discussion groups were “conducted in the manner of highly civil conversations about important themes and in a spirit of inquiry.” In 1923, when new sections of General Honors were formed, they had two instructors per class, each from a different department of the school, who could supplement each other’s knowledge in some subject areas. This discussion method, utilizing two discussion leaders with different backgrounds, was retained by the Great Books Foundation.

Adler remained at Columbia as a graduate student and instructor, and, at the age of twenty-one, he himself led a General Honors section. Several years later, he met Robert Hutchins, who was at the time the dean of the Yale University Law School. Adler moved to Yale, where he and Hutchins worked together on several projects relating to legal philosophy. Adler’s enthusiasm for the great books curriculum was contagious, and Hutchins was soon convinced of the importance of the course. When Hutchins was named president of the University of Chicago in 1929, at the age of thirty, he invited Adler to join him and to implement the great books curriculum at that school.

Hutchins created a stir at Chicago when he himself began teaching the great books curriculum to college freshmen. He did it, he said, because Adler had convinced him that his education was lacking and because he would learn twice: first by reading the books and then by leading discussions of them. More important, he saw the great books program in a larger context, as the fount of Western democratic ideals. The curriculum, in a somewhat different form from that used at Columbia, soon became required for all University of Chicago undergraduate students. The curriculum was also adopted by Amherst College in Massachusetts and by St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.

Hutchins and Adler took the great books curriculum two steps further, ultimately completing the process that Erskine had begun thirty years before. First, in 1933, they began leading great books discussions with students at University High School, which was affiliated with the University of Chicago. Perhaps never before had the president of such a prestigious institution found himself teaching high school students—and learning so much from and with them.

Second and more important, the university, with the cooperation of the Chicago Public Library, began offering the great books reading and discussion program to working adults through extension courses in the Chicago area. They trained discussion leaders for more than thirty groups. Although adult-education programs had existed for some time, this was probably the first that was not vocational, recreational, or part of a high school equivalency program. One group, which was moderated by Hutchins and Adler themselves, came to be known as the “Fat Man’s Class” because of the affluence of the participants, who were among the business and industrial elite of the city.

Hutchins’s next goal was to expand the great books program beyond Chicago. By 1946, there were more than five thousand participants throughout the United States. The project by then had clearly outgrown its home at the University of Chicago, which was not equipped to operate such a large-scale adult education program in addition to educating its enrolled student population. Hutchins therefore approached Walter Paepcke Paepcke, Walter , a member of the “Fat Man’s Class,” to assist in creating a foundation that could more properly run and expand the great books courses. By July, 1947, the Great Books Foundation, with the assistance of the Old Dominion Foundation and the Ford Foundation’s Fund for Adult Education, was up and running.

Besides establishing and operating adult great books discussion groups, including the training of discussion-group leaders, the foundation had a second goal: to make inexpensive, uniform editions of the books available to all group participants. Fortunately, Hutchins and the University of Chicago had a ready and willing partner, the Encyclopaedia Britannica Encyclopaedia Britannica . In 1943, William Benton Benton, William , a longtime friend of Hutchins and also a member of the “Fat Man’s Class,” became part owner of Britannica. After finding it extremely difficult to locate all the necessary great books in the book shops of Chicago, Benton proposed that Britannica publish the entire set of great books for use by participants. At the same time, Adler offered to compile a cross-reference of “great ideas,” an index of the great books, which he called a “Synopticon.” Hutchins served as general editor, and Erskine sat on the advisory board of editors. The project took more than eight years.

Over the years since its creation, the Great Books Foundation has seen an ebb and flow of participants, who have at times numbered fifty thousand. The program was also expanded to reach ever-younger students. High school great books groups, utilizing the same materials as the adults, were organized in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.


Although participants in programs sponsored by the Great Books Foundation are not as numerous as in the foundation’s heyday, the great books idea has had a substantial and continuing effect on American education, most notably at St. John’s College, whose entire four-year curriculum is based upon the great books model. More people than ever before have read the books considered by Hutchins, Erskine, and Adler to be important to American education. Many are read and discussed in adult-education programs unrelated to the foundation, as well as in elementary and high schools. One may find the ideas of the great books in speeches of politicians, editorial pages, and popular books. Thus, the “Great Conversation,” as Hutchins called the continuing exchange of important ideas, continues unabated.

The idea of the Western canon at the heart of the Great Books Foundation is one that has changed repeatedly over the centuries. At one time, “great books” was believed to describe only the classics (that is, Latin and Greek literature of the ancient world). Anything written in English was second-rate, and reading such works took time and energy away from the only works that mattered. Later, English and other modern European works came to be valued alongside the classics, as writers such as William Shakespeare, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and others achieved prominence. It was at this point that the canon stood at the time the Great Books Foundation was created.

Ironically, however, at just that moment in history, another canonical shake-up was brewing: Some members of the American academy believed that American authors such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe should be incorporated in the canon. Up until the twentieth century, American literature was believed to be secondary in importance to European literature and philosophy and not properly part of the canon. In the wake of the two world wars, however, a rise in American patriotism led to the creation of a properly American canon that would help define American identity and values. These books, too, became incorporated into the ever-changing notion of “great books.”

Throughout these modifications in the canon, however, it was largely agreed that there should, in fact, be a canon. That is, it was agreed that all members of a given society should read the same books in order to provide them with a common vocabulary and background for discussing the issues most important to their society. This notion was seriously challenged for the first time in the 1980’s and 1990’s, as the very notion that one set of books should be institutionally privileged over all the rest came into question. The debate continues between those who seek to include alternative voices (such as those of people of color and women) in the canon, those who seek to preserve the canon from such “degradation,” and those who believe that canonicity itself should be questioned rather than taken for granted. The Great Books Foundation remains at the center of these discussions as they apply to the world beyond the academy. Great Books Foundation Canon, Western

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adler, Mortimer J. How to Think About the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization. Edited by Max Weismann. Chicago: Open Court, 2000. Adler’s statement of the value of great books to understand the “great ideas” of Western culture. Sees such ideas as separable from the language in which they were originally expressed. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Philosopher at Large: An Intellectual Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1977. Adler’s personal story of intellectual growth, the development of ideas, rather than a recitation of events. Includes a description of the problems of indexing The Great Books of the Western World. Contains a complete bibliography of Adler’s works through 1976, as well as Erskine’s and the Great Books Foundation’s original lists of authors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ashmore, Harry S. Unseasonable Truths: The Life of Robert Maynard Hutchins. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. A lengthy biography by a close colleague. Details Hutchins’s struggle to implement the great books program at the University of Chicago as well as his work with Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Great Books Foundation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Erskine, John. My Life as a Teacher. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1948. The autobiography of the professor who originally conceived the great books program. Published shortly after the establishment of the Great Books Foundation, it predates publication of The Great Books of the Western World. A chapter is devoted to the development of the Columbia great books program.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitzpatrick, Edward Augustus. Great Books: Panacea or What? Milwaukee: Bruce, 1952. Fitzpatrick defends the great books concept in detail. In one chapter, he coyly parodies Socratic dialogue to illustrate his point. Good for the ardent fan of the great books philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hutchins, Robert M. Great Books: The Foundation of a Liberal Education. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954. Lays out the philosophy behind the great books program and its importance to general education. Hardly dated, Hutchins seems prescient in his discussion of the influences and misuses of electronic mass media.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morrissey, Lee, ed. Debating the Canon: A Reader from Addison to Nafisi. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Compilation of the most important essays on literary canons and canonicity written between 1709 and 2003. Includes work by David Hume, T. S. Eliot, Harold Bloom, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., among others. Bibliographic references and index.

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