I have, in the course of collecting books about books, amassed several books about the “Great Books,” those texts that are said to form the basis of Western civilization. I also grew up with a set of the Great Books that sat, decoratively, on shelf after shelf, in country after country. In part, my curiosity about the history of great books as texts and as a programme of study, stems from my curiosity about why my mother, who was ruthless about leaving possessions behind, held on to and shipped these books around the world with her (New York, Liberia, Nigeria, Haiti, England, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Canada).
Here is a rough and spare chronology of the great books in the twentieth century.
1919 Professor John Erskine teaches a course based on the Great Books at Columbia. The course, General Honors, is designed to counter what he saw as the increasing specialization of post-secondary education and to offer, instead, a broad liberal arts curriculum. (The courses survive today at Columbia as the Core Curriculum.) This ignites debate about the value of cross-disciplinary study.
1923 Mortimer Adler and Mark Van Doren begin teaching General Honors at Columbia.
1926 Adler and Clifton Fadiman (father of Anne Fadiman) take the Columbia General Honours course to the public and offer free classes at churches, YMCAs and houses.
1930 Robert Hutchins, the newly appointed president of the University of Chicago, is instrumental in getting Adler a position at the Faculty of Law. They go on to create the Great Books of the Western World programme, designed to promote liberal arts education for the general public, and The Great Books Foundation.
1940 publication of How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler (a later edition with Charles Van Doren, of quiz show infamy)
1952 The University of Chicago and Encyclopedia Britannica launch The Great Books of the Western World: 54 volumes, 443 works, by 74 dead white males. Sales are slow.
1960 Clifton Fadiman publishes The Lifetime Reading Plan, his version of a guide to the Great Books. Subsequent editions in 1976, 1986 and 1998. His list of greats includes women and non-Europeans.
1961 50,000 sets of The Great Books are sold when the marketing is done by door-to-door encylopedia salesmen. (This kind of marketing Hutchins had originally opposed.)
1970s Great Books fall out of vogue both in the public eye and on university campuses. The Civil Rights and Women’s Movements broaden the university curriculum. “The canon” comes under fire.
1987 Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind is published. Bloom reiterates the concerns of Erskine’s cohort: too much specialization in education, the Great Books have been devalued as a source of wisdom. The book is considered the first shot in the culture wars.
1990 Second edition of The Great Books of the Western World. Includes women. And Hispanics and African Americans. Still in print.
1990s Interdisciplinarity a buzzword in academia again.
2000s Mini-boom in publication of books about the Great Books.