Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Book Review: 'A Great Idea at the Time' by Alex Beam

12:00 AM CST on Sunday, December 21, 2008

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

From 1952 until the mid-1970s, some 1 million households bought sets of Britannica Great Books of the Western World, either through mail order or pushy door-to-door salesmen, "Britannica hucksters" promising "better living through reading."

The books, which cost hundreds of dollars, comprised 95 titles, starting with Homer's The Illiad and The Odyssey and ending with Freud. They represented 443 works by 74 authors totaling 32,000 pages of 9-point, double-column type.

Ranging from household names (Aristotle, Plato, Dante and Chaucer) to those known only to specialists (William Harvey and Christian Huygens), the books still decorate many a living room (both my parents and in-laws still have sets), where they sit unloved and unread in their homely brown bindings with a candy colored stripe on the spine coordinated to an academic discipline. And for a time during that same period, reading the classics became almost faddish.

According to Alex Beam's breezy new history of the Great Books, A Great Idea at the Time, we have a pair of ambitious academics to thank for igniting so many autodidactic aspirations: Robert Hutchins, who became dean of Yale Law School at age 29, and Mortimer Adler, an assistant professor at Columbia University at age 26. Both ended up at the University of Chicago, Hutchins as president, where they helped install a curriculum based entirely on the Great Books. The experiment lasted just four years but persisted far longer in the form of the core curriculum.

Acolytes went on to establish a similar curriculum at St. John's College, which maintains campuses in Santa Fe and Annapolis, and where all four years continue to be spent committed to the Great Books.

(Adler had less luck selling the Great Books in Dallas, though. In 1952, he met with H.L. Hunt in hopes of persuading the legendary oilman to buy multiple copies of a special Founders Edition of the books at $500. Hunt balked at the offer. Twice. His reasoning: The set included Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto.)

Mr. Beam, a columnist at the Boston Globe, makes it clear early on just how unfashionable reading the Great Books is in this era of multicultural liberal education. He mocks the practice as middlebrow and marvels at what rubes Adler and Hutchins were for believing so earnestly in the promise of books to edify the masses.

Maybe he's just spent too much time in Beantown with all those professors, but Mr. Beam shows little sympathy for anyone involved in academics or with academic ambitions, period, and even sneers at those who unwittingly bought Adler's and Hutchins' pitch.

While I tend to agree with Mr. Beam that liberal arts education is oversold, his frequently flippant tone mars this otherwise fascinating book. If Mr. Beam should have learned any lesson from his subjects, it's that few people appreciate being lectured to by a know-it-all.

Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

A Great Idea

at the Time

The Rise, Fall and Curious Afterlife

of the Great Books

Alex Beam

(PublicAffairs, $24.95)

1 comment:

Max Weismann said...

Argumentum ad Hominem

The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins' pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

Max Weismann,
President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Chairman, The Great Books Academy