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The great books are those books that constitute an essential foundation in the literature of Western culture. Specified sets of great books typically range from 100-150, though they differ according to purpose and context. For instance, some lists are built to be read by undergraduates in a college semester system (130 books, Torrey Honors Institute), some are compiled to be sold as a single set of volumes (500 books, Mortimer Adler), while some lists aim at a thorough literary criticism (2,400 books, Harold Bloom ).
The great books are those that tradition, and various institutions and authorities, have regarded as constituting or best expressing the foundations of Western culture (the Western canon is a similar but broader designation); derivatively the term also refers to a curriculum or method of education based around a list of such books. Mortimer Adler lists three criteria for including a book on the list:
Thomas Jefferson, well known for his interest in higher education, frequently composed great books lists for his friends and correspondents, for example, for Peter Carr in 1785 and again in 1787.
In 1909, Harvard University published a 51-volume great books series, titled the Harvard Classics. These volumes are now in the public domain.
The Great Books of the Western World came about as the result of a discussion among American academics and educators, starting in the 1920s and 1930s and begun by Prof. John Erskine of Columbia University, about how to improve the higher education system by returning it to the western liberal arts tradition of broad cross-disciplinary learning. These academics and educators included Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, Jacques Barzun, and Alexander Meiklejohn. The view among them was that the emphasis on narrow specialization in American colleges had harmed the quality of higher education by failing to expose students to the important products of Western civilization and thought.
They were at odds both with much of the existing educational establishment and with contemporary educational theory. Educational theorists like Sidney Hook and John Dewey (see pragmatism) disagreed with the premise that there was crossover in education (e.g. that a study of philosophy, formal logic, or rhetoric could be of use in medicine or economics).
This list of great books started out as 100 essential primary source texts considered to constitute the Western canon. This list was always intended to be tentative, although some consider it presumptuous to nominate 100 great books to the exclusion of all others.
The Great Books Program is a curriculum that makes use of this list of texts. As much as possible, students rely on primary sources. The emphasis is on open discussion with limited guidance by a professor, facilitator, or tutor. Students are also expected to write papers.
In 1920, Professor Erskine taught the first course based on the "great books" program, titled "General Honors", at Columbia University. He helped mold its core curriculum. It initially failed, however, shortly after its introduction due to fallings-out between the senior faculty over the best ways to conduct classes and due to concerns about the rigor of the courses. Thus junior faculty including Mark Van Doren and Mortimer Adler after 1923, taught a part of the course. The course was discontinued in 1928, though later reconstituted. Adler left for the University of Chicago in 1929, where he continued his work on the theme, and along with the University president, Robert M. Hutchins, held an annual seminar of great books. In 1937, when Mark Van Doren redesigned the course, it was already being taught at St. John's College, Annapolis, besides University of Chicago. This course later became Humanities A for freshmen, and subsequently evolved into Literature Humanities.  Survivors, however, include Columbia's Core Curriculum, the Common Core at Chicago, and the Core Curriculum at Boston University, each heavily focused on the "great books" of the Western canon.
A university or college Great Books Program is a program inspired by the Great Books movement begun in the United States in the 1920s. The aim of such programs is a return to the Western Liberal Arts tradition in education, as a corrective to the extreme disciplinary specialisation common within the academy. The essential component of such programs is a high degree of engagement with whole primary texts, called the Great Books. The curricula of Great Books programs often follow a canon of texts considered more or less essential to a student's education, such as Plato's Republic, or Dante's Divine Comedy. Such programs often focus exclusively on Western culture. Their employment of primary texts dictates an interdisciplinary approach, as most of the Great Books do not fall neatly under the prerogative of a single contemporary academic discipline. Great Books programs often include designated discussion groups as well as lectures, and have small class sizes. In general students in such programs receive an abnormally high degree of attention from their professors, as part of the overall aim of fostering a community of learning.
There are only a few true "Great Books Programs" still in operation. These schools focus almost exclusively on the Great Books Curriculum throughout enrollment and do not offer classes analogous to those commonly offered at other colleges. The first and best known of these schools is St. John's College Great Books List in Annapolis and Santa Fe (program established in 1937); it was followed by Shimer College in Chicago, The Integral Program at Saint Mary's College of California (1955), The College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, New Hampshire, and Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. More recent schools with this type of curriculum include Gutenberg College in Eugene, Oregon (est. 1994), Harrison Middleton University in Tempe, Arizona (est. 1998), Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming (est. 2005), and Imago Dei College in Oak Glen, California (est. 2010). The University of Notre Dame's Program of Liberal Studies, established in 1950, is a highly regarded Great Books Program that operates as a separate institution within the College of Liberal Arts.
The Center for the Study of the Great Ideas advances the Great Conversation found in the great books by providing Adler's guidance, and resource materials through both live and on-line seminars, educational and philosophical consultation, international presence on the Internet, access to the Center's library collection of books, essays, articles, journals and audio/video programs. Center programs are unique in that they do not replicate other existing programs either started or developed by Adler.
Over 100 institutions of higher learning in the United States, Canada, and Europe maintain some version of a Great Books Program as an option for students. Among these are:
The great books curriculum was drawn into the popular debate about multiculturalism, traditional education, the "culture war," and the role of the intellectual in American life. Much of this debate centered on reactions to the publication of The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 by Allan Bloom.
The Great Books of the Western World is a hardcover 60-volume collection (originally 54 volumes) of the books on the great books list (about 517 individual works). Many of the books in the collection were translated into English for the first time. A prominent feature of the collection is a two-volume Syntopicon that includes essays written by Mortimer Adler on 102 "great ideas." Following each essay is an extensive outline of the idea with page references to relevant passages throughout the collection. Familiar to many Americans, the collection is available from Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., which owns the copyright.
Shortly after Adler retired from the Great Books Foundation in 1989, a second edition (1990) of the Great Books of the Western World was published; it included more Hispanic and female authors and, for the first time, works by black authors. During his tenure as president of the Foundation, Adler had resisted such additions.
We did not base our selections on an author's nationality, religion, politics, or field of study; nor on an author's race or gender. Great books were not chosen to make up quotas of any kind; there was no "affirmative action" in the process ... we chose the great books on the basis of their relevance to at least 25 of the 102 great ideas. Many of the great books are relevant to a much larger number of the 102 great ideas, as many as 75 or more great ideas, a few to all 102 great ideas. In sharp contrast are the good books that are relevant to less than 10 or even as few as 4 or 5 great ideas. We placed such books in the lists of Recommended Readings to be found in the last section in each of the 102 chapters of the "Syntopicon". Here readers will find many twentieth-century female authors, black authors, and Latin American authors whose works we recommended but did not include in the second edition of the great books.
Any recommended set of great books is expected to change with the times, as reflected in the following statement by Robert Hutchins:
In the course of history ... new books have been written that have won their place in the list. Books once thought entitled to belong to it have been superseded; and this process of change will continue as long as men can think and write. It is the task of every generation to reassess the tradition in which it lives, to discard what it cannot use, and to bring into context with the distant and intermediate past the most recent contributions to the Great Conversation.
The original edition of How to Read a Book contained a separate "contemporary list" because "Here one's judgment must be tentative" All but the following authors were incorporated into the single list of the revised edition:
In 1954 Mortimer Adler hosted a live weekly television series in San Francisco, comprising 52 half-hour programs entitled The Great Ideas. These programs were produced by the Institute for Philosophical Research and were carried as a public service by the American Broadcasting Company, presented by National Educational Television (NET), the precursor to what is now PBS. Adler bequeathed these films to the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas, where they are available for purchase.
In 1993 and 1994, The Learning Channel created a series of one hour programs discussing many of the great books of history and their impact on the world. It was narrated by Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman, amongst others.