The phrase "great books" has an odd resonance in Chicago. Why? Because it has a specific meaning -- and a specific history in the Windy City. And, here, I do not mean that there are loads of literary representations of Chicago and loads of Chicagoans who have written great books. I mean something somewhat different. Rather than great books, I mean "great books" if you know what I mean.
First, some history. Once upon a time there were some folks who got together and decided that, given 15 minutes a day to read the right books, anyone could be liberally educated. Yes, that is right: anyone. Eventually, they created a set of books and sold them door to door. (The scheme failed to be financially viable, but that is not terribly relevant to the story, perhaps.) These same folks -- one a college president for some time and then the head of a major foundation, the other a professor and prolific writer, were institutionalizers. They created a whole range of things -- a curriculum at the University of Chicago, for example, and something called the Aspen Institute. They served on Boards and led initiatives. Their names? Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. There are critiques of both; and others trace the history of the curriculum associated with the notion of great books elsewhere (e.g., to Columbia University in New York). Certainly many associate it with the 1936 shift of St. John's College to such a curriculum, created by Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan. (Their technology? Often faculty translated texts and used the mimeograph.)
But this is the Windy City.
So second, some reflections: Yes, there is, among some Chicagoans and some elsewhere a kind of nostalgia for the "good old days" associated with the "great books." All too often, the nostalgia is for a good old days that either did not exist or was in some sense a deeply problematic set of days. But what is also relevant, I believe are the following points: the balancing of a populist impulse to ensure that liberal education is available to all through the high technology of the time called an encyclopedia with a more elitist or elite version associated with the development of curricula on college campuses reminds us that liberal education's accessibility is not merely about the colleges themselves. Or, at least it need not be. If one asks how to make broadly accessible readings that enable civic discourse about the enduring questions and ideas of our lives today, one asks if high technology of the encyclopedia has been replaced by other forms of outreach. Here we are pushed to ask not only what constitutes greatness but what constitues a book.
On another theme, in the decades since the creation of the encyclopedic great books, the most controversial aspect of the notion has been the "politics" associated with the notion of greatness. Is there an implied ethnocentrism? A racism to it? A sexism? Is greatness culture specific or universal? Raising these questions is critical -- to democracy, to education, and to be blunt, to the solution of many 21st century problems. One must ask then, if "great books" is about the preservation of a list (this one or that one or the other one) someitmes called a canon -- or the recognition of pervasive questions and the utility of having some shared access to ideas.
On yet another theme: what is the relation of the notion of great books to the notion, touted many places today inside higher education, of interdisciplinarity? Put another way -- given that so many works that might (even today) be subsumed into such a list (even narrowly construed) predate the establishment of the boundaries between disciplines of the past 100-200 years, does this type of education facilitate not only the kind of critical thinking many associate with liberal education per se, but the kinds of multiple approaches to problems and questions touted by many as crucial to ongoing success in the work force as well as the creation of meaningful lives?
And, one last note: some thing of the notion of great books as literally political. Here the better term might be partisan or governmental. Like much of liberal education today, responsible citizenship and democracy get associated with great books curricula. And, since we live in a quite partisan environment, sometimes folks identify one or another curricular ideology as Democratic and another one as Republican. On the other hand, some identify the participatory debate or the individualism or the requirements with one party or the other. Or, they adopt one interpretation of the texts and do so. Or, they see the list as eternally unchangeable. Here, again, a version of the Canon or Culture Wars. And, a more dangerous one.
All in all, I love the notion of the debate that circulates around all this --- and the very real possibility that reading such works -- whatever list you come up with -- is at the heart not only of the intellectual life, but of life itself. (Not to mention developing skills that are useful in the work place.) Notice, that nowhere here did I limit this canon or set of works -- to, say, the West. But, I did associate some of its history with the MidWest!
Finally, here are some related organizations that continue to address the notion of Great Books, located right here in Chicago.
The Great Books Foundation is located on Wacker Drive and emerged in large measure from the connections of Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins. Today, it works with younger people to ensure that they know about the "great books" -- including in Chicago Public Schools on occasion. The foundation also works with adult readers, and publishes an array of collections (edited volumes) that are thematically organizaed and draw on the great books to think through concerns of dramatic contemporary interest. For example, in The Civically Engaged Reader, one can find Aristotle alongside Kafka, Adam Smith, and Toni Morrison (Not to mention Chicago's own Gwendolyn Brooks.) Other collections focus, for example on work or (gasp) sex.The Foundation also usually sponsors an event each year focused on reading a great books together.
Shimer College associated itself with the notion of Great Books in the mid-twentieth century. At the time, Shimer was located in Mount Carroll, Illinois and had a strong relationship with the University of Chicago, then led by Robert Maynard Hutchins. And, this eventuated in the adoption of a curriculum that was similar to (well, nearly identical to) that adopted at the College of the University of Chicago. Great books, dialogical pedagogies and comprehensive examinations, for example. Since then, Shimer has moved (it is now at 35th and State in Chicago) and the school now identifies itself as the Great Books College of Chicago.
Encyclopedia Britannica is worth mentioning as well. Yes, it too is a Chicago institution. What is its relationship to the "great books"? Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler were involved in the creation of encyclopedia-like sets of great books! Here's a visual from the web. (Chech out my office where there is a whole set. . . )
So, here too is another Windy City linkage to the history of the history (and present) of higher education. Great Books. Great City. Great Ideas.