Great Books in Life Magazine
A Manhattan Project for the Humanities: The Syntopicon on the installment plan
In January 1948 Life magazine published a group photograph of scholars at the University of Chicago posing in an attitude of high seriousness. Like an elite sports team, they stood or sat cross-legged behind 102 card catalogue drawers, each of which was marked with an upright cardboard flag bearing the name of a Great Idea. The photo celebrated the making of the Syntopicon. This massive index of Western thought, which in conception had grown godlike out of the head of Mortimer Adler, was intended to help readers navigate their way through the Great Books. 1
The idea for the Great Books of the Western World2 emerged from a course taught to Chicago-area business leaders by two University of Chicago faculty members, University President Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler.3 Among the first group of students was Senator William Benton, CEO of the *Encyclopaedia Britannica, who proposed to publish a ‘Great Books’ set, edited by Adler and Hutchins. The project allowed Adler both to popularize the Great Books and to bring together a ‘Summa Dialectica’. Central to the project was Adler’s ‘Syntopicon’, an *index of the Great Ideas contained in the Great Books.4 Originally budgeted at $60,000 and slated to be completed in two years, the Great Books actually required eight years and more than $2 million.5
In 1952, 1,863 sets were sold (500 to original subscribers), but only 138 the following year. In 1956, Britannica began marketing the set selling door-to-door with an installment plan. It sold more than 50,000 copies in 1961.6
50,000 people in thousands of book discussion groups
Hutchins and Adler launched a series of Great Books “Shared Inquiry™ seminars.” These text-based seminars inspired a Great Books continuing education program at the University of Chicago and a Chicago Public Library workshop where librarians and volunteers were trained to start their own groups. Similar workshops were held in New York and other cities, inundating the University of Chicago with inquiries from individuals, clubs, and labor unions across the country.
By 1949 The Foundation’s stated objective was to provide the means of a genuine liberal education for all adults. By the end of the year, an estimated 50,000 people in thousands of book discussion groups were meeting regularly in public libraries, homes, churches, and synagogues nationwide.7
Great Books mania
In A Great Idea at the Time Alex Beam8 explores the Great Books mania, in an entertaining and strangely poignant portrait of American popular culture on the threshold of the television age. A Great Idea at the Time will leave readers asking themselves: Have I read Lucretius's De Rerum Natura lately? If not, why not? Today the classics of the western canon, written by the proverbial “dead white men,” are cannon fodder in the culture wars.9 But in the 1950s and 1960s, they were a pop culture phenomenon. The Great Books of Western Civilization, fifty-four volumes chosen by intellectuals at the University of Chicago, began as an educational movement, and evolved into a successful marketing idea. Why did a million American households buy books by Hippocrates and Nicomachus from door-to-door salesmen? And how and why did the great books fall out of fashion?
The Great Books movement had a great impact on philosopher, Richard Rorty.10
Although not as popular as in the 1950s and 1960s, there are many places online where the idea of the “Great Books” continue to inspire readers.
‘The 102 Great Ideas: Scholars Complete a Monumental Catalog’, Life, 26 January 1948, 92–3.
Hutchins, Robert Maynard. Great Books : the Foundation of a Liberal Education. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954.
Dzuback, MA. “Hutchins, Adler, and the University of Chicago: A Critical Juncture.” American Journal of Education 99, no. 1 (1990): 57–76.
A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas (1952; second edition, 1990) is a two-volume index, published as volumes 2 and 3 of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.’s collection Great Books of the Western World.
Born, Daniel. “Utopian Civic-Mindedness: Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, and the Great Books Enterprise.” In Reading Communities from Salons to Cyberspace, 81–100. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK
Rubin, Joan Shelley. 1992. The making of middlebrow culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Beam, A. (2008). A great idea at the time: The rise, fall, and curious afterlife of the great books. New York, NY: Public Affairs.
Philosopher Mortimer Adler talked about the history and significance of the Great Books of the Western World college courses and adult education programs at the National Press Club in 1991. Topics included the criticism of the Great Books programs, beginning in 1988, as too Eurocentric and lacking women and minority authors. After his presentation Professor Adler answered audience members' questions. See at C-Span.
Gross, Neil. “The Hutchins College.” In Richard Rorty, 84–105. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.