The Great Books, Hutchins, Adler, & The Liberal Arts

“The greatest university of all is a collection of books.”

Thomas Carlyle

Kevin Jenson (October 2, 2014)

The Great Conversation

The Great Books movement began thousands of years ago with what R.M. Hutchins called “The Great Conversation.” According to Hutchins, who is credited with applying this conversation to the liberal arts education through his Great Books seminars, “The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is like that of the West in this respect” (Main Page, 2014). Over 500 elite rulers, historians, playwrights, philosophers, explorers, scientists, religious leaders, and thinkers participated in this writing conversation that shaped western history and thought as we know it today.

Among them are many names are commonly recognized today like Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, John Dewey, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Isaac Newton, Galileo, Martin Luther, St. Augustine, Virgil, Aristotle, and Homer. Their writings cover nearly every style, discipline, and time period. As a collection, the Great Books are sometimes referred to as “The Western Canon” and the selection is continuously changing to reflect the growth and change of the culture they underpin.

While the Great Conversation began long ago, it was not until the early days of the United States that the authors of this conversation began finding themselves together on lists compiled by people like Thomas Jefferson. As self-government became ever more important, people needed to be educated on the principles of the civilization for which they were now responsible. Lists of great books took the materials that had been used in elite circles and recommended their use by the common person.

The most famous of these reading lists, “The Harvard Classics,” was compiled by Harvard President Charles William Elliot as a commercial enterprise with the publisher P.F. Collier. While it was a commercial interest, it was driven by Eliot’s belief that anyone could receive a quality liberal arts education from a “five-foot shelf” of great books. According to Kirsch (2001), “In 50 volumes we have a record of what President Eliot’s America, and his Harvard, thought best in their own heritage…”. The publication of these resources was surrounded by public interest and controversy as there was no common consensus of which books should actually be included in this compilation.

Great Books in Education

Nevertheless, the Great Books grew in popularity, and so did the resurgence of classical liberal arts education led by John Erskine at Columbia University. Erskine taught a course called General Honors in 1920 that used various masterpieces from the great books for investigation and discussion. In part, Erskine’s method was a reaction to an education system that was abandoning the broad liberal arts education for a more practical and technical German-style of memorization and rote learning specific subjects.

St. Thomas Aquinas College has carried Erskine’s model to its logical conclusion by building an entire instructional method around the Great Books. “In the classroom, no more than 20 students sit around a table with their peers and with a faculty tutor as a guide, and together they grapple with the greatest works of Western civilization. There are no lectures, no didactic discourses, no simple regurgitation of others’ conclusions. Instead, ideas are proposed, rebutted, and defended, until, through discussion and critical argumentation, the class discerns the meaning of a given text…” (The Discussion Method, n.d.).

Erskine’s program ended after a few years, but was revived by Mortimer Adler, Robert Hutchins, and others who promoted the great books through seminars and their integration into programs at key universities. When Mortimer Adler took the program to the University of Chicago, he worked with Encyclopaedia Britannica to create a compilation that became known as “The Great Books of Western Civilization”. It included nearly 517 books in 60 volumes that could be read with a plan over the course of 10 years. Interested buyers could also purchase an accompanying 12 volumes of fiction.

To be included in this publication, the books had to be relevant to at least 25 of 102 great ideas listed in a two-volume “Syntopicon” of essays by Mortimer Adler on great ideas. They also had to pass 3 tests: “first, that there is something common to us as human beings…; and second, that there exists what might be called a permanent present in which books of this kind may be found—they are contemporary to every age,”” (Van Doren, 2001). Thirdly, “Adler thought philosophical and other expository works, at least, should stand the test of truth” (2001).


At the time of this compilation, a majority of books that had achieved this kind of cultural influence had been written by dead, white, western, male authors. This became a primary source of contention and received some thought from Adler himself. According to Adler, The Syntopicon did not feature sexual or racial diversity because the selection was made based on the impact of the books on the great ideas of western society. Hutchins also defended this selection by saying, “The Editors believe that an education based on the full range of the Western search is far more likely to produce a genuine openness about the East, a genuine capacity to understand it, than any other form of education now proposed or practicable” (Dorfman, R., 1997).

Another source of contention centered on the use of a standardized curriculum. John Dewey disliked the Great Books programs for probably a similar reason as the critical theorists who questioned whether a liberal arts education may actually be less than liberating: How are students going to confront the current problems of racial and sexual discrimination by learning from the western culture shapers that gave us the problem in the first place?

That is the question educators still grapple with. The Great Books programs have an assumption of “Perennialism” at their core. Perennialism focuses on a common body of core knowledge necessary for personal development. According to E.D. Hirsch, this basic knowledge is essential for developing “cultural literacy” (Searle, J., 1990). Columbia University, among others, recognizes the value of such “cultural literacy” by using a scaled-down version of Erskine’s original Great Books idea for their Literature Humanities courses. Dean James J. Valentini says it helps students “engage with others in a broad way about big ideas specific to the human condition”” (Cross, T., 2013).

Even if the ideas of Perennialism are not embraced per se, the books still offer insight into the human condition in a way that fosters discussion. Students don’t simply look to their ideological future, they explore its foundational past to understand the ideas that have shaped and influenced it. In the process, Valentini says, they “…formulate, deliver and defend arguments both in speech and in writing” (2013).

Losing Human Centered Learning

Similarly, many other institutions continue to use the Great Books as part of their literature or liberal arts education curriculum. However, as students begin to value education more as preparation for specific functions rather than for learning how to perform in a work position, technical degrees are replacing the liberal arts degree. Such a trend would sadden Hutchins who says, “The aim of liberal education is human excellence…It regards man as an end, not as a means; and it regards the ends of life, and not the means to it. For this reason it is the education of free men. Other types of education or training treat men as means to some other end, or are at best concerned with the means of life, with earning a living, and not with its ends” (Hutchins R., n.d.).

As education continues to trend away from that of Hutchins’ “free men,” it may be time to reconsider whether this is a positive movement. Alternatively, the Great Books method of liberal arts instruction may well be worthy of consideration for its value as a “means of understanding our society and ourselves. [For] They contain the great ideas that dominate us without our knowing it” (Hutchins, n.d.). Though they may have been valuable in local cultures and thought processes, very few cultural ideas have reached so far and so deep as those that accompanied the development of western civilization. Their end product may not look the way that we want it to yet, but a simple rejection of history does not empower individuals to change the future.

According to Mortimer Adler, the Great Conversation exists because, “In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways” (Adler M., 1990, p. 28). Perhaps educators could continue this great conversation by adding their voices to its ideological foundations in an attempt to direct it toward the ideals to which they aspire.


Adler, M. (1990). The Great Conversation: A Reader’s Guide to Great Books of the Western World. . Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc..

Cross, T. (2013). Students and Faculty Embrace Classic Readings, Modern Technology. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from

Dorfman, R. (1997, April 25). The Culture Wars and The Great Conversation. PBS. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from

Greater Books. (n.d.). Greater Books. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from

Home. (n.d.). Western Canon. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from

Hutchins, R. (n.d.). The Great Conversation. Liberal Education. Retrieved September 29, 2014, from

Kirsch, A. (n.d.). The “Five-foot Shelf” Reconsidered. Harvard Magazine. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from

Main Page. (2014, February 10). Wikipedia. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from

Searle, J. (1990, December 6). The Storm Over the University. The Storm Over the University. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from

The Discussion Method. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from

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Towards a Definition. (n.d.). The English Literary Canon. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from

VanDoren, J. (n.d.). The Beginnings of the Great Books Movement at Columbia. Living Legacies. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from




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