When 'self-improvement' meant learning

  • Article by: MARTIN SCHMUTTERER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2008 - 4:19 PM

A deep look at how in the world everyone went nuts over the Great Books of the Western World.

A Great Idea at the Time by Alex Beam

In "A Great Idea at the Time," Alex Beam breezily tells the story of the Great Books of the Western World, which once promised everyone, from Joe Sixpack to the chairman of the board, the education of a lifetime. Published in 1952 by the Encyclopedia Britannica in cooperation with the University of Chicago, the Great Books series premiered with Hollywood glamour and ivy-covered prestige.

It seems unlikely now that a repackaged set of classic -- and by that you should read sometimes obscure, sometimes minor and often difficult -- works of literature, philosophy and the sciences would bring anything but a shrug. The Great Books, however, appeared at a time when self-improvement meant more than an hour at the gym and, with a bit of salesmanship, became a phenomenon.

That the books were 54 volumes of mostly unreadable text set in double columns and teeny type didn't matter. The ideas inside would set you free.

Throughout the book, Beam mines a rich vein in the personalities, especially the men directly responsible for the series, University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins and philosopher Mortimer Adler, "two fascinating people, one of whom you would like to be, and one of whom you would not."

Hutchins was a brilliant and handsome educational reformer. Adler graduated from Columbia with a doctorate but no bachelor's degree because he refused to take the required swim test. This odd couple evangelized for the classics as a means of bettering even the humblest and humbling even the best.

Teaching the classics and marketing them require very different skills, however. Without William Benton, an ad man and inventor of the "Applause" sign, the Great Books might have remained a course for first-year college students and community education programs.

Benton, who claimed to have 500 new ideas a week, sensed an opportunity, and the Great Books project, as well as its companion index of ideas, the Syntopicon, were born.

Beam has a light touch, which allows the wit and wickedness of Hutchins and his critics to shine. When immersed in this world, "A Great Idea at the Time" is a joy. Even if it sometimes seems like a smart aleck's revenge against a self-serious teacher, "Great Idea" still inspires nostalgia for a time when executives and philosophers might discuss Aristotle's golden mean together over gimlets and steak. All things in moderation, including moderation.

Martin Schmutterer is a manager at Common Good Books.

  • A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME

    By: Alex Beam.

    Publisher: Public Affairs, 245 pages, $24.95.

    Review: A breezy but well researched book about the two men behind the Great Books -- and how they persuaded Americans that a study of the classics was the way to a better life.

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