I don’t know what I was expecting from A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam. I take that back. I expected one of two things, that it would either be serious biography or a fun gossipy romp. It wasn’t really either. It kind of reminded me of Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury without the delicious chattiness. This doesn’t mean A Great Idea was bad, it just wasn’t as good as I had hoped.

The Great Books is a history of a few determined men who believed they were saving education and western civilization from decline. John Erskine and Robert Hutchins both believed that what was wrong with American education in the early 20th century was the elective system that allowed college students to choose their own courses. They felt that giving the students a choice had contributed to the students’ lack of familiarity with the Great Books. The elective system, it should be noted, was first instituted by Harvard in 1899. Prior to that the four-year course of study was regimented: Greek, Latin, Math, French, Elocution and Ethics for the freshmen and History, Philosophy, Latin and Greek for the seniors. The years in between included math, physics, German, more Latin and Greek and few other classes.

The first Great Books class was taught at Columbia in 1920. The class required two teachers who sat with 20 – 25 students and launched a Socratic style discussion. A typical discussion launching question was “What is the ruling passion in The Iliad?” Mortimer Adler took the class as a junior at Columbia in 1921 and began teaching it as a grad student in 1923. The teachers did not have to be experts on the book, they only had to have read the book and be good at engaging students in discussion.

Time goes by as does lots of academic politics and Robert Hutchins finds himself the head of the University of Chicago. With the help of Adler, they institute a two-year Great Books undergrad curriculum. The people at the University of Chicago who liked Hutchins loved it, his enemies hated it. There was much sniping within the university and between universities as well as Hutchins starts vigorously marketing their Great Books program and deriding other educational pedagogies.

The Great Books craze outside of academia started at the end of the 1940s after Hutchins and Adler undertook to take the curriculum to the general public. In 1943, the University of Chicago announced that it was going to publish the Great Books. And so began the haggling of the selection committee with each member angling to get his favorite author on the list.

The set was expensive but Hutchins, Adler, and the salesmen of the Encyclopedia Britannica company (Britannica ended up publishing the books) didn’t let that stop them. While Hutchins peddled to the rich and Adler to institutions, the salesmen used tactics to get the general public to buy which led to investigations and warnings from the federal government.

Today there is one school, St John’s College, that has an all Great Books, all the time program for four years of undergraduate education (the reading lists and term schedules are on the website for anyone who wants to ogle). In addition to the reading, students take two years of ancient Greek, two years of French, four years of math and three years of laboratory science. The science, however, is Great Books science. Supporters of the program say it is not the facts that matter, it is that students are learning to think critically that counts. I agree to a certain extent. But when students who wish to go on to graduate degrees in the sciences have to spend a year to a year and half taking classes at another school in order to catch up on “the facts,” well, there is a problem there.

There is a lot of history and facts packed into A Great Idea at the Time. Sometimes it is hard to keep up with names and places and events as it seems to jump around a little. But overall it was fascinating reading. And Beam earned major goodwill points in his acknowledgement section when he wrote,

I believe that librarians are the unacknowledged legislators of the universe.

Can’t go too wrong with an author who says something like that.