Mortimer Adler and the Great Books Program

Today, we are more likely to talk about "liberal education" than the liberal arts. Mortimer Adler, though, connects the two in statements such as this:

Let us first be clear about the meaning of the liberal arts and liberal education. The liberal arts are traditionally intended to develop the faculties of the human mind, those powers of intelligence and imagination without which no intellectual work can be accomplished. Liberal education is not tied to certain academic subjects, such as philosophy, history, literature, music, art, and other so-called "humanities." In the liberal-arts tradition, scientific disciplines, such as mathematics and physics, are considered equally liberal, that is, equally able to develop the powers of the mind.

In 1943 Mortimer Adler and the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, began an adult education class for the business elite of Chicago, organized around a set of great ideas and the books in which they were found. Hutchins was president of the university at the age of 29, and he hired Adler, 1 year his junior. These early sessions became very popular, so much so that visiting dignitaries to Chicago would sit in. Lillian Gish, Ethel Barrymore, and Orson Welles all sat in, as did Gertrude Stein. The point of the program was to instill the kind of liberal education that Adler spoke of in the quotation above, knowledge of the ideas that made civilization great.

The program lives to today in many places, but it is also controversial. He established a canon of literature, one which has fueled disagreement to this day, and was a motivating factor in the culture wars that have been part of the university for the past 30+ years. The objection to Adler's canon was clear: his choice of authors seemed to assume that all the best ideas came from Europe, and from white males as well. Adler had to deal with this objection, but he never gave in to "affirmative action" in the great ideas. The question of who gets to call an idea or a text "great" continues to this day.