Passionate readers meeting to discuss enduring ideas—that was the vision shared in the 1940s by two University of Chicago educators, Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. For at least two decades, Hutchins and Adler had been focusing on reform in higher education to counter what they saw as the decline of liberal arts education in the face of more and more specialization. Their vision was a simple prescription for a nation increasingly interested in the role of higher and continuing education in a democracy: The best way to gain a liberal education in or out of the university, they argued, is to discuss the writings of the world’s great thinkers.
Since 1930, Adler had been leading a Great Books discussion group for adults in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago. In 1943 he recruited prominent Chicago businessmen and their wives to participate in a series of discussions in downtown Chicago, to experience for themselves the Great Books method, a text-based seminar that would later be formalized as “Shared Inquiry.” The group, which came to be known as “The Fat Men’s Great Books Group,” attracted some of the city’s most influential public figures who clamored for the privilege to discuss Aristotle and Locke with Adler and Hutchins. The ensuing publicity led to the creation of a Great Books continuing education program at the University of Chicago (later the Basic Program) and eventually to a workshop at the Chicago Public Library, where 70 librarians and others were trained as discussion leaders to start their own groups. Similar workshops were held in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, New York, and Seattle, and the University of Chicago was deluged with inquiries from individuals, clubs, and labor unions.
In 1947, Hutchins and Adler established a nonprofit organization, the Great Books Foundation, to support the new wave of interest and to promote lifelong education through the reading and discussion of the world’s great literature. Their aim was to encourage Americans from all walks of life to participate in a “Great Conversation” with the authors of some of the most significant works in the Western tradition. To reach the widest possible audience, the Foundation published inexpensive paperback editions of its recommended readings, many of which were out of print or available only in expensive editions.
—Robert Maynard Hutchins
Robert Hutchins was chairman of a distinguished and singularly committed board of directors that included, among others, Mortimer Adler; Garret L. Bergen, vice president of Marshall Field; the Reverend John J. Cavanaugh, president of the University of Notre Dame; Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review of Literature; author and critic Clifton Fadiman; author Clare Boothe Luce; and E. H. Powell, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Foundation’s stated objective was to provide the means of a genuine liberal education for all adults. An early annual report reflected the belief, or hope, that thousands or even millions of people would join together for small group discussions that foster the “noble work of self-improvement.” By December 1949, an estimated 50,000 people in thousands of book discussion groups were meeting regularly in public libraries, homes, churches, and synagogues.
Extending the Great Books program to younger readers was a natural outgrowth of the mission of reading for all, and within a few years, Great Books programs cropped up in high schools and even elementary schools. Following successful pilots in Detroit and elsewhere, the Foundation launched the Junior Great Books program in 1962, offering five boxed sets of paperback books for grades 5-9. Slow to start, the program got a tremendous boost when the Junior League of Chicago became a sponsor and placed hundreds of volunteers in schools to lead discussion groups. Within two years an estimated 48,000 children were enrolled in 3,200 groups in public and private schools across the country.
Initially, most of the selections in the Junior program were works from the adult program, shorter works of Virgil and Tolstoy, for example, and excerpts from Pilgrim’s Progress, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. With each new edition, though, the program’s range of literature was broadened to include more folktales, children’s classics, and respected contemporary works. The program was also expanded to include younger readers. The 1975 and 1984 editions of Junior Great Books added literature for grades 2-4, and in 1991, Junior Great Books Read-Aloud brought the program’s outstanding literature to pre-readers and beginning readers in kindergarten and first grade.
From the beginning, Junior Great Books demonstrated that even very young children can handle the complex tasks asked of them in Shared Inquiry. Still, throughout the eighties, most programs in schools served students who were already reading well. In response, in 1992 the Foundation introduced a major expansion of the program that integrated reading, writing, and discussion. The new Junior Great Books Curriculum made it easier for schools to incorporate Great Books into the mainstream reading and language arts curriculum.
Today, more than one million students participate in Great Books programs in thousands of schools, and recent new editions of the program—Great Books 3-5 and Nonfiction Inquiry in 2015—reach an expanding circle of students and teachers. In 2017 the Foundation will present an exciting new program for our youngest school readers, Junior Great Books K-1.
At the same time, the Foundation continues its support for hundreds of adult groups across America. Every year the Foundation hosts Great Books Chicago to gather dedicated readers for three days of discussion and cultural programming. Eleven regional Great Books councils flourish, and thousands of readers enjoy our increasingly diverse publications. The Foundation’s anthologies have for many years embraced literature beyond the Western tradition, including many more women authors, a wide range of international writings, and even graphic fiction. Increasingly, the Foundation’s titles are being used in college courses across the country.
As a nonprofit, the Foundation has always taken seriously its mission to build community and strengthen civic engagement, and we continue to reach out to new and underserved audiences. In 1995, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the Foundation a major grant for A Gathering of Equals, a National Conversation project based on the premise that Shared Inquiry is a powerful model for civil discourse in a democratic society. Stressing diversity, the project resulted in hundreds of discussions of seminal documents in American history in cities throughout the country. In 2001, the Foundation introduced a quarterly magazine, The Common Review, to promote original writing by established and emerging literary writers, critics, and poets. In 2002, we formed A Latino National Conversation to foster the discussion of literature among all people interested in the ideas, experiences, and identity of the fastest growing minority group in America. More recently, we published Immigrant Voices: 21st Century Stories, to encourage discussion of the changing nature of the nation’s immigrant population.
Always striving for greater inclusiveness, in 2012 the Foundation launched Talking Service, a reading and discussion program for veterans and their families. Drawing on literature from Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, published in 2013 by the Great Books Foundation, Talking Service helps individuals come to grips with some of their most deeply affecting experiences. Initially serving a small group of veterans in Chicago, the program is now offered in twelve states with funding from state humanities councils and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
After almost seventy years, the work of the Great Books Foundation continues to build upon the founders’ insistence on timeless literature and the palpable benefits of discussion. The Foundation continues to publish literature and create programs that encourage people to think and talk about perennial questions: What does it mean to be human? What is a just society? What is the best way to live a good life? As a nonprofit organization, the Foundation has not rested on its historical achievements and instead continues to seek new, more inclusive ways to interpret and fulfill our mission: to advance social and civic engagement and help people of all ages think critically about their own lives and the world we share.