History of the Great Books Foundation

For 75 years, the Great Books Foundation has been training teachers in the Shared Inquiry™ method, publishing engaging classroom materials, and creating educational programs that develop critical thinking skills, reflective thinking, strengthen social and civic engagement, and reach new and underserved audiences.

Today, our books and professional development training programs are available on digital platforms and accessible on all devices, to reach classrooms and homes anywhere at any time. As we continue to fulfill our mission, we seek new and better ways to involve people of all ages in meaningful discussion of ideas of enduring value through Shared Inquiry.



Two University of Chicago educators, Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, launch a series of Great Books “Shared Inquiry™ seminars” with prominent and enthusiastic Chicagoans. Enormously successful with many influential public figures, these text-based seminars inspire a Great Books continuing education program at the University of Chicago and a Chicago Public Library workshop where librarians and volunteers are trained to start their own groups. Similar workshops are held in New York and other cities, inundating the University of Chicago with inquiries from individuals, clubs, and labor unions across the country.


Hutchins and Adler establish the nonprofit Great Books Foundation to promote lifelong education through the reading and discussion of outstanding literature. Their aim is to encourage all Americans to participate in a “Great Conversation” with the authors of significant works in the Western canon. To make texts accessible, the Foundation publishes paperback editions of its recommended readings, many of which are out of print or available only in costly editions.


Hutchins chairs the Foundation’s distinguished board of directors that includes, 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 is to provide the means of a genuine liberal education for all adults. By the end of the year, an estimated 50,000 people in thousands of book discussion groups are meeting regularly in public libraries, homes, churches, and synagogues nationwide.


Extending its mission to include younger readers, the Foundation launches the Junior Great Books® program, offering five boxed sets of paperback books for grades 5–9. Titles are developed from the adult program with excerpts from The Pilgrim’s Progress and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but with each new edition, the Junior Great Books program’s range of literature broadens to include more folktales, children’s classics, and respected contemporary works.


The Foundation’s program is expanded to include younger readers. The 1975 and 1984 editions of Junior Great Books add literature for grades 2–4.


The Junior Great Books Read-Aloud Program is published, bringing outstanding literature to students in kindergarten and first grade.


The Foundation introduces a major expansion of the program that integrates reading, writing, and discussion. The new Junior Great Books curriculum incorporates Shared Inquiry into mainstream reading and language arts instruction.


The Foundation receives an Ameritech Foundation grant of $840,000 for an urban schools initiative to establish a network of 40 schools that use Junior Great Books as an integral part of their curriculums.

The Foundation also receives an Edna McConnell Clark Foundation Grant of $170,000 to explore the need and feasibility of a Junior Great Books project in selected urban middle schools. A second Clark Foundation grant is used to implement Junior Great Books for disadvantaged urban middle school students in five schools across four cities.


The Foundation receives a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to engage in a national conversation about race, ethnicity, and culture in America, with a focus on the nature of American pluralism and identity. A Gathering of Equals is held with discussions in Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.


The Foundation receives a Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant of $525,000 to fund the Education Connection, a collaboration between four Chicago schools and the Great Books Foundation to enhance the Foundation’s role around school reform.


The Great Books Foundation launches its website, greatbooks.org.

The Panel for Comprehensive School Reform lists Junior Great Books in their Catalog of School Reform Models for disadvantaged students and less-able readers.


With help from Haspharim Hagdolim B’Yisrael—Great Books Israel—a nonprofit organization established to promote intercultural dialog in the Mideast, the Great Books Foundation secures a grant of $206,000 from the AVI CHAI Foundation to create a discussion program for Jewish adolescents in America. Working with Brooklyn College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Foundation develops and publishes The Soul of the Text: An Anthology of Jewish Literature for students in grades seven and up and for adult education.


The Youth Leadership Project is created with generous support from the Staples Foundation, Oppenheimer Family Foundation, Fry Family Foundation, Polk Brothers, Chicago Public Schools, and the Breakthrough Collaborative

In partnership with Hansol Gyoyook of South Korea, the largest provider of supplementary education programs for elementary school students in Korea, Junior Great Books becomes the basis of a new supplementary reading program called Junior Plato.


The first volume in the six-volume Great Conversations series, an anthology of classic and contemporary selections for adult discussion groups, is published.


The first blended training courses, which feature both in-person and asynchronous instruction, are offered to teachers. The Foundation quickly develops and delivers online training webinars of its intermediate and advanced Shared Inquiry training courses.


The Foundation launches the Talking Service program, which extends Great Books discussions to veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families, friends, and caregivers. The program includes the publication of Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, a Great Books Foundation anthology of stories, poems, essays, and firsthand accounts by veterans of their experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.


Beginning in 2014, the Foundation produces five new anthologies (one of which comprises three volumes) for adult readers over the next four years, publishing:



For the first time, the Great Books Foundation publishes anthologies of all nonfiction selections, launching Junior Great Books Nonfiction Inquiry for students in grades 3–5. The series is so popular that the Foundation follows up in 2019 with Junior Great Books Nonfiction Inquiry for grade 2.


The first digital platform for Junior Great Books, Great Books Plus, is launched.


The Great Books Foundation establishes its new (and current) logo.


In partnership with the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, the Foundation launches an audio-based high school curriculum focused on civil rights.

The Foundation begins an ongoing partnership with the American Writers Museum, developing curriculum for student visitors to the museum.

With the belief that an inquiry-based approach is essential for learning and leadership in education, business, and civic life, the Foundation introduces Inquiry In Action.This new program promotes using the Shared Inquiry methodology to empower leaders to build stronger, more innovative working and thinking communities, honing the skills needed to generate positive change.


To meet the needs of students and teachers affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Foundation establishes the Junior Great Books Virtual Academy. In this virtual collaborative space, students connect with peers in an engaging online environment. Experienced Great Books trainers lead lively discussions and varied interpretive activities.


The Foundation launches Junior Great Books Digital Classroom, a new platform that streamlines the learning process for students and brings classroom management tools, analytics, and standards alignments to teachers. It is a complete solution for inquiry-based online learning.