History of the Great Books Foundation
For more than 70 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, launched a series of Great Books “Shared Inquiry™ seminars” with prominent and enthusiastic Chicagoans. Enormously successful with many influential public figures, these text-based seminars inspired a Great Books continuing education program at the University of Chicago and a Chicago Public Library workshop where librarians and volunteers were trained to start their own groups. Similar workshops were 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 established the nonprofit Great Books Foundation to promote lifelong education through the reading and discussion of outstanding literature. Their aim was 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 published paperback editions of its recommended readings, many of which were out of print or available only in costly editions.
Hutchins chaired the Foundation’s distinguished 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. By the end of the year, an estimated 50,000 people in thousands of book discussion groups were meeting regularly in public libraries, homes, churches, and synagogues nationwide.
Extending its mission to include younger readers, the Foundation launched the Junior Great Books program, offering five boxed sets of paperback books for grades 5-9. Titles were 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 broadened 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 added literature for grades 2–4.
Junior Great Books “Read-Aloud” is published, bringing outstanding literature to students in kindergarten and first grade.
The Foundation introduced a major expansion of the program that integrated reading, writing, and discussion. The new Junior Great Books curriculum incorporated Shared Inquiry into mainstream reading and language arts curriculum.
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.
The Panel for Comprehensive School Reform lists Junior Great Books in their Catalog of School Reform Models for disadvantaged students and less-able readers.
The Foundation’s website, www.greatbooks.org is launched.
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.
Great Conversations series is published.
Online training webinars are delivered.
The Foundation launches “Talking Service,” which extends Great Books discussions to veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families, friends, and caregivers, and includes the publication of Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, a Great Books Foundation anthology of stories, poems, essays, along with first-hand accounts by veterans of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Great Books Plus, a digital platform for Junior Great Books, is launched.
Junior Great Books Virtual Academy is established.