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.
An Edna McConnell Clark Foundation Grant of $170,000 is received to explore the need and feasibility of a Junior Great Books project in selected urban middle schools, and a second to implement Junior Great Books for disadvantaged urban middle school students in five schools in four cities.
An Ameritech Foundation Grant of $840,000 is received for an urban schools initiative to establish a network of 40 schools using Junior Great Books as an integral part of the 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.
A Chicago Annenberg Challenge $525,000 Grant is received to fund the Education Connection, a collaboration between four Chicago schools and the Great Books Foundation, to enhance GBF’s role around school reform.
The Foundation’s website, www.greatbooks.org is launched.
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 inter-cultural dialog in the Mideast, the Great Books Foundation secured 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 developed and published The Soul of the Text: An Anthology of Jewish Literature for students in grades seven and up and adult education. Uniting one of the world’s most enduring literary traditions with Shared Inquiry, the anthology captures the rich diversity of Jewish literature and invites readers to join the ongoing conversation, an integral part of the Jewish literary tradition.
The Youth Leadership Project is created with the 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.
Great Conversations series, an anthology of classic and contemporary selections, is published.
The first Blended training courses—in person and asynchronous—are offered to teachers. Online training webinars of our advanced courses were quickly developed and 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.
For the first time GBF publishes Nonfiction Inquiry for Junior Great Books.
Great Books Plus, a digital platform for Junior Great Books, is launched with a new logo.
In partnership with the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, the Foundation launches an audio-based high school curriculum focused on civil rights.
Inquiry In Action – The Foundation believes that an inquiry-based approach is essential for learning and leadership. Our Shared Inquiry™ methodology empowers leaders to build stronger, more innovative working and thinking communities, honing the skills needed to generate positive change.
Junior Great Books Virtual Academy is established, where students connect with peers in an engaging and collaborative online environment. Lively discussions and varied interpretive activities are led by experienced Great Books trainers.