Magazine article American Libraries

Let Them Read Greats!

Magazine article American Libraries

Let Them Read Greats!

Article excerpt


America's public libraries enthusiastically hosted many, if not most, of the book discussion groups spawned by the Great Books movement that swept the country after World War II. They continue to do so today; three-fourths of the 40 or so Great Books discussion groups in the Chicago area, for example, meet in city and suburban libraries. Nonetheless, the partnership has been somewhat neglected over the past few decades. Once prominent in library journals, the Great Books reading and discussion program is little mentioned after 1967.

Why should anybody read the "Great Books" anymore? Primarily for the same reason that book groups of all kinds are flourishing these days, as people seek rewarding social and intellectual outlets for their leisure time. Book discussion groups provide something missing, for the most part, in American life: they bring people together to talk about meaningful issues.

The Great Books method of discussion, known as Shared Inquiry, promises a serious and structured meeting that focuses exclusively on questions raised by the text, rather than on group members' likes and dislikes. Discussions can be quite challenging. As Barry Bernstein, an organizer of the annual Colby Great Books Institute in Maine, put it, "The objective is self-education, realizing who you are. . . Our purpose is not to read the Great Books for their own sake, but to invest in ourselves by discovering what they have to tell us."

Great beginnings

The role of libraries in the Great Books movement predates the establishment in 1947 of the Great Books Foundation - a nonprofit educational organization with headquarters in Chicago. Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago realized that the movement had to be detached from the university in order to grow. They had been extraordinarily successful at popularizing the Great Books idea, traveling to cities across the country to conduct demonstration discussions. Early programs flourished in public libraries in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New York, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

The Great Books idea, in which people with no special training read and discuss great works of literature and philosophy with the books as their only teachers, dovetailed nicely with librarians' need to provide inexpensive adult education in the postwar period.

In 1945, the University of Chicago asked the Chicago Public Library to participate in a critical experiment that proved book groups could lead themselves. The library selected 70 people, half of them librarians, to be trained as discussion leaders in a ten-session summer course conducted by the university's continuing education division. That fall, the newly trained leaders started their own groups. This paved the way for the fledgling Great Books Foundation to conduct leader training nationwide. The foundation also published paperback readings for the discussion groups. The Great Books program, Hutchins claimed, "operated on the shadow of a frayed shoestring." But it shared an important mission with libraries: "Education cannot be the privilege of the elite, the minority, the rich and powerful. It is no answer to say that we do not know how to give education to everybody. We have to find out how to do it."

Hutchins had confidence that "the public library is the most important agency in American education. It is free. It is universal. It is not afflicted with credits, degrees, fraternities, or football teams. As adult education is the most important kind of education, so the public library can be central in adult education, as it has been everywhere in the Great Books program. The public library has the space for adult education. It has the materials for it. It has the proper atmosphere for it. In my youth libraries seemed to me warehouses, or even mausoleums, for books. …

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