Are the liberal arts a con job?
Were the four years I spent earning a bachelor's degree, exhausting an inheritance, and leaving the class of my birth, was it a waste?
Should I have spent my money -- my mother's money, left in trust to her minor son when she died; money, I see now as a member of the chronically insecure middle class, that doesn't come around again -- more wisely? Started a business, bought a home, gone into a more remunerative field?
I picked up A Great Idea at the Time looking forward to Alex Beam's picaresque history of college education and bourgeois aspiration, and I got that. But I was also looking for someone to blame. If ever we broke and dismayed liberal-arts graduates form a posse (posse, hell, we've got the numbers for an army), if we ever ride out and round up the culprits who gamed us into thinking a degree in literature, history, the arts, or philosophy was a worthwhile expenditure of sweat and treasure, we might posthumously indict Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins.
Adler and Hutchins were what Beam calls an intellectual Mutt n' Jeff routine, a trollish philosopher and his boy-wonder leader whose friendship spanned the better part of the 20th Century, and who made their names shaking up the University of Chicago in the 1930s and '40s. Hutchins, as university president, did the unthinkable: He abolished the football team. And he and Adler began a freshman elective class dubbed the Great Men's Fat Book Class, in which the students got, not textbooks or lectures, but heaping helpings of the Greeks and Romans. This week the Iliad, next week the Odyssey; this week Plato, next week Pliny. In small group discussions, students were subject to the enlightenment and mental bullying of the Socratic dialogue, and forced to mount rhetorical counteroffensives. Their fusillades were at least amusing.
The discourse caught on at the University of Chicago, and Adler and Hutchins knew you didn't have to matriculate to benefit from a close read. They took the fat books downtown, putting the hog butcher scions and their wives to work on questions of truth, beauty, justice, and appetite. In 1943 there were 165 Great Books students in Illinois, and by 1946, 5,000 people in the Prairie State were puzzling over Aristotle or marveling at Rabelais' expert scatology. Circuit riders for the Great Books Foundation passed the torch around the nation. Then Hutchins and Adler assembled a disputatious committee of tenured experts to render the canon for mass consumption.
What they came up with, and Encyclopedia Britannica printed, was this: 54 volumes of the Greeks, Romans, and their spawn rendered in poor off-the-shelf translations and printed in two columns of nine-point type. From Descartes to Darwin, there were no explanatory notes, only the "Syntopicon," a neologism of Adler's invention ("index" was too common a word) that guided users through the Great Ideas contained within the Great Books.
"The Syntopicon emanated a distinct odor of flummery," writes Beam, quoting a fellow prof. "It was 'neither a scholarly nor interpretive aid, simply Mortimer getting his staff to blow up to a monster his own bogus tricks of research, scissors and paste, mixed with his today's current position in philosophy.... People will be disgusted and angry, if they ever look at it.'"
Phenomenal hubris? Maybe. But the "colorful furniture" also furnished a kind of map into postwar Pax Americana. The Great Books of the Western World implicitly made this kind of eponymous offer: So, you're a great power now. Well then, you might want to read us.
At first, people didn't, not until publisher Encyclopedia Britannica realized the ideal demographic: America's newly affluent professionals afflicted by status anxiety. One typical ad read: "The ability to Discuss and Clarify Basic Ideas is vital to success. Doors open to the man who possesses this talent." Door-to-door salesmen used deceptive tactics, posing as university professors or declaring that some household's youngster had been short-listed for a scholarship, and if they wanted to get ahead, why, they'd need these.
The Britannica series combined the optimism and cant of the middle of the 20th Century: Like a TV dinner in a foil tray, it looked nourishing, and looks were the main point. The sets, writes Beam, collect "potentially awe-inspiring work mummified in cheapo-depot, public domain translations. To have them on one's shelf, as I do, is to experience their serried, sepia-toned reproach: Why haven't you finished Plato's Symposium? they ask. Lord knows I tried, but I had no idea who the characters were, and furthermore, why is Alcibiades hitting on Socrates? Dear Mr. Hutchins: Enquiring minds require explanatory introductions, and footnotes." So the books are still around, compact and durable as books are, less inviting than they should be, only a doorway, not a destination.
By the time I finished A Great Idea I felt I could throw away my posse's rope. I happen to believe that great books, lowercase, belong in everyone's hands, that works of art, history, and philosophy can enlighten and enthrall without the use of explanatory notes, and that an attentive reading by anyone, high, low, or middlebrow, is a wonder-working thing. And, let's be honest: A bachelor's degree is the entry card into the middle class; bypass it and you'd better be rich or in a really, really strong union.
Cheers to Mortimer Adler and Bob Hutchins for having the guts to say the best education for the best is the best education for all. The two friends died believing they were failures. Seeing the cost of college tuition, in a sense they were. But Mr. Beam, and I, would like to think a little of Adler and Hutchins live on, showing up for Oprah's group reads, in the classics on tape, anytime three or more people gather in a public library with the same texts in hand. They may not be reading a Great Book, but heck, they're discussing an abstraction in an orderly manner, and that's always a great idea.