Tuesday, July 16, 2013

When is a Great Books program not a Great Books program?

On her "Evocations" blog, President Susan Henking posted the following provocative quote from Donald Levine's foreword to The Idea and Practice of General Education:

Often hailed as the most momentous curricular experiment in the history of American higher education, the 'Hutchins College' has even more frequently been misrepresented. The phrase evokes a widely cherished founding myth: Robert Maynard Hutchins came to the University of Chicago as a young man in 1930; he brought along Mortimer Adler, who introduced him to the powers and pleasures of the Great Books; as a result, Hutchins established a liberal arts curriculum in the College organized around reading of Great Books. The story is colorful, inspirational perhaps, but quite untrue.
The facts of the matter are:
(1) Well before Hutchins was even considered as a candidate for the presidency of the University of Chicago, its faculty has developed all of the ideas for what became known as the New Plan, instituted under President Hutchins in 1931.
(2) The College faculty subsequently considered but firmly rejected his aspiration for a curriculum organized around the Great Books, after which the plan for a Great Books curriculum got transported to St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.
(3) The curriculum consistently developed in the College in the Hutchins years followed an alternative principle, that of leading students to develop their powers by focused work in the major disciplines by means of which human knowledge had been constructed -- not a Great Books program, then, but one that included some Great Books along with other texts whose selection was geared to progressive mastery of some basic ideas and methods of the various arts and sciences.
(my emphasis)

Levine is unquestionably correct on the facts. However, coming from the Shimerian perspective, I have some problems with his interpretation of them.

One part of today's Shimer curriculum that stands out for its ties to the U of C curriculum of Hutchins' day is Social Sciences 1 (known then as Social Sciences 2), which despite numerous changes in form and content, is still recognizable as the course designed by eminent Chicago social scientists as a general "survey course" to introduce undergraduates to the field.  (Hilariously familiar concerns about undergraduates reading unwholesome texts like Durkheim's Suicide can be found all the way back in the earliest years of this course in the 1930s.)

If Soc 1 is not a Great Books course, then Shimer is not a Great Books college -- which is absurd.  We must therefore revisit the premise.

In so doing we can no longer escape a truth that Shimerians often avoid, whether deliberately or unconsciously:  "Great Books" means something quite different at Shimer than it does at most other schools that have adopted this label, from St. John's to Gutenberg to "Harrison-Middleton".  

If I were to try to pin this Shimerian difference down, I'd inevitably get into trouble: any N Shimerians have at least 2N+1 strongly-held and mutually contradictory opinions about the curriculum.  But suffice it to say that at least part of what sets Shimer apart is an enduring commitment to the Great Books approach as a pathway to "general education" -- which is to say, as something fundamentally radical, inclusive and progressive rather than exclusive and conservative. 

This is the ideal that informed the survey courses of the Hutchins era, of which Soc 1 is  a leading exemplar -- and which broadly underlay the curriculum that took shape in Hyde Park in the 1930s and 1940s, of which these courses were part.  This ideal requires a conversation informed by the classics of a given field, but not necessarily limited to them. In fact, including recent and contemporary scholarship will tend to strengthen the focus of such a course.

 From the perspective of a classic Great Books college like St. John's, Shimer's curriculum can appear as, at best, a compromise, with its numerous recent and contemporary texts (and extensive allowance for electives).  But seen properly on its own terms -- as even we Shimerians often fail to do -- I would argue that Shimer is in fact truer to the Hutchinsian Great Books tradition than any other school in the present day, St. John's included.  

This points to a broader theme, which I'll hope to tangle with some more in future posts: the more deeply we understand Shimer's own history, the more forcefully we can argue for (and the more effectively we can preserve) the integrity of the Shimerian vision.


Noah said...


I think you're right to argue that there's an intention of openness in Shimer's curriculum, both in terms of who gets to participate in conversations and what gets read. I'm wary of finding all of that openness in the Hutchins plan, though. Hutchins certainly seems interested in a more inclusive set of readings than, say, Buchanan, but people like Katherine Chaddock Reynolds, Joan Shelly Rubin and Tim Lacy have argued that Buchanan, Adler, and the Columbia program were built with the explicit goal of providing access to "great books" for poorer, less elite students. Programs at the People's Institute's feature as evidence, as do the great books evangelizing of Adler and Erskine's outreach efforts. Whether that spirit remains at other institutions is something I'm not equipped to answer.

I think you're right to suggest a tension between great books programs (where I'd put St. John's New Program and Columbia's CC pretty unambiguously) and general education programs (Meiklejohn's college and Harvard's Redbook proposal and maybe the University of Minnesota life adjustment program), but Chicago's program didn't really fit into either. Perhaps it's more like an introduction to disciplinary thought? A great-books-in-the-disciplines program? But then why not have disciplinary faculty teach it? (and I can't, without my notes, remember what the Redbook suggested, but it may have housed teaching in the disciplines)

Which is all to say: thanks for posting this, and I'm looking forward to your future thoughts!

Samuel Henderson said...

I should probably try to stop sticking a rhetorical knife in SJC's back whenever the occasion presents itself. I have no particularly good reason for doing so. (But gosh darn it, somebody has to stir up trouble around here.)

I agree that inclusivity in terms of the student body is at least as important as inclusivity in terms of curriculum -- and I'm afraid Shimer has not acquitted itself nearly as well in this area.