Great Books

From Academic Kids

Great Books refers to a curriculum and a book list that came about as the result of a discussion among American academics and educators, starting in the 1920s and 1930s and begun by Prof. John Erskine of Columbia University, about how to improve the higher education system by returning it to the western liberal arts tradition of broad cross-disciplinary learning. These academics and educators included Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan. The view among them was that the emphasis on narrow specialization in American colleges had harmed the quality of higher education by failing to expose students to the important products of Western civilization and thought.

Many of those involved with the Great Books curriculum had a populist agenda, stemming from their backgrounds in the Socialist movement. They were at odds both with much of the existing educational establishment and with contemporary educational theory. Educational theorists like Sidney Hook and John Dewey (see pragmatism) disagreed with the premise that there was crossover in education (e.g, that a study of philosophy, formal logic, or rhetoric could be of use in medicine or economics).

Great Books started out as a list of 100 essential primary source texts considered to constitute the Western Canon. This list was always intended to be tentative, although many critics considered it presumptuous and laughable to nominate 100 Great Books to the exclusion of all others.

Mortimer Adler lists three criteria for including a book on the list:

  • the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;
  • the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit; and
  • the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.

--(Adler, "Second Look", pg 142)


The Great Books Program

The Great Books Program is a curriculum that makes use of this list of texts. The Program as implemented at St. John's College involves a four-year set course of studies consisting of four classes:

As much as possible, students rely on primary sources. They are encouraged to conduct classes themselves, with guidance from a tutor.

The Great Books Program at the University of Chicago was the first trial of this teaching methodology. It failed, however, shortly after its introduction due to fallings-out between the instructors over the best ways to conduct classes and due to concerns about the rigor of the courses. Several schools maintain a Great Books Program as an option for students, but the two most prominent schools are the St. John's College sister schools, and Thomas Aquinas College.

The Great Books Series

The Great Books of the Western World is a hardcover encyclopedia-style collection of the books on the Great Books list. The series is familiar to many Americans. The books are licensed by Mortimer Adler and others through the Great Books Foundation, and many of the books in this collection were translated into English for the first time.

See also

External links

  • The Great Books Foundation (
  • The Great Conversation (, a Britannica Great Books of the Western World reading and discussion group. The group will be discussing Augustine's Confessions and Machiavelli's Prince in April, 2005. Upcoming titles include Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, Montaigne's Essays, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Locke's Concerning Civil Government.

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