In December 2013, Scott McLemee interviewed Tim Lacy for INSIDE Higher ED. Lacy is the author of The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea, published by Palgrave Macmillan. Mr. Lacy has become a historical expert on the Great Books movement in America, and although I have not read his book yet, this interview indicates that it is a fair minded assessment of Adler and the Great Books of the Western World publishing project. On the one hand,
High culture meets commodity fetishism amidst Cold War anxiety over the state of American education…. The book provides many unflattering details about how Adler’s pedagogical ambitions were packaged and marketed, including practices shady enough to have drawn Federal Trade Commission censure in the 1970s. (These included bogus contests, luring people into “advertising research analysis surveys” that turned into sales presentations, and misleading “bundling” of additional Great Books-related products without making clear the additional expense.)
while on the other hand, Lacy takes “a revisionist, positive outlook on the real and potential contributions of the great books idea.” That is to say, there was more to this than hucksterism and providing middle class families with two shelves’ worth of intellectual furniture to adorn their living rooms. Lacy explores the spirit of democratic inquiry that informed the movement, an idea that may indeed be larger than its flawed proponents (such as Mortimer Adler). As Lacy puts it,
The great books idea in education — whether higher, secondary, or even primary — was seen by its promoters as intellectually romantic, adventurous even. It involved adults and younger students tackling primary texts instead of textbooks. As conceived by Adler and Hutchins, the great books idea focused people on lively discussion rather than boring Ben Stein-style droning lectures, or PowerPoints, or uninspiring, lowest-common-denominator student-led group work.
Amen! The rest of the interview contains good material on academic attitudes towards the movement, and Adler’s not so laudable involvement in the culture wars of the late 80’s, early 90’s. And while I’ll have to track down Lacy’s book to confirm my hunches, I have the feeling that he’s noticed something that I became aware of when digging into the Great Books of the Western World scene — that characters like Hutchins and Adler were not as elitist as they appeared to the casual observer, that the Great Books movement had democratic instincts, and that a humanistic education should be open to and available for everyone.