Men of the Great Books
alumnus remembers what it was like to read the Great Books with Adler and Hutchins-and
how the two legends prompted Chicago's professors to think anew about why and
what they taught.
summer, an obituary for Mortimer Adler immediately took me back to the spring
of 1932. I was finishing my sophomore year at U-High, part of the University's
Laboratory Schools, when I got a blue slip-a summons-to go to one of the bigger
was standard practice; every time someone in psychology or education at the University
had a theory he wanted to try out, some of us were summoned to be tried out on.
Once I was lowered, segment by segment, into a tank of water and then, after I
was dried off, given an IQ test. It turned out we were the material for William
Sheldon Jr. (PhD'26, MD'34)'s theory of body types and were astonished at how
well all the types-endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph-in his book The Varieties
of Human Physique (1940) fit us, until we realized they were us.
time I found myself peering through a large slit in a cardboard contraption, with
lights inside shining up while I read something on a strip opposite. Later I discovered
they had been photographing our eye movements as we read, leading to the conclusion
that fast readers took in a half-line or line at a glance, slow readers one word,
the slowest one letter. This discovery led both to teaching kids how to read with
whole words on flash cards and reading-skills programs that trained eyes to take
in more at once.
time there were no contraptions. I saw most of my friends there and realized later
that about the top quarter of the class had been summoned. Mr. Davey, our class
adviser, introduced the two dozen or so of us to a slender, dark-haired gentleman
named Mr. Adler, and told us we were to have the option of substituting for our
required third- and fourth-year English courses something called "Great Books"
with Mr. Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the University's president. Mr. Adler
explained that we would read a book a week and meet for a two-hour discussion
with himself and President Hutchins every Monday afternoon. They would merely
ask questions; we were to find the answers. We would have keys to Classics 18,
which had been made into a Great Books reserve, where we could go to read. We
would have Harper Library cards. And, we learned later, at the time when we would
have had English on our daily schedules we would have an hour to read in a classroom.
We were also to write a weekly, two-page paper on any idea we had about the week's
book, submitted to the classroom teacher who oversaw our reading.
of us agreed, excited at the prospect of taking the same course that Adler and
Hutchins offered to students in the College. We thought we had grown up fast-the
more so the following fall when we sat around the long table in Classics 18 and
found ourselves, for the first time in our lives, addressed as "Mr."
and "Miss" by no less than the University's president.
were swollen egos so quickly deflated. We had been supposed to start with the
Iliad but Hutchins could not make it that week, so we had it and the Odyssey
together. Adler had told us that he tended to go around the table calling on students,
while Hutchins preferred to go down the class roll. The first name Hutchins noted
was Dick Cragg.
Cragg," said Hutchins, "there has been some discussion as to whether
these two books were written by the same person. Do you find them alike or different?"
newly grown Adam's apple bobbed. "Well, they both have a lot of fighting-someone's
always crashing someone over the head."
asked Hutchins, his right eyebrow cocking in what we came to know as his devilish-amusement
warning (he had wrinkles slanting up over that eyebrow from its frequent use),
"Mr. Cragg, when you pick up a book and find that, in this book, Soldier
A 'crashes' Soldier B over the head, you exclaim, 'Ah, this is Homeric!'?"
can't recall the exact sequence of questions thereafter, but after most of us
gave up on authorship we went on to form. It's an epic, someone said. "What
is an epic?" Well, it's a long poem. The next year Adler and Hutchins got
a girl to decide that up to 24 stanzas a poem was a lyric and after that it was
an epic. But if our class avoided that trap we fell flat on "What is a poem?"
I think someone said it had poetry in it. "What is poetry?" We stumbled
around, but at the end of two hours none of us could make any important statements
or explain what it meant.
felt less grown-up. But we spent weeks trying out definitions of poetry on each
other, which was of course the whole idea.
in the next few weeks from Homer to Herodotus to Tacitus to Plato to Athenian
tragedy and comedy made us feel like citizens of old Athens; we knew our way around.
Then we found ourselves ruining Christmas vacation by slogging through Aristotle's
Ethics and Poetics; if I made it through five pages an hour I was
pushing it. Those works really did require revisiting, for which the schedule
had no time. Next came another shock: the Bible.
began by saying that he and Adler "take the position that the Bible is inspired."
The rules of combat precluded our asking what it meant to be "inspired,"
even had anyone thought to do so. But most of us were pretty much free thinkers,
as Hutchins and Adler expected, and we spent two hours trying to disprove the
idea with no success. Much later I realized we'd had our first memorable lesson
in a basic logical axiom: You can't prove a negative (or, Why anyone accused of
a crime must be presumed innocent until proven guilty-he can't be required to
prove he is not guilty since that is usually impossible).
liked to play such games, often asking some unusually tricky question and then
leaning back and blowing eloquently perfect smoke rings while a student floundered.
But when Hutchins was absent, Adler could not always inhibit the urge to tell
us the Truth.
was used to arguing, often successfully, with teachers (in one course, I'd gotten
four questions in a 12-question "objective" quiz thrown out as ambiguous).
So I bet Bill Stevens (elder brother of Justice John) a soda that by year's end
I would run Adler up a logical tree. I lost. In losing I was rather obstreperous,
and there was a day when Hutchins and Adler leaned on me quite painfully. Adler
had brought the class to agreeing on a point I objected to but didn't have a ready
argument about, and I evidently showed my frustration. Adler said, "Mr. McElroy
made a face!" Hutchins responded, "Let's see if there is anything behind
that face." I still did not have a ready argument.
stopped on Thomas Aquinas for three weeks while Hutchins was away. Skeptic as
I was (and am), I apparently found Thomistic logic fascinating to follow, and
I got enough into it that when Adler met my parents at a reception he gave me
his ultimate accolade-that I had once made an argument worthy of Aquinas. I have
no idea what. When Hutchins returned and one of us made an assertion that sounded
a bit Thomistic, he said amusedly, "I'm afraid you've been indoctrinated."
the end of the first year we took the same final the College students did: writing
on ten out of 15 excerpts from books we had read, to identify and comment on in
relation to the whole work, with a week to work on the essays at home or in the
classroom. There was also an oral exam in which we went in pairs before any three
of an imported examining board-Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan (who with Barr
became the chief architect of the Great Books curriculum at St. John's College
in Annapolis), novelist Thornton Wilder, and Arthur Rubin-who asked wide-ranging
questions. My proudest academic accomplishment is that, paired with Bob Brumbaugh,
AB'38, AM'38, PhD'42, later Yale's Plato and logic expert, I got an A on the oral
and he got an A-. I still have Hutchins's congratulatory note.
the important thing was, as Adler wrote in his autobiography, although younger
than the College students, "the high school students did just as well; in
fact, having had less schooling, they were less inhibited in discussion."
I'd say that it was not that we'd had less schooling but that we'd had U-High
schooling, which encouraged independent questioning and expression.
the next year our ranks had thinned to about a dozen. Meanwhile, ten or so members
of Hutchins and Adler's first Great Books class in the College had said when they
finished that they thought they had learned to read and now would like to do it
over again, to get more out of the books. So we high-school seniors were combined
with these College seniors. They of course had more to say than did we, but we
were not intimidated and said a good deal, though not the warm Halloween night
when an egg sailed through an open window, barely missing a very startled Adler.
In the winter I developed rheumatic fever and was kept in bed for six weeks, missing
a reportedly lively session on Hume when one of the older students wore a hat
with "Empiricist" stuck in the hatband and did his best to represent
the Scottish philosopher against Adler's contempt.
had not kept up with the reading while in bed and did not need the credit to graduate,
but I did finish the year's readings and was much impressed when Hutchins, exercising
his right as head of the University to which we were a part, appeared in full
cap and gown to hand us our diplomas. As we filed past he made friendly little
remarks to those he knew, though my nerves were so taut I never heard what he
had to wait till after a year at the University of Arizona, at my doctor's suggestion,
to retake that second year, in a class Hutchins found so mediocre he would not
set up an examining panel for it. When we came to discuss War and Peace
he simply asked how many had read it; I and a few others held up our hands. He
noted that I had had two years to read it, said that was not enough of us, and
dismissed class. Several of us adjourned to Leah Spilberg (AB'39, AM'40)'s dorm
room and had a lively enough discussion on our own.
those days if one had registered for the basic three College courses one could
add others gratis and, if one liked, take an R ("Registered") for no
credit and no prejudice. For another two years I would add Great Books, giving
me the right to sit in when I wished. One night, just after Hutchins had come
back from confronting Red hunters in the state legislature, I attended the discussion
of Paradise Lost and the Aeropagitica. I came in late and instead of my
usual position at the end of the table found myself in the only vacant seat, next
to Hutchins. I had flaming red hair in those days beyond recall, and when Hutchins
sat down and glanced at me, he exclaimed, "Mr. McElroy-Banquo's ghost-shake
not thy gory locks at me!"
he asked me to state the Aeropagitica's argument for free speech and press.
I did, and he, deadpan, said, "Now, Mr. McElroy, you don't really believe
that, do you?"
gasped and gurgled and said that of course I did. For an hour and a half he took
the position that free speech was a danger to society, and we all hammered away
at it. He didn't quite fight fair: every time I stated a preliminary or two to
an argument, he jumped on the preliminaries and I never got to the argument. Only
half an hour was left for Paradise Lost.
the next year, in a session on Shakespeare, Hutchins (loosening up from the "questions
only" rule) pointed out that if a tragic hero is to fall with any probability
from happiness to a misery which, despite any tragic flaws, is unmerited, he has
to encounter either a villain, as in Othello, or an impossible dilemma,
as in Oedipus. It seemed obvious once he said it, but I had not thought
of it that way.
very different session was Adler on Hume. Adler told us the one reason he looked
forward to retirement was that he would never again have to read Hume. When years
later his disciple John van Doren wrote a history of philosophy, Hume was not
in the index. Adler's method was to ask what Hume said about something, point
out that on page so-and-so Hume said something else, and ask, "How do you
reconcile the two?" The proper answer was, "I can't."
the time I did not know enough to make sense of this, but Norman Maclean, PhD'40,
told us later that during the year I was at Arizona, Richard McKeon, a friend
of Adler's from Columbia, had come to the University as a visiting professor (he
stayed on as dean of humanities). Norm took him along when Hutchins and Adler
were to do Hume, saying there was always quite a scene. McKeon watched Adler's
hatchet work for about half an hour, then jumped in and reconciled the quotations
Adler had cited. After class Adler came up to him and asked, very angrily, "What
do you mean, coming into my class and defending Hume? You know Hume can't be defended!
Don't you ever do that again!"
I took courses with McKeon and with Ronald Crane, who insisted there were several
courses of reasoning, so that much intellectual combat was often, as an old-time
Chicago professor once put it, a head-on collision between two trains running
on parallel tracks.
Adler, however, the deductive method of Aristotle and Aquinas was the only valid
one. McKeon told us, with a devilish gleam in his eye, that the problem for Aquinas,
who took Aristotle to be "the Philosopher," was that in Aquinas's time
only the deductive Prior Analytics had been translated, not the inductive
Posterior Analytics. Adler seriously told us that it was impossible for
two intelligent arguers to really disagree. One should say "I don't understand
what you mean" or "You are uniformed" or "You have been misinformed"-and
get these aberrations remedied. Then the two must agree.
if Adler's How to Read a Book was really how to read just one kind of book,
his ever-questioning mind had one effect for which I, and many of my classmates,
should be thankful. As Hutchins's provocateur general he set up meetings
with leading professors to ask them what, precisely, they thought was their subject
and what, specifically, they wanted their teaching to accomplish. His meeting
with the English department started hot discussions, eventuating in the conclusion
that their subject was reading and writing. Therefore, the bachelor's examination,
and key courses leading to it, should concentrate on what students learned how
to do on their own, in reading and analyzing good literature and in writing about
it. Not the substance they had been taught in class but the methods
they had learned.
the department set new requirements for graduation: students had a reading list
of about 70 titles, many not taught in any course. Before taking the exam proper
we had to pass a preliminary exam in history of English and American literature.
But the final exam, the one that counted, was four three-hour sessions. Two each
were on three or four works from the reading list; the other two were open book,
with very searching questions, on two books advertised well in advance, an intellectual
text and an imaginative one, that had not lately been taught in any course. With
Maclean's high-pressure course in poetry and criticism as the best preparation
and Crane supervising the exam questions, English became, from one year to the
next, one of the University's intellectual hot spots. Thanks to Adler's provocation.
McElroy, AB'38, AM'39, graduated from U-High in 1934, retired from teaching English
at Indiana University Northwest, and is working on a book about Edmund Burke in
India. He is a lifelong Hyde Parker and correspondent for the College Class of