National leaders other than Charles Eliot have attempted to revive a set of great books that Americans share in common. Most notably, Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1945, and Mortimer Adler, philosopher and popular author, worried that business people were becoming to specialized in their crafts and that they were decreasingly well educated.
So they set out to develop a set of evening classes for adults with the aim of helping thoughtful Americans who wished to fill the gaps in their education with critical reading of important books.
One of their students was an executive at Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. who recognized a business opportunity. He commissioned Hutchins and Adler to identify the most important writings of Western Civilization. The project took eight years and cost Encyclopedia Britannica $2 million, culminating in 1952 with A Syntopicon, a two-volume index of thirty-page articles on 102 Great Ideas.
Sadly, many college’s universities are increasingly doing away with humanities courses. In the latter half of the 20th century the belief that there should be a “core curriculum,” that students should read the same books, has fallen into disrepute. At present some of us are not willing to surrender in the curriculum wars. May the readers of the Character Building Project join Senator Sasse in rebuilding a culture comprised of resilient, literate, thoughtful individuals.