Michael J. Kerrigan

Great Books


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… Continue reading


During his days as Harvard’s influential president, Charles W. Eliot made a frequent assertion: If you were to spend just 15 minutes a day reading the right books, a quantity that could fit on a five foot shelf, you could give yourself a proper liberal education.

As Charles W, Eliot approached retirement as President of Harvard, he argued for “great books” as a democratic means of social mobility. Not everyone could go to Harvard, he told a group of working class men, but everyone could read like “ a Harvard man.”

Editors at Collier, one of the largest publishing houses of the day, were moved by Eliot’s crusading. They made this pitch to Eliot: Assemble you have been referencing and we’ll market it.

The result was the Harvard Classics, a fifty-one-volume anthology of works first published in in 1909 that aspired to offer “the progress of man…… Continue reading

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