In previous posts, I outlined some connections between the founding fathers and early liberal education in the United States. During the nineteenth century, there was an educational boom that led to the founding of hundreds of colleges including our own beloved Susquehanna.
It was not only colleges and universities that slaked America’s thirst for enlightenment. In 1874, John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller founded Chautauqua Institution. They took their inspiration from the Lyceum movement that flourished in the earlier decades of the 19th century. The original function of the Chautauqua Assembly was to provide training for United Methodist Sunday-school teachers. Vincent and Miller (the latter was Thomas Edison’s father-in-law) recognized that for many adults and older children, Sunday school was the only continuing education available, so from the beginning, their summer sessions included lectures on moral philosophy, the newest scientific developments, literature, artistic performances, and even religion. What began as a church camp with participants staying in tents on wooden platforms transformed into a village of Victorian gingerbread cottages and a non-sectarian center of American intellectualism in only a few years.
Mini-Chautauquas soon popped up all over the country, and for about fifty years traveling tent Chautauquas ranging from very legitimate intellectual revivals to little more than vaudeville shows were the sole cultural events in many rural towns.
An early and important initiative of the original Chautauqua Institution was the founding of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (C.L.S.C.) during the summer of 1879. The C.L.S.C. was a four-year course of assigned home reading. It was the first organized reading circle in the country. The Chautauquan was published as an anthology of course readings, old and new. Its charter states that:
This new organization aims to promote habits of reading and study in nature, art, science, and in secular and sacred literature, in connection with the routine of daily life, especially among those whose educational advantages have been limited, so as to secure to them the college student's general outlook upon the world and life, and, to develop the habit of close, connected, persistent thinking.
The participants received study guides. Regional discussion groups were formed. Initially all participants were expected to return to the Institution for four summers for lectures and discussions of what they had read the previous year. Material was offered in a four-year sequence, and new students could join in at any year. Exams were administered, and at the end of four years, diplomas were awarded.
The C.L.S.C. still exists, and one of its contemporary features is that the authors of each year’s books, which are often best sellers, appear on the Institution’s program and lead additional discussion sessions for the C.L.S.C. students.
The C.L.S.C. became the foundation of the Continuing Education program at the University of Chicago, and I am convinced helped prime the pump for the “Great Ideas” project that would begin there soon after. An online history prepared by University of Chicago Library states:
[In 1921,] an education centered on the classics first entered the modern college curriculum at Columbia University…[In 1917,] Professor of English and noted poet and novelist John Erskine had proposed a two-year course where students would read one classic in translation each week and discuss it in a seminar. Erskine hoped to clear the barrier students perceived between themselves and the classics while providing them with a common tradition lost in the modern elective system. He reasoned that all classics were originally written for popular audiences, but their haughty reputations combined with faculty members' obtuse scholarly interventions made the texts daunting to students.
To Erskine, "A great book is one that has meaning, for a variety of people over a long period of time," and a true classic ought to speak to the modern mind as effectively as it spoke to its original audience. The faculty at Columbia rejected his proposal on the grounds that students could not be expected to master so many works in such a short time and that the essence of most classics was lost in translation. As one of the first volleys in the battle that would rage through twentieth-century academic history, the faculty rejected Erskine's liberal arts ideal. They maintained that it was far superior for students to specialize and read a few books deeply than it was for them to acquire a general knowledge of a wide range of texts. The University should cultivate the expert devoted to a narrow subject—after all, some members of the faculty at Columbia had spent their careers commenting on only one or two of the texts Erskine wanted his students to breeze through.
World War One gave Erskine a chance to test his theories as Director of the Education Department for the Y.M.C.A. and the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. Flush from his success on the front, he persuaded the faculty at Columbia University to allow him to teach General Honors, a two-year seminar devoted to the Great Books.
Among Erskine's early students at Columbia were future University of Chicago faculty members Richard McKeon, Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, and Mortimer Adler.
During his first year as president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins hired Mortimer Adler as a faculty member. Adler suggested replicating the two-year Honors Seminar of his own Columbia student experience. Beginning in 1931, Adler and Hutchins led the seminar at Chicago for two decades. It was in Chicago that the course drew national attention for its use of Socratic method and for the many celebrity guests the course attracted, including Lillian Gish, Orson Welles, and Gertrude Stein.
At Columbia and Chicago, the “Great Books/Great Ideas” curricula were an elective track for a select group of students, and in Chicago, the curriculum moved into the University Extension program in the 1940s, a berth created decades earlier by the C.L.S.C.
At St. John’s College in Annapolis the great books were successfully expanded into a universal curriculum. St. John’s is one of our nation’s oldest academic institutions, but it struggled for many years to remain viable. To quote their website:
Rather than close the school the board decided on one last desperate measure. In 1937, they brought in Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan, two academics [from Erskine’s class at Columbia and then the faculty at Chicago] who had revolutionary educational ideas, to completely revamp the curriculum. Buchanan, who was appointed dean, thought that the traditional liberal arts could be used as a formal structure for learning; he devised a course of study with the great books as the basis for discussion classes. Another important feature of his plan was the inter-relatedness of the disciplines; he proposed a college with a unified, all-required curriculum and no departments or majors.
St. John’s, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and the C.L.S.C. pushed all of our institutions into thinking more intentionally about the intersections of knowledge and the advantages of applying a variety of traditions of inquiry to a single question. In the ensuing years, America’s liberal arts colleges have prepared students to be problem solvers and leader by exposing them to a broad range of ideas and ways of thinking. Our goal must continue to be a focus on intellectual integration.
In the next installment, I will address some of the short-sighted historical tensions between liberal education and applied studies.
 The Great Ideas: The University of Chicago and the Ideal of Liberal Education, found on the University of Chicago Library’s website.