• September 3, 2015

Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor

Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor 1

Dave Plunkert

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Dave Plunkert

Back in the 70s, when I was a kid, I used to run to the television—there was only one in the house in those days—whenever I heard the opening notes of the "Fanfare-Rondeau" by the French composer Jean-Joseph Mouret. As the music played, the camera panned over objects that might be found in the drawing room of an English country manor: old books, sepia photos in silver frames, musical instruments, fountain pens, a long-necked decanter, some Roman coins, a model ship of the line, and a clutch of medals from the Great War. As the music concluded, the camera came to rest on a large, leatherbound volume with marbled endpapers. On the frontispiece was Masterpiece Theatre, Introduced by Alistair Cooke.

I was still too young to appreciate Upstairs, Downstairs, but there was something about the introduction to that program that expressed the feelings of cultural aspiration that permeated my childhood (and perhaps a touch of postcolonial complex). Neither of my parents went to college. My father repaired sewing machines, and my mother sometimes worked as a typesetter. We lived in a working-class, row-house neighborhood in Philadelphia where nearly everyone was some kind of sports fan. But our family outings were almost always educational in some way: museums (Academy of Natural Sciences, Franklin Institute, Philadelphia Museum of Art); historic sites (Independence Hall, Franklin Court); libraries; and free concerts (at the Robin Hood Dell, as I recall). We read The Philadelphia Inquirer and Time magazine (not the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News), and—in addition to Masterpiece Theatre—we watched every PBS documentary series on science and culture, including The Ascent of Man, Cosmos, Life on Earth, and the granddaddy of them all, Civilisation, with Lord Kenneth Clark.

Those experiences with my family marked me as different from most of the other kids, but in some ways I was proud to be different. I thought of myself as destined for great things, like college, even if I had only a vague idea what that involved. I wanted to be seen reading instead of playing. Teachers and other adults praised me, as if I was some kind of prodigy. It wasn't until I arrived in graduate school that I learned there were people who took the intellectual life for granted—who didn't think reading was praiseworthy in itself—and who looked down on the striver's culture from which I emerged as "middlebrow."

"If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me 'middlebrow,'" wrote Virginia Woolf in an unsent letter to the editor of The New Statesman, "I will take my pen and stab him, dead." Woolf claimed to love "lowbrows"; "I study them; I always sit next the conductor in an omnibus and try to get him to tell me what it is like—being a conductor." But middlebrows, she wrote, "are the people, I confess, that I seldom regard with entire cordiality." Middlebrow culture was a "mixture of geniality and sentiment stuck together with a sticky slime of calves-foot jelly."

Unlike the independent highbrows and unself-conscious lowbrows, middlebrows, it seems, are so invested in "getting on in life" that they do not really like anything unless it has been approved by their betters. For Woolf and her heirs, middlebrows are inauthentic, meretricious bounders, slaves to fashion and propriety, aping a culture they cannot understand; they are the prototypes of Hyacinth Bucket in the BBC program Keeping Up Appearances, who answers her "pearl-white, slim-line, push-button telephone" with "The Bouquet residence, the lady of the house speaking."

Of course, the only acceptable lowbrows are the ones who know their place, who have no aspirations to anything better, such as Hyacinth's unpretentious sister, Daisy, and her unemployed husband, Onslow, the sort of bloke who attends football matches wearing a cap that holds two cans of beer.

As the Harper's Magazine editor Russell Lynes argued in his 1949 essay "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow," the ideal world for Woolf is a caste system in which billions of bovine proles produce the raw materials for a coterie of sensitive, highbrow ectomorphs who spring fully formed from the head of Sir Leslie Stephen. At the very least, lowbrows with upward aspirations should have the courtesy to keep themselves out of sight until they complete their passage through the awkward age of the middlebrow.

In my early 20s, when I was starting out as a graduate student in the humanities, I hosted a small gathering at my apartment. It didn't take long for my guests to begin scrutinizing my bookshelves. (I do the same thing now, of course, whenever I am at a party.) I remember that there were numerous battered anthologies, at least a hundred paperback classics, the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (acquired as a Book-of-the-Month Club premium), probably six copies of PMLA, and several shelves of books that I had retained from childhood, including the Time-Life Library of Art and the Old West Time-Life Series in "hand-tooled Naugahyde leather."

Perhaps the most revered set of volumes from my childhood—proudly displayed—was Great Books of the Western World, in 54 leatherette volumes. I remember I bought them all at once for $10 at a church sale when I was about 13; it took me two trips to carry them home in plastic grocery bags.

"Your clay feet are showing," said one of my guests, another graduate student, as she removed Volume 1 of the Great Books from my shelves. I caught the biblical allusion, but it took me a couple of years to realize the implication of the remark: My background was lacking. If graduate school was a quiz show, then I was Herbert Stempel trying to make it in the world of Charles Van Doren.

Eventually all of those beloved volumes were boxed, hidden in a closet, and replaced by hundreds of university-press monographs on literary and cultural criticism—mostly secondhand—along with ever larger piles of mostly unreadable scholarly journals. Of course, such acquisitions only affirmed my middlebrow-status anxiety, since so many of them were motivated by what I thought other people thought, rather than by my own interests.

My recollections of that experience were prompted by a recent book by Alex Beam: A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (Public Affairs, 2008). With a healthy dose of mockery for his subject, Beam recounts the inception, production, and reception of those maligned volumes up to the present time. (His project expands a chapter from the more scholarly work of Joan Shelley Rubin in The Making of Middlebrow Culture, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1992, which, in turn, extends the chronology of Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, published by Harvard University Press in 1988.)

The brainchild of the philosopher Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, the Great Books—originally published in 1952—gained prominence in the context of the GI Bill and the post-Sputnik emphasis on intellectual competition. Perhaps more notably, it was an era of rapid social mobility, when many of those in the newly middle class were insecure about their lack of education. "The ability to Discuss and Clarify Basic Ideas is vital to success. Doors open to the man who possesses this talent," declared one advertisement for the series, and door-to-door salesmen gained entry by posing as assistant professors offering the Great Books as a public service. Something like 50,000 sets were sold—typically on installment plans—before 1961. The Great Books were expressions of hope for many people who had historically not had access to higher education.

There was something awe-inspiring about that series for me, even if I acquired it a generation late. The Great Books seemed so serious. They had small type printed in two columns; there were no annotations, no concessions to the beginner. They emphasized classical writers: Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, and Aristotle, among others, like Galen and Marcus Aurelius, who are still remembered but rarely read. Their readings also included Bacon, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Gibbon, Mill, and Melville; the series functioned like a reference collection of influential texts. I'd hear someone say, "I think, therefore I am," find out that it came from Descartes, and then I'd read the first few chapters of his Meditations on First Philosophy.

The Great Books gave me a realization in my teens that was something like what Jack London described in his fictionalized autobiography, Martin Eden: "He had never dreamed that the fund of human knowledge bulked so big. He was frightened. How could his brain ever master it all? Later, he remembered that there were other men, many men, who had mastered it; and he breathed a great oath, passionately, under his breath, swearing that his brain could do what theirs had done."

But actually reading all of the Great Books was impossible; it could be undertaken only as a stunt, like the one described by Ammon Shea in Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (Penguin Group, 2008). A few times I made schedules, like those of Benjamin Franklin and Jay Gatsby, that included daily readings (alongside regimes of diet and exercise). Like many owners of that series, my intentions were good, but I can't say I had much success at joining "the Great Conversation." I could only listen, like a seminar participant intimidated into silence.

On the other hand, I did enjoy touring the circles of hell with Dante; I chased the White Whale with Ahab, and I enjoyed reading aloud Shakespeare's soliloquies, imitating the accents of the BBC performers (I can still do Derek Jacobi). I also found Freud just in time to psychoanalyze my adolescence; and I eventually began to upset my teachers at the Father Judge Catholic High School for Boys by quoting from Nietzsche in my classes on religion.

I am sure most academics would approve of my subversive impulses as a teenager, but there was a reason that you could buy the Great Books for $10 by that time. The whole notion of a stable canon of books had gone out of fashion, and not even recently: Writers such as Dwight MacDonald had been mocking the Great Books since they first appeared. As Beam observes, "The Great Books were synonymous with boosterism, Babbittry, and H.L. Mencken's benighted boobocracy." Display them in your living room, and you might as well put plastic covers on the colonial couch beneath your reproduction Grandma Moses with the copy of The Power of Positive Thinking on your coffee table. Great Books, Beam writes, "were everything that was wrong, unchic and middlebrow about middle America."

As Paul Fussell wrote in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, "It is in the middle-class dwelling that you're likely to spot the 54-volume set of the Great Books, together with the half-witted two-volume Syntopicon, because the middles, the great audience for how-to books, believe in authorities."

By the end of the 1980s—when I was an undergraduate—it had become clear to seemingly everyone in authority that the notion of "Greatness" was a tool of illegitimate power; Adler and Hutchins were racist and sexist in their choices of texts; their valorization of the "Western World" made them complicit with imperialism and worse. "This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education," said Hutchins. "Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind."

"Dead white men" like Adler (though he was, in reality, an urban ethnic striver, like me, who had the misfortune to still be alive) remained committed to Matthew Arnold's vision of culture as "the best that has been thought and known in the world." The Syntopicon—an anthology of writings on themes such as "Fate" and "Pain"—had exactly 102 topics, and his list of "Greats" was nonnegotiable. "This is the canon, and it's not revisable," Adler said, making himself into a straw man for the culture warriors of the 80s and 90s.

Beam makes light of Adler's inflexibility, but he does not entirely embrace the by-now clichéd disdain for the Great Books, because they represent something admirable that, perhaps, should be revived in our culture: "The animating idea behind publishing the Great Books, aside from making money for Britannica and the University of Chicago," Beam observes, "was populism, not elitism." The books were household gods. They shared the living room with the television, and they made you feel guilty for being intellectually passive, for not taking control of your own mental development, for putting democracy at risk. "And thousands of copies, perhaps tens of thousands, were actually read, and had an enormous impact on the lives of the men, women, and children who read them."

As David Brooks has observed in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster, 2000), middlebrow culture "seems a little dull and pretentious but well intentioned, and certainly better than some of the proudly illiterate culture that has taken its place." "Masscult" has triumphed over "midcult," coinages of Dwight MacDonald in a 1962 essay, and hardly anyone feels guilty about being entertained all the time.

The most comprehensive recent analysis of the cultural turn is Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon, 2008). In one chapter, Jacoby remembers the 1950s as a brief moment of intellectual aspiration among many Americans: "I look back on the middlebrow with affection, gratitude, and regret rather than condescension," she writes, "not because the Book-of-the-Month Club brought works of genius into my life, but because the monthly pronouncements of its reviewers encouraged me to seek a wider world."

The Great Books—along with all those Time-Life series—were often "purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing," Jacoby writes. They represented an old American belief—now endangered—that "anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself."

What has been lost, according to Jacoby, is a culture of intellectual effort. We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed. If we are determined to get on in life, we believe it will not have anything to do with our ability to reference Machiavelli or Adam Smith at the office Christmas party. The rejection of the Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment—as anyone who teaches college students can probably affirm.

For all their shortcomings, the Great Books—along with many other varieties of middlebrow culture—reflected a time when the liberal arts commanded more respect. They were thought to have practical value as a remedy for parochialism, bigotry, social isolation, fanaticism, and political and economic exploitation. The Great Books had a narrower conception of "greatness" than we might like today, but their foundational ideals were radically egalitarian and proudly intellectual.

As Beam concludes, "The Great Books are dead. Long live the Great Books." And, I might add: Long live middlebrow culture.

W.A. Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College.


1. rbtapp - October 05, 2009 at 12:47 pm

Right after World War II, a Chicago alum Wilbur Jerger started a "great books" program in southern California. Then a grad student, I taught one course at Long Beach City College in 1947, and then became a trainer of leaders. We finished off our course 1 with Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Adler visited us a year or so later inviting us to affiliate with his new national program and get access to their paperback sets. On one condition -- drop Joyce!

Pannapacker should have stressed the original Socratic style of leading: no extraneous comments either from leader or class. Stick to the text! This was indeed equalitarian, even middle-brow since it set a stage for focusing on the text with whatever analytic powers people were developing.

2. thomaslawrencelong - October 05, 2009 at 04:53 pm

I was the child of similarly aspirational parents (the first in their families to earn college degrees, which they did by attending part time four years of community college and four years of university while I was growing up). Formal education and a demonstration of a knowledge of the world were important to them then (and to me now).

You could do a lot worse.

3. ramesh1 - October 06, 2009 at 07:21 am

Though younger generation reading less classical books, there are many reason for that,too much T.V.,Internet and other entertainment sources till I believe classics will never die.I give you one example when very old classic Mahabharata[Indian epic] realised on T.V. new generation turn to read Mahabharata.So we must worry about classes they are immortal, many generation came go they will inspire to new generation.

4. mark_r_harris - October 06, 2009 at 08:47 am

Thanks for the essay! I too am a proud middlebrow, and I am glad to see this basically laudable side of Fifties and Sixties culture starting to get some appreciative attention. The fact that Mortimer Adler was a bit of a fusspot and makes an easy target (Joseph Epstein, a former employee, is just one of those who has skewered him) shouldn't serve to discredit the positive impulses behind the Great Books and similar efforts. I think that Adler and Company's biggest sin was rigidity; a fixed canon is a dead canon. But others more flexible might easily correct that without losing the Arnoldian inspiration, which I still fervently believe in. Expand "the best that has been known and thought in the world" to embrace all cultures and hitherto neglected groups and points of view, creating a porous and responsive and continually refreshed "canon": That is our own noble contemporary project. One needn't and shouldn't discard the notion of "greatness," which I think is as valuable and valid as ever.

My own prize possession as a kid was an early 1950s set of The Book of Knowledge, a wonderful, then-non alphabetic encyclopedia designed for reading. It opened the world for me.

5. shalomfreedman - October 06, 2009 at 08:49 am

W.A. Pannapacker rightly champions the 'great books' containing the 'the best that has been thought and said'.
But I suppose today even in a time dominated by the endless clickers and posters and 'short attention' jumpers from one thing to another there are those young spirits seeking to probe more deeply into life and into themselves. I imagine that even today true lovers of truth, true adventurers of mind still seek out the great books. And I imagine too that there are young dreamers, would- be- creators who would themselves become a part of the ' greats' of their and coming generations.
So while I enjoyed the story of the author of this article's individual quest I do not think he has to be worried about the future not having many others like him.

6. philippe - October 06, 2009 at 08:56 am

The Great Books concept is/was an updated version of the Harvard Classics, the "Five Foot Shelf" of classics that was published in the early 1900's. It was 50 books, I think, with a Reader's Guide and a booklet called "15 minutes a day." Sometime, somehow, my immigrant grandparents had purchased this set and it must have been read by my mother and aunts and uncle, since all five graduated from high school (no mean feat in the 1920's) and one went on to the University of Chicago, Phi Beta Kappa, grad degree, OSS in WWII. I would jump into these, and also into another fascinating set called "John Stoddard's Lectures,", from the 1890's-1910 era, which had lots of photos from around the world. I still have all of these. I agree with what Professor Pennapackar writes, that these books, or rather this concept, represents an old American belief that investing time and energy to better oneself is worth the effort. Good article!

7. 11891865 - October 06, 2009 at 10:04 am

It was hard reading Pannapacker's lovely essay (one of many--I still remember the essays under the Thomas Hart Benson byline fondly, and chuckled appreciatively when Pannapacker referred to Wolfe's view of the cultural elite as composed of ectomorphs, since as Benson he's written about the issue of weight) and not sigh in frustration. Give me a class full of strivers, please! Give me a class that doesn't take refuge in its own knowingness and asks questions because they want to know and aren't afraid to be uncool. Give me a class full of middlebrows. Where have they gone?

8. tedrey - October 06, 2009 at 10:38 am

Good heavens! I would rather deal with anyone who had sometime taken the effort to seriously deal with any seven of the great books, than any of those contemporary . . . PERSONS who make such an effort to rationalize their never approaching ANY of them!

9. llgrasmick - October 06, 2009 at 10:45 am

I agree with 11891865. My middlebrow students are often my favorites. They WANT to be in class. The WANT to learn.

10. luigi - October 06, 2009 at 01:56 pm

It sounds like we all agree. No one has mentioned the supermarket encyclopedias--the first volume costs only one dollar. Growing up, I spent a lot of hours reading those pages. Even as an adult intellectual, my heart leapt when I went to a used book sale and found a box containing the Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization ($5). If you're past worrying about the latest trend in revisionist history, those books are a great read and are so eloquently written. My parents firmly believed that education was the pathway to success, and they were right, no matter how you define "success."

11. fossil - October 06, 2009 at 02:10 pm

What has to be stressed is that the books comparising the "Great Books" set are, indeed, great books--and that the vociferous critics of the very idea of a great book who have infested academic life in recent decades aren't capable of producing even modestly good books. Of course, one can criticize those who lined their shelves with such a collection, but never troubled to read even one volume. But that's hardly a sin unique to an insecure American middle class!! The privileged classes, historically speaking, are hardly less philistine.

For my own part, as an adolescent, I never acquired a "Great Books" set, but rather a Great Music collection of a few dozen very cheap LPs, to which I listened constantly. My own canons of musical taste, to which I still passionately adhere, were formed by that experience. Some of those works were indubitably great, some mediocre, and some trivial potboilers. I learned, I should like to think, to tell the difference,, at least to my own satisfaction. But, doubtless, any fresh-from-the-final-public-oral Cultural Studies Ph.D, will tell me that I have merely acquired a socially-determined musical taste-culture that is a marker of the hegemonic pretensions of late capitalist values, and has nothing to do with any supposed superiority of the b-minor Mass over the rap classics of Death Row Records.

Like hell, say I.

12. em_painter - October 06, 2009 at 02:12 pm

The connection of work is important here, and an important reason why great books don't generally speak to Americans any more. For a variety of historical and economic reasons, we have developed an economy which rewards gambling on random financial operations. We have broken the connection between work and reward.

The most visible political development in this direction was the severing of the dollar-gold link in 1973. After this, you could make a lot more money by betting on the movement of currency, and its effect on the price of corn, while the grower of corn became just a subject for arbitrage. Forget the fact that it was food of course.

The elites who had the capital to play this game, and who determine what goes on at the highest level of cultural consumption, developed a taste for things which would gratify what they were doing at work. If you were dealing in fakes all day, obviously you wanted Warhols around you, things which you could deal away later without really worrying what they looked like.

The problem for a presumably liberal professor is that the liberal heroics of the postwar generation naturally became top-down, elitist proscriptions upon the popular will. It's the elite which doesn't want success to follow work, and the elite which benefits most from the chaos economy we have now. Put it together.

13. walterdw - October 06, 2009 at 02:52 pm

A great blessing to have received encouragement from your article.
Readers of Great Books (of all kinds) know that learning is fun.
I have dedicated much of my life to that proposition, and hope to share the fun with my students.

Keep enjoying--that's the chief end of man the last time I checked.

14. styles - October 06, 2009 at 02:58 pm

Though Paul Fussell's "half-witted" quip on the Syntopicon I can partly understand, I wholly appreciate the intellectual deal I got in once spending $10 on but those two volumes. Beats Google still, generally speaking.

15. sisgett - October 06, 2009 at 04:23 pm

I got my set free, before it was about to be discarded by a private elementary school where my wife once taught. Sure, there are a lot of dead, white men on that shelf. Now my shelves are also adorned by the works of living and dead, men and women of all colors. The ability to appreciate them, fueled in part by the "Great Books," has opened my post-Ph.D. mind to many worlds that might have been left unexplored but for the impact of the "greats."

16. blakeman - October 06, 2009 at 09:17 pm

I really connect to much of this. I recall being embarrassed when I was younger by not knowing the classics -- until I made it a point of reading a great number of them. They enrich my life in countless ways every day. But the sad thing is that when I reference these books today (1) my colleagues can't speak to me about them, and (2) my students express no embarrassment in not knowing them or any inclination to investigate (with some rare and notable exceptions).

One wonders how things might be different in this regard had the notion of a core been retained.

17. mfeltes - October 07, 2009 at 12:25 am

There are still a few of us left who hew to the old ways.


18. suevanhattum - October 07, 2009 at 09:55 am

>What has to be stressed is that the books comprising the "Great Books" set are, indeed, great books--and that the vociferous critics of the very idea of a great book who have infested academic life in recent decades aren't capable of producing even modestly good books.

I enjoyed most of the comments here, but please don't push the pendulum back the other way, folks. I suppose I'm middlebrow (I hadn't heard the term before), but not at all in the way the author described. My dad was the first in his family to go to college, my mom never did finish college. They're both big readers. They may care about status, but I never did much. I read voraciously because it was what I liked to do.

I went to the University of Michigan in 74, and their honors program included a course in Great Books for entering students. (It started with the Bible, included lots of Greeks, and ended with Dante and Faust. Nothing originally in English, which my higer-brow roommate pointed out.) I had just spent the previous year reading every feminist book I could get my hands on, and was pretty disgusted at all the male heroics. I think I would have liked The Iliad and the Odyssey more when I was young and reading The Arabian Nights. The professor would talk about universal themes, and I'd sit there thinking about how the themes felt pretty male to me. (In a lecture hall of hundreds it wasn't easy to comment.) My favorite semi-universal theme is overcoming oppression, and I didn't see much of that in the books we read.

How about Oprah's pushing of great books? No capitals here; I'll bet she doesn't think of her choices as a canon. (I wouldn't know for sure, as I don't watch TV. I just hear people who do talking about her books.) She has gotten lots of people (many you'd call lowbrow, I think) reading, and discussing, better books.

I think it's possible to have a respect for great literature that doesn't include the notion of a canon. Instead of alleged universal themes that don't include me (as a woman, or as a lesbian) or my friends of color, let's think together about what might be universal themes, and how differently they might be expressed in different works.

My degrees are in math, but I considered a second masters in literature. It won't happen, though - too much pretension in lit courses, and I can't stand being graded on my thoughts. [I blog on math education issues at Math Mama Writes (mathamamawrite.blogspot.com), and I have some reviews of children's books at andalltherestofsue.blogspot.com. They're in collections of "a dozen delectable books about x".]

My personal canon inclues The Color Purple, The Salt Eaters (Bamabara), The Yellow Wallpaper (Gilman), The Bean Trees (Kingsolver), and The Word for World is Forest (LeGuin). I'd love to hear what books others think of as 'great books', that aren't in the traditional canon.

One last bit: I was intrigued to see this side of Viginia Woolf. The side of her I know best is displayed in A Room of One's Own, where she dissects sexism by looking at books on Woman in the British Library. (Her upper-class perspective did show in her notion of genteel poverty being someone with a small inheritance.)

19. jkcohen - October 07, 2009 at 05:37 pm

I think middlebrow culture is still alive, in the form of the public library, where the message on the often none-too-carefully-selected shelves is "Read something! Anything!" Pop psychology is bedded down with Freud, astrology with astronomy. It's meant for people for whom the acts of reading and self-education are more important than their object.

When I read the Great Books these days, I am fastidious. I wonder how anyone could make out what Plato was saying based on Benjamin Jowett's public domain translation. But, reading that same translation in a public library back in my childhood, I was entranced by the play of ideas -- and that is a "middlebrow" ideal worth upholding.

20. malvais - October 07, 2009 at 07:51 pm

Another product of middlebrow culture here: Not only did I watch far too much Masterpiece Theater and Mystery on PBS, which had some ambivalent influences on my mental life (making me a sort of jejeune Anglophile in high school), but I also attended the "Great Books Program" at St. John's College in Annapolis and Santa Fe, which while not using this multi-volume set as texts, was still created and inspired by Adler and his cohort. St. John's still has a very strictly white, Western, almost exclusively male curriculum. Its strength is that it gives great grounding in these classic texts, something which I can see lacking in many of my undergraduate students, but its weaknesses are also those enumerated--namely, by focusing on close readings of these texts in an ahistorical context, it elides issues of race/class/gender, and of current cultural studies and events. It also bypasses other fields of study like sociology or art history (though there is a year of music education). The truth is that it's difficult to fit all that can be known and thought into four years. I don't regret my education, although in retrospect I came to see its faults as rather severe in certain ways. For me personally, it directed my life in ways that I might have not taken had I had the opportunity to explore other electives or interests. It also meant that when I went on to graduate school I was completely behind the times in terms of "theory" and the culture wars. This was alleviated to a certain extent by my childhood personal history, in which feminist activism and issues of colonialism played a significant part, but I only knew these as personal experiences, not in terms of the academic discourse on the subject.

21. ex_ag - October 07, 2009 at 09:22 pm

The Great Books and those supermarket encyclopedias were like Frosty the Snowman's hat and Santa Claus.

They were magical--and oblivious to cries for political correctness or diversity. Like me, most of my smartest friends can recall happy childhood memories thumbing through those books on cold or rainy days.

It is, of course, fashionable now to cluck our tongues at our own ignorance. And for an adult, the kind of blind faith I had in those volumes would be shameful.

But we are all painfully aware of what happens when we take our zeal for scorn too far. The humanities are falling apart precisely because we are so quick to hiss and spit at any notion of a canon. We have essentially deconstructed ourselves and destroyed all our illusions (including all our beliefs).

And after all that, we scratch our heads and wonder why our students never caught the learning bug. It's not because someone else showed them how to turn on the television. It's because we destroyed any magic they might have seen in those old books.

22. claudiaalta - October 08, 2009 at 09:30 am

My father went to college later in life; my mother not at all. They were not big readers. Making sure the Junior Great Books were in the house (almost the only books in the house) was one of the best things they ever did for us, even though they didn't read the books themselves. My sisters and I all went to college; as the youngest it was somehow just assumed that I would earn a doctorate, and I did, in psychology. To sneer at the idea that parents want their children to do a little better than they did is, frankly, stupid.

When the kindly dean, a literary type, comes into my office, he's a little uncomfortable about my books, because they don't allow him to judge. To tease him, I talk about the virtues of Stephen King or Larry McMurtry and watch him squirm, longing to set me straight but too polite to do so. Then I go back to working in an area whose sheer un-intellectuality is one of its best gifts. I'm happy just to be useful in a concrete manner. Doubtless middlebrow, and fine with it.

23. shansmann - October 08, 2009 at 10:35 am

MIddlebrow? Check. Aspirational? Check. But thank God my parents purchased every Brittanica "Book of the Year" and "Book fo Science and Technology" for me from kindergarten to my first year in college... I might not have made it TO that first college year without either the books or the striving parents.

24. 11266895 - October 08, 2009 at 02:14 pm

It is a sad state of affairs in the study of English that an article serving to highlight--however filled with trepidation--the value that the canon has to understanding the human condition is even necessary, let alone clearly intended to be revolutionary. Without understanding Plato and Aristotle, for example, one simply cannot understand the development of Western political thought. These texts are great because they are the wellspring of Western Civilization and not reading them is akin to purposely turning one's back on our culture.

25. al_wallace - October 08, 2009 at 04:13 pm

I think much of the heightened awareness of being "middlebrow" is an affliction of the those in the humanities. Those that don't pick at the corpses of culture are less obligated to castigate it. We also view a world full of naked emperors and get bonus points for telling them so.

26. laoshi - October 09, 2009 at 09:39 am

This article would be stronger if the author had researched more about the Great Books. One of the unique features of this canon is that it was the foundation for Great Books discussion groups all around the US. During my undergrad years I participated in the Great Books club of Daly City, California, which I'm sure is defunct now.

Discussion groups for these books made them more than shelf-decorations, and allowed for constructivist learning between citizens of all ages and all walks of life.

27. beautifulbooks - October 11, 2009 at 07:58 pm

Thank you for the essay. So, I am a "middlebrow" -- I can handle that. Growing up, I gobbled whatever books were handy, dragging "Veterinary Notes for Horseowners" to my elementary school class for free reading or, as a teen, plowing through grocery sacks of trashy romance novels after my mother finished with them. Now in my 40's, I am greatly enjoying finding the so-called Great Books accessible -- with a lot of help from Teaching Company DVDs and CDs.

Working as a nurse, homeschooling my teen-aged son and continuing to pursue my own self-education, I am sincerely hoping for a resurgence of ordinary folks striving to better themselves. When I look around I am very concerned there are fewer and fewer people who seem qualified or interested in participating in any civic responsibilities. How much longer will we trend towards oligarchy? Can we turn it around? Sigh....

28. tolerantly - October 12, 2009 at 02:25 am

Wait. So you mean my set of Harvard Classics has been keeping the English dept. theorists away all these years?

Christ, I knew they were good, but I didn't realize they were that good. Imagine what I could've done with a nice set of HG Wells.

29. 135711 - October 12, 2009 at 06:50 am

I am decidedly 'middlebrow.' A few things really spoke to me in this article and the comments: "It is, of course, fashionable now to cluck our tongues at our own ignorance." I am a recent graduate of a state school with a generic BS degree. I attended classes at night with other adults and some 'normal' college kids. They heaped scorn on those of us 'old' people who actually came to class and particpiated, I heard more than a few comments directed our way. It is sad that our younger generation wears their ingorance of many things as a badge of honor. My home is filled with books. I still have the volumes that sat on the homemade bookshelf in our drafty upstairs hall when I was a child. I read them still. I hope that I can instill the same longing for knowledge in my son that my parents instilled in me. I don't care if he digs ditches for a living or discovers life on another planet or wins a Nobel Prize. The important part is that he is exposed to a wide array of subjects. There is a reason, I suspect, that most of the people who read this article and comment are good at Jeopardy; we have a broad range of knowledge. I'll never forget my high school English teacher who saw me with a Nietzsche work and said "your mother is going to be upset when she sees you reading that..." I went home and asked my mom why this would be and she took the time to explain that because we were Catholic and because she (mom) taught Sunday school, that my teacher assumed I was in hot water. She then told me that I could read whatever I wanted no matter what others thought. She still believes this, even 25 years later as we argue about the Dawkins volumes placed strategically next to a KJ Bible on my bookshelf. Priceless.

30. nwslater - October 16, 2009 at 09:38 am

By the way, Beam misquotes Mencken, whose term was the "booboisie." It looks like someone in the 1940s came up with "boobocracy," either to use it with more specific relation to power-politics or to reach an audience too lowbrow to fathom the allusion in "booboisie."

31. strider - October 16, 2009 at 05:24 pm

I remember fondly the Durant books, but then I'm more of a historian than a literary maven. To me, the Great Books probably have as much if not more historical and general cultural value as literary value, and should be taught that way.

As for today's students, sigh... The root notion that if something is hard to understand it is not worth knowing is incredibly hard to extirpate, and even more depressing.

32. dajhilton - October 17, 2009 at 11:12 pm

A wonderful article, but it does seem a telling irony that neither the author, nor any Chronicle editor, seems to have noticed the error in the second paragraph where Kenneth, Lord Clark is referred to erroneously by a title ("Lord Kenneth Clark") which denotes that he was the son of a Marquis, Earl, or Viscount, which he certainly was not. He was the son of a commoner, and was himself appointed a Baron (as a Life Peer) in 1969. So, like any Peer, he is referred to as Kenneth, Lord Clark. Or simply Lord Clark.

It is not middlebrow insecurity to learn these simple distinctions. It is just basic respect for correctness and the avoidance of error.

DAJ Hilton

33. post_functional - November 30, 2009 at 01:16 am

"These texts are great because they are the wellspring of Western Civilization and not reading them is akin to purposely turning one's back on our culture."

"Our" culture? Uh oh....

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