Who're You Calling Stodgy? | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Who're You Calling Stodgy? 

The Great Books Foundation polishes up its image.

Fall 2001 was a lousy time to start a magazine; the Common Review had just put out its inaugural issue when the World Trade Center was attacked: The difficulties were huge, says editor Daniel Born. "We had to totally rethink [the next] issue. Do you make it topical or timeless?" Ultimately, Born shot for both, writing in winter 2001 that "the life of the mind must go on, and ideas need not and cannot be suffocated under the weight of headlines or even keening, unquenchable grief."

The quarterly Common Review is the brainchild of former Great Books Foundation president Peter Temes (who's since moved on to become president of Antioch New England Graduate School). Temes envisioned a publication that would help counter the impression that the 56-year-old organization had grown stodgy. "People over 60 are more likely to know us," he says. "The magazine was to make the Great Books Foundation more visible and to connect more with the general population."

The Chicago-based nonprofit foundation was founded in 1947 by University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins and philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler. Hutchins believed that a liberal education had become the province of the academic elite but that the "common man" required higher learning to engage in the public dialogue that makes a democracy great. Toward that end, the foundation started informal adult discussion groups, led by trained facilitators, for the purpose of reading and discussing the classics: Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Moby-Dick.

"We have built up around the 'classics' such an atmosphere of pedantry, we have left them so long to the scholarly dissectors, that we think of them as incomprehensible to the ordinary man to whom they were originally addressed," Hutchins wrote in his 1954 manifesto, Great Books: The Foundation of a Liberal Education.

"Do you need a liberal education? I say that it is unpatriotic not to read great books. You may reply that you are patriotic enough without them. I say that you are gravely cramping your human possibilities if you do not read these books."

While the foundation's original focus was on adult discussion groups (about 15,000 people now participate), in the 1960s most of its energy, according to Born, was channeled into the Junior Great Books program, which today reaches a million schoolkids internationally through discussion groups on "age-appropriate" literature. The foundation also offers classes in art and music appreciation and educational tours like this May's "To Hell and Back With Dante" in Siena and November's "The 'Lost Generation' of the Twenties" in Paris. But it still has facilitators who'll help you get through Ulysses.

"The Great Books Foundation heyday was the 50s," says Born. "Hutchins and Adler made the cover of Time magazine. Go figure why, but there was this tremendous upsurge of interest in adult education....The foundation went into a kind of slow decline starting in the 60s, and it was identified with the University of Chicago, with that kind of bookishness. The University of Chicago was the only one I know that sacked its football program.

"A group of adults sitting around in salons, talking about Plato," he continues, "really became kind of a quaint image."

In fall 2000, Temes contacted Born, an English professor at Marietta College in Ohio whom he had met and become friends with at a conference. "How'd you like to move to Chicago and start a magazine?" Temes asked. "Great," Born says he replied. "How much money and how much freedom?" But it wasn't that simple. For one thing, he had tenure. "That's something most professors don't simply walk away from." For another, Marietta was "in many ways the idyllic, picture-perfect college--photogenic, beautiful. It was a great place to raise a child. It's on the Ohio River. So the issue was, do I want to spend the rest of my life in this fine little town with this fine little college? Is this what it is? And I said, 'OK, I have an opportunity to move to Chicago, to try something, to gamble in a way. To launch something very tenuous, but with great potential. And to do something on a bigger stage. And if I don't do it I'm going to be unhappy."

Born already had Chicago connections. He was born in Montana in 1956, the son of Mennonite missionaries, and spent his formative years in Brazil, where his father taught the New Testament at a seminary in Curitiba. He came back to the States in 1974 to study English and philosophy at Tabor College in Kansas, then went to the University of Kansas for his master's. He could've taken a teaching job at a small Mennonite junior college in Kansas, he says, but his wife, Mary Classen, got a job as a social worker in Chicago and they decided to move to the city. Born found work at Kroch's & Brentano's, and the couple settled in Lakeview for two years.

In 1982 Born got an offer to run a bookstore in Manhattan. He and Mary had just seen the movie Reds, with its "romantic take on intellectuals and artists in Greenwich Village," so they packed up and headed east. "We ended up living in Jersey," says Born, "for which she has never forgiven me." He enrolled in grad school at CUNY, where Alfred Kazin taught modern American fiction and Irving Howe was his dissertation director. While working on his dissertation, he also taught at Queens College. Then he got the position at Marietta.

"It was time," he says. "We had a kid. We lived in a 700-square-foot condo in Union City....There's something romantic to living in a tough neighborhood when you don't have kids, but it loses its charm once the baby comes." He was at Marietta almost exactly ten years before he moved back to Chicago to launch the Common Review.

The Common Review has its roots in the Gadfly, the foundation's in-house organ in the 50s, which began as a four-page newsletter touting "The Great Books Today" and listing the activities of discussion groups around the city. Later issues featured essays by thinkers like T.S. Eliot and Lewis Mumford--and, of course, Adler and Hutchins.

After almost two years, the magazine has built a circulation of 10,000. The latest issue, like all the others, is pretty eclectic. In Born's editorial, "Singing the Wrath of Achilles," he comments on the recent dustup between the White House and antiwar poets. Feature articles include scholar David Neidorf on "How to Abuse a Classic," journalist Nat Hentoff on "The War on the Bill of Rights--and the Gathering Resistance," and psychologist Ralph J. Hood on snake handling. The magazine also runs book reviews, cartoons by the likes of Lynda Barry and Amy Krouse Rosenthal, travelogues, and poetry. And it is, as Born said, full of serious ideas, even if that summons up images of stuffed shirts sulking around mahogany tables.

"A lot of magazines are extremely focused on personalities and trends," says Born. "It's the influence of People on high culture. What is that 'average reader'? I'm more interested in an article that talks about Stanley Fish's ideas rather than the color of his tweed jacket or the way he likes to talk like a tough plumber from time to time. And we published an article that did that. What are the lasting ideas going to be when the personalities fade?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Jerome Ludwig

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Stück 1998/Anchor 2018 Links Hall at Constellation
February 15
Performing Arts
Franklinland The Frontier
January 25

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories