What Makes Us Unique  --  Great Books  -- Individual Mission
“If there is some purpose of the things we do...will not knowledge of it have a great influence on life?  Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should?  If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is.”   - Aristotle


        Greatness means excellence – the highest and best materials on which the human mind can work in order to gain insight, understanding, and wisdom.  In 1921 John Erskine taught a General Honors course at Columbia University, using a list of 52 books he had compiled called the “Classics of Western Civilization.”   He combined the classics with a discussion group approach – now commonly called a Socratic discussion or Socratic seminar.  He had his students read one classic a week and then meet for a two-hour discussion sitting round a large oval table. 

        Mortimer J. Adler took the course as a student.    He wrote this tongue-in-cheek statement “Most professionals teach by telling; amateurs, among whom Socrates was a paragon, teach by questioning.”  It wasn’t just the excellence of the materials which Erskine had selected that made the course effective, it was the excellence of the Socratic teaching method as well.  It was the fortuitous combination of the two that clicked.  Erskine’s students were stimulated, delighted and enlightened by his course. 

        In 1927 Adler was appointed to reconsider Erskine’s list of classics. Adler’s revised list included 130 authors. Finally, in 1947 Sen. William Benton asked Adler and others to draw up a definitive list for publication by Encyclopaedia Britannica as the Great Books of the Western World set.  The advisory board, now with many years and broad experience in the Great Books movement, after consultation, reexamination and many votes, compiled a final list including 74 authors (433 works) which was published in a 54 volume set, including a 2-volume “great ideas” index (the Syntopicon) edited by Adler. 

The selection criteria are interesting:

            1.  Contemporary significance

            2.  Readability

            3.  Extensive relevance to the great ideas

            4.  Indispensability to anyone’s education

        They gradually discovered in their discussion groups that they were also participating in a much larger group discussion, one spanning the centuries of 3000 years, (the Great Conversation). The authors of the classics often wrote about what their predecessors had to say about this idea or that, and responded to it by commenting on it or refuting it.  The topics they wrote about tended to be the same, and they carried the discussion one or more steps further.  After two years, 102 key ideas had been selected and called the Great Ideas.  Through their books, the thoughts of the authors of the classics continually influence the living, in each generation right up to our day. 

(Taken from an article called “The Great Books Movement” by Patrick S. J. Carmack)