It was a summer morning sometime between sixth and seventh grade. I woke up and heard an adult voice in the kitchen. It was not my Dad. The voice was familiar, but I could not place it. I threw on some clothes and made my way down the stairs to the kitchen only to find my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Fischer, sitting at the table with my Mom. The table was filled with opened boxes of cereal, a carton of milk, half-eaten bowls of Rice Krispies , and crumbs from pieces of toast. Clearly my brothers had already passed through for breakfast. My Mom was trying to calm my newly born sister and at the same time carry on a civil conversation with Mr. Fischer. He was dressed in a suit and tie with a briefcase full of brochures. I was somewhat embarrassed as I greeted my former teacher. It was obvious that I had just rolled out of bed. I was also a bit irritated that my school world and summer world had collided in the family kitchen.
As it turns out, Mr. Fischer was selling World Book encyclopedias and seemed to be a making a rather compelling sales pitch. Later my Mom would say that she only bought the encyclopedias to get Mr. Fischer out of the house, but I knew that that was not the whole story. Though we were a working-class family, my mother was always concerned about the intellectual growth of her kids (although she would not have put it that way).
My brothers and I devoured our World Book encyclopedias. We would not only use them for school reports and papers, but we often read them for fun. To this day, more than thirty volumes, with their brown and black covers, still sit on my parent’s bookshelf.
I thought about my Mom and the World Book encyclopedia today when I read W.A. Pannapacker’s essay “Confessions of Middlebrow Professor.” Though he was also raised in a working-class home, Pannapaker’s upbringing seemed to be a lot more cultured mine. But I can relate to his parents’ concern that he have access to great ideas. In his case, it was a 54 volume set of the “Great Books of the Western World.” Pannapacker reminds us that the Great Books series, edited by Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins, were popular among the post-World War II rising middle class. They served as “expressions of hope for many people who had historically not had access to higher education.” I can’t help but think, at some level, this may have been what my mother had in mind when she bought us our World Books. Both the Great Books collection and the World Book encyclopedia were visible signs–on the bookshelf for all to see– of social mobility.
The Great Books are often criticized for being racist and sexist. This is certainly a legitimate criticism. I am sure a close reading of my parent’s World Book encyclopedia would reveal similar problems. Yet, call me nostalgic or overly conservative, but I agree with Pannapacker that there may still be some worth in recovering parts of the world in which the Great Books were first published. Pannapacker writes (the mention of “Jacoby” is a reference to Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason):
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.
I have read several of the works in the “Great Books” collection, but I have always wanted to read them through in a systematic way. Perhaps someday this will happen. But in the meantime, does anyone have a 54 volume set that want to sell me?