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A Curmudgeon Stands His Ground : 'Great Books' editor Mortimer J. Adler rejects the growing challenges to his list of Western readings

December 03, 1990|ELIZABETH VENANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mortimer J. Adler is puffing on the thick stub of a pungent post-prandial cigar, addressing the subject of what it means to be educated in America.

The 89-year-old warhorse of the "great books" battles--philosopher, classifier par excellence and author of 46 books on thought--doesn't actually discuss the matter. Rather, in hallmark curmudgeon style, he pronounces, denounces, dismisses, and, when a challenging notion seems too contemptible to consider, merely stares it down like a cur.

At a time when approaches to education are as diverse as the multicultural society they seek to serve, Adler is uncannily free of scholarly doubts.

"An educated person is one who, through the travail of his own life, has assimilated the ideas that make him representative of his culture," he once wrote in a newspaper editorial.

From Adler's perspective, the culture of citizens of the United States is founded upon the ideas of the philosophers and writers of Western Europe, from ancient Greece through the 17th- and 18th-Century Enlightenment in France, Germany and England. Their major works are contained in the series, "Great Books of the Western World," sold through Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., and presided over by Adler as editor-in-chief.

Originally published in 1952, the "Great Books" established a widely available standard of cultural excellence. In the intervening decades, Adler has been hailed as the tireless propagator of reading the classics in this country, a practice followed for centuries in European universities.

This fall, the "Great Books" have been revised, with a black-tie banquet at the Library of Congress to fete the publication. Consisting of 60 volumes, 130 authors and 517 works, the set has been expanded to include 60 new entries. For the first time, it admits 45 thinkers and writers from the 20th Century, as well as 15 new figures from the past, and introduces four women--one American, Willa Cather, and the English novelists Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

While the 1952 editorial board was entirely Anglo-Saxon, consultants for the second edition include academics from Ghana, France and Japan, as well as a woman and Mexican poet/writer Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz.

Though Adler allows that a balance has been achieved among works from France, Germany and England, the rest of Europe is sparsely represented or omitted. Cervantes' "Don Quixote" is the sole example of Spanish-language culture, and there are no contributions from blacks.

Predictably, liberal academicians and critics have bridled. The fact that certain names do not appear, they argue, demonstrates that in an ethnically diverse society the business of high-brow list-making is both prejudicial and passe.

"The crux of the current debate is, 'Is there a Western tradition?' And does this tradition still represent what Matthew Arnold called the best that has been thought and said," says James Atlas, critic and author of "The Book Wars," which delineates the battle lines.

Protests historian Paul Seaver, director of Stanford University's Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV) program, which last year replaced the core curriculum of 15 books: "We can all make up lists depending on what it is we're interested in. A list that focuses on philosophy, as the 'Great Books' do, is not wrong. But it isn't the only way of looking at things."

E. D. Hirsch Jr., professor of English at the University of Virginia, and author of the best-selling book, "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know," argues that not only is a canon of literary works not necessary, it is not necessary to read entire books as long as there is a shared knowledge of cultural "items." "I'm not interested in whether anybody ever reads 'Romeo and Juliet.' I'm interested that when 'Romeo and Juliet' is mentioned people will know what I'm talking about."

Radical feminist and Duke University English professor Jane Tompkins contends that colleges and universities do not adequately reflect the real world in which their students live and learn.

Tompkins, who has taught such courses as "Popular Women's Novels of the 20th Century," would expand teaching materials from lists of books to include movies, TV shows and songs. "The idea of just having books is totally out of date culturally speaking. The world tells its story to itself now in a number of different media."

Henry Louis (Skip) Gates, Duke University professor and perhaps the country's most influential and fashionable black scholar, lambastes the "Great Books" committee for a "profound disrespect for the intellectual capacities of people of color--red, brown or yellow.

"Here was a chance for Mortimer Adler and company to redefine what our notion of the great tradition really is. But rather than to confront the challenge of the 21st Century . . . they turned backward toward the 19th Century. That will be seen historically as a great mistake."

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