In the second chapter of The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Tim Lacy explores the commodification and branding of a “great books” reading list under the Britannica imprint, the 1952 Great Books of the Western World set. Part of that branding involved framing the texts in the set as part of “the Great Conversation.” This catch phrase, bandied about by the editorial committee prior to its broader circulation via Robert Hutchins’s introductory volume of the same title, posited an underlying unity tying these disparate texts together via their dialogic engagement with the so-called “Great Ideas.”
In this post, I will draw upon Jamie Cohen-Cole’s work on Cold War academics in order to better understand how this marketing slogan – “the Great Conversation” — succinctly conveys the historical context of its coinage. Following that, I will offer some observations on why neither this particular term nor perhaps even the idea behind it played any significant role in the debates taking place on the Stanford campus in the 1980s.
In “The Creative American: Cold War Salons, Social Science, and the Cure for Modern Society,” Jamie Cohen-Cole explores how Cold War social scientists arrived at a new understanding of the ideal modal type of the well-adjusted citizen: neither a conformist nor a revolutionary, neither a lone wolf nor a sheep. In place of an earlier era’s privileging of “genius,” with its connotations of irrationality and unpredictability, post-war social scientists focused instead on “creativity,” a trait that came to be understood as touching upon both personal autonomy and interpersonal sociability. Cohen-Cole shows how the social scientific discourse linking creativity, autonomy and the freedoms of a liberal democratic society gained currency beyond the academy, providing “the American public with techniques of self-inspection, tools for self-management, and benchmarks to which they could aspire” (Cohen-Cole 222). Nevertheless, the social scientists’ vision of a “pluralist national society” of well-adjusted creative individuals “characterized by their flexibility, good manners, and open-minded tolerance of difference” was modeled on their own experience of an ideal social milieu: the academy.
Cohen-Cole explains: “Interdisciplinary activity within a group of academics offered not only a model of how people with different concerns might achieve mutual understanding but also the chance to achieve a piece of the genuine, face-to-face community that many saw vanishing with the emergence of modern mass society. Accordingly, whether in extended exegesis or offhand remark, when thinking about how to improve national culture intellectuals repeatedly referenced the forms of life that held academic society together.” The author cites a couple of examples here — remarks by J. Robert Oppenheimer extolling the virtue of dinner parties as a means to mutual understanding, and the language of Harvard’s General Education in a Free Society pointing to the convivial atmosphere of the Harvard houses as essential to “educational conversation.” Cohen-Cole concludes, “The job for general education, then, was to teach people with all types of expertise how to sit down at dinner and understand one another” (254).
Thus, in Cohen-Cole’s reading, the academic dinner party and academics’ social lives served as a model in miniature for how society as a whole should function. The conviviality of the gifted conversationalists, the pluralistic, tolerant, erudite and cosmopolitan sociability of the “smart set” – these characteristics were the hallmark of the well-adjusted, well-educated individual, recognizable by his or her ability to move with ease in this kind of social setting.
The marketing slogan “the Great Conversation” capitalized on this valorization of smart sociability. While the term ostensibly referred to the supposed dialogic or dramaturgical interrelationships of the texts included in the set, it also offered aspiring consumers the chance to “buy in” to the (presumed) discourse of the educated cosmopolitan elites who were already privy to “the conversation.” In this sense, the marketing of the Britannica books played upon the same kinds of concerns that the Book-of-the-Month-Club played up for profit: the anxiety over making sure one would be able to converse intelligently regarding the books everyone is talking about. Moreover, as Tim has pointed out, both in his book and in his recent post on the blog, conversation was central to the marketing and sales strategy for the set. The film with Hutchinson and Adler was framed as a conversation. Too, the sales pitch for the books was best delivered as a friendly chat in a family’s living room, ideally as part of a small gathering of friends and neighbors enjoying hors d’oeuvres and drinks.
What Britannica was selling with the slogan “the Great Conversation” was not traditionalism but contemporary style. They were selling to people outside of the academy an image of what academic life was like, and a chance to experience life as those inside the academy (presumably) experienced it. Master these books, the sales strategy implied, and you too can be a clever, urbane, cosmopolitan conversationalist. This was a sales pitch that would have appealed to people who felt themselves to be outsiders — or felt they were looked upon as such — but who very much wanted to be insiders. As Tim points out, a market survey revealed that those with the highest education levels were unlikely to purchase the Britannica set — they didn’t need the help figuring out what texts were or were not suitable for smart conversation.
This outsider/insider dynamic explains, I think, why “the Great Conversation” as a term or an idea did not play any significant role in the on-campus debate at Stanford in the 1980s. After poring over practically every extant archival document at Stanford University relating to the Western Culture debate of the 1980s, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that no one defending the use of a core reading list understood those readings as exemplifying or participating in a “Great Conversation.” The idea simply does not appear in any of the debates taking place on the campus – at least not as far as I can see from the historical record. And that’s to be expected – while the professors who were debating whether and how to change the curriculum were no doubt all adept enough at academic cocktail party conversation, they were not speaking as generalists or as academic outsiders. Even when contending for the virtues of a general liberal education, they argued from positions of acknowledged professional expertise. And, unless they happened to have been educated at the University of Chicago during the Hutchins era, the notion of “the Great Conversation” would not have formed or informed their professional training.
This is not to say that “conversation” was not a concern. Indeed, a central argument of those who favored a core reading list was the notion that a shared set of texts would provide a common ground for student conversation across the dinner table or the breakfast table or the library study table. As I mentioned in a previous post, Ronald Rebholz was a key figure in this on-campus debate, and he repeatedly expressed a concern that the loss of a core list of texts read in common among all freshmen would mean the loss of a common basis of conversation among the student body — a worry that fits in very well with Daniel Rodgers’s reading of the Stanford debate as a sign of anxiety about “fracture.” If there was a sense of a “great conversation” at Stanford, that conversation was not to be found in the supposedly dialogic relationship of the various texts on a syllabus, but in the dialogue taking place between students, between students and professors, and between professors and their colleagues at Stanford and other universities.
I am not arguing that there was no notion — at least among some curricular combatants — of a hierarchy of texts, with some texts considered more deserving of sustained critical attention than others. Nor am I suggesting that there was no sense of a larger and longer cultural/textual heritage among those Stanford professors who were contending for the retention of a core reading list – or, for that matter, among those professors who wanted to see that list/heritage either expanded or supplanted. But the scholars engaged in debate at Stanford were already part of the ideal social world of the pluralist, liberal, secular academy — and their students were as well, not because they had read this or that particular text, but because (as John Guillory would argue) they read those texts (or other texts, or even no texts at all) at Stanford University. The institutional setting imbued the contents of the curriculum with cultural authority, not vice versa.
The content of a “Stanford education” has changed repeatedly over the years; the prestige of a Stanford education, its cultural cachet — or (following Guillory) its cultural capital – these seem not to have greatly suffered from such changes. Whether this should be the case or not, whether this will continue to be the case or not — these aren’t the questions I am aiming to answer. (Not now, anyhow.) Still, when the conversation of the academy shifts (as it has, repeatedly, in the history of the American university), then those who have invested time and money into mastering the (presumed) conventions of that conversation at one particular moment might well feel marooned by the drift of the discourse. In fact, in the broader public response to the Stanford debate, there were allusions to “the Great Conversation” — probably a demonstration of the long-term success of the Britannica marketing campaign in imbuing that 1950s marketing slogan with a veneer of timelessness, but certainly a discussion best left for another post.
 Ronald Rebholz, “Proposal Will Stretch Existing Tracks to the Breaking Point,” Campus Record, Feb. 10, 1988, p. 21.