U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Sold on the Great Conversation

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.”[1]  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.


[1] Ronald Rebholz, “Proposal Will Stretch Existing Tracks to the Breaking Point,” Campus Record, Feb. 10, 1988, p. 21.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I expected nothing less than these kinds of smart observations from LD whenever she decided to start rolling out bits and pieces of her work on the Stanford Affair. This post doesn’t disappoint.

    I have two thoughts—the first sort out of step with your post, and the second entirely in step with it:

    1. LD wrote: “Master these books, the sales strategy implied, and you too can be a clever, urbane, cosmopolitan conversationalist.” …I can see why this link has been made. It makes a lot of sense, and seems common sensical. I mean, I just wrote about Adler and Hutchins conversing in a relaxed urbane fashion in my post earlier this week.

    But this plays a little too heavy, for me anyway, on J.S. Rubin’s arguments about peddling highbrow endeavors for the middlebrow. It takes the Britannica sales team and its pitches and elevates them as central to the appeal of the set. And there’s something to it because there has always been some cultural capital to be gained from knowing the various versions of the great books idea (e.g. Harvard Classics, Britannica’s set, etc.). But there’s also something more elemental at work—something more educational and philosophical.

    I argue this in my book, and I’ll repeat it here: the intentions and many of the actions of Benton, Hutchins, and Adler were to tap more into the education and philosophical aspects than the cultural capital aspects of Britannica’s set. The Syntopicon and the “great ideas” show their hand. I won’t deny that tensions existed, and at times the “sales pitch” moved from elevating the broader conversation to elevating profits. But my book pushes the historiographical conversation more towards the positive than the bottom-line aspects of the endeavors.

    In sum, I really do believe that the “academic dinner party” ideal wasn’t in it for Adler and Hutchins. Hutchins did many of those, and did them successfully; Adler did many, but often unsuccessfully (he was too direct, and too intense). Both of them also complained a lot (with Adler) about the vacuousness of academic life in the 1930s and 1940s. The didn’t believe that the University of Chicago, for instance, really harbored the kind of intellectual life that ought to be modeled outside it’s boundaries. That’s why, in part, they sought to redo the undergrad curriculum to conform to their great conversation ideal.

    2. You might say that the students, staff, faculty, and even the outside agitators at Stanford were having there own super important and ‘great conversation’ about the changing nature of cultural capital on campus. I agree that your “insider/outsider” dynamic wasn’t in play. But, you could say that in the mid and late-1980s the players at Stanford *really were* modeling what Adler and Hutchins (if not Benton) had in mind. There was a first-rate conversation happening about the ‘great ideas’ of equality and diversity, as well as pluralism and multiculturalism. All of your players were trying to understand how the past and present were meeting. But they were also—and here I’m with you—debating about what ‘counts’ as knowledge in the ever-striving world of work (i.e. credentials) and America’s supposed meritocracy. Then again, they all kind of were having a conversation about what would count in dinner conversations after the 1980s. When students from the 1980s and 1990s would get together with Boomer workmates during Friday Happy Hours, would they be able to talk books or would they have to default to Stanford basketball or football? Would those educated in the 1980s trot out Achebe or Du Bois while the Boomers wanted to talk Goodman or, at best, William James?

    Anyway, thanks a million for this provocative post. I also want to apologize for typos because I have to stop now, in a hurry (I’m being called) so my spouse and I can watch back episodes of *Mad Men*! – TL

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Tim.

    Yes, my general read of the Stanford kerfuffle is that it was a sign that the university (big U and little u) was in some ways in fairly good health. That it was not so interpreted at the time by outside observers (and by many participants) is part of what I intend to unpack in the dissertation — that, and four bajillion other things that jumped out at me from this week in the archives. (As I mentioned here, this was the most peaceful week of my entire life, bar none.)

    I didn’t mean to reduce Hutchins/Adler’s entire educational vision to a marketing gimmick — but I do think the phrasing of “the Great Conversation,” majuscules and all, and certainly the timing of its coinage, has more to do with marketing the “Great Books” set than with advancing their dreams of a democratic liberal education (not that those must be mutually exclusive). IIRC, in Battleground of the Curriculum, Bliss Carnochan says that Adler/Britannica trademarked the phrase “the Great Books.” So there was apparently a whole marketing scheme built around “the Great fill-in-the-blank” — Great Books, Great Conversation, Great Ideas, Great Balls of Fire, whatever.

    The fly in the ointment of this marketing scheme is that no matter how conversant one were to become with the texts in the Great Books set, the setting of that conversation (personal v. institutional) would ultimately carry more importance than its content. For example, one could decide to read every book that was assigned in every track of Stanford’s defunct “Western Culture” curriculum, or its previous “Western Civilization” curriculum, or its even earlier “Problems of Citizenship” curriculum — but pursuing such a reading program, though it would certainly be educative, would not be the same as getting a “Stanford education” in any of its iterations, not just because such self-study doesn’t come with a glitzy diploma, but also because it doesn’t come under the guidance of that professoriate and in the company of that student body. I think Guillory is right on the money here in pointing out where the value of cultural capital is located, and where it isn’t. And while such a reading might give short shrift to the values of self-culture and independent study, it gives no cover whatsoever to MOOCs as some kind of “equivalent” or substitute for a real university education.

  3. “If you read enough material of the sort I have quoted, and, more importantly, if you attend enough of these conferences, it is easy to extract the central objection. It runs something like this: the history of “Western Civilization” is in large part a history of oppression. Internally, Western civilization oppressed women, various slave and serf populations, and ethnic and cultural minorities generally. In foreign affairs, the history of Western civilization is one of imperialism and colonialism. The so-called canon of Western civilization consists in the official publications of this system of oppression, and it is no accident that the authors in the “canon” are almost exclusively Western white males, because the civilization itself is ruled by a caste consisting almost entirely of Western white males. So you cannot reform education by admitting new members to the club, by opening up the canon; the whole idea of “the canon” has to be abolished. It has to be abolished in favor of something that is “multicultural” and “nonhierarchical.”

    The word “nonhierarchical” in the last sentence is important and I will come back to it. In the meantime I hope I have given enough of the arguments from those who oppose the traditional conceptions of liberal education to make it clear why the dispute cannot be resolved just by opening up the club to new members, and why it seems so intractable. Even if the canon is opened up, even if membership in the club is thrown open to all comers, even after you have admitted every first-rate woman writer from Sappho to Elizabeth Bishop, the various groups that feel that they have been excluded are still going to feel excluded, or marginalized. At present there are still going to be too many Western white males.”—Searle, 1990

    “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go!”–students at Stanford, at a rally featuring Jesse Jackson, 1988

    • TVD: Are you implying that Searle was an *impartial* observer of the debate? Do you get the feel that he ever actually inhabited the debates behind the first paragraph you quoted above?

      But, you are right to remind us that, for some who participated in the Stanford Debates, the only answer was to let go of the great books idea as it had existed (in all forms) in the Stanford curriculum.

      Why was that? Was the impetus internal (i.e. professors, academic debates, postmodernism), or external? The external sources of change were not simply from those who felt left out by older “white” definitions of the canon, but rather by students themselves who felt that Stanford’s curriculum was not providing them with the cultural capital needed to succeed in the then-present day (late 1980s, 1990s). In other words, practical concerns about the changing nature of advancement through the “meritocracy” of capitalism caused students and, more importantly their PARENTS, to see that the older version of the great books idea in operation at Stanford was connecting the new student consumer well enough to the world in which they were about to enter.

      In sum, when late 1980s students said “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go,” they meant (a) the particular course as set up in the mid-1980s, and (b) the kind of 1950s/60s-ish ‘great conversation’ model that drove many great books-based kinds of courses, still, in the 1980s. The students and their parents wanted an updated globalized curriculum that prepared them with the cultural capital needed to advance in a global capitalist market system. – TL

    • BTW: What’s your argument in posting these quotes? Are you equating your position with Searle’s, one-for-one? Has your own position not advanced at all since December 6, 1990? – TL

      • Thx for asking, Tim. I estimate things may be even worse today. I think these kids are being robbed, going into a half a lifetime of debt for the privilege of being pumped full of useless crap.

        Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton —the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the “Empire,” UCLA junked these individual author requirements. It replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.

        In other words, the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent to whether an English major had ever read a word of Chaucer, Milton or Shakespeare, but the department was determined to expose students, according to the course catalog, to “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class.”


        I disagree this stuff gives them “the cultural capital needed to advance in a global capitalist market system.” In fact, I think it leaves them without the tools to participate in the Great Conversation.

        The edu establishment holds their futures hostage, their college degrees. As Ben Shapiro wrote, in class he argued like a conservative but in the blue book he wrote like a communist.

        This got him the straight A’s that got him into Harvard Law. But I digress, although only lightly.

  4. Tim, I’m mulling over your comment above in re: parents. In terms of the Stanford debate, I’m not sure to what extent parents played an active role in shaping the debate/outcome, though I know parental concerns were invoked by various constituencies in the on-campus debate, and parents were certainly targeted by various people putting a spin on the debate afterwards. But I just don’t know about the extent to which parents were particularly concerned with the curriculum — if you can point me to any leads, I’d appreciate it.

    In the meantime, I *think* my Saturday post will deal with one of the “greats” that was part of the discourse at Stanford: “the Great Tradition.” Just not sure yet if I have a thought worth sharing on that score — depends on what kind of headway I can make in the work today and tomorrow. But that’s my plan, with the usual caveats about mice and men and the whims of blogospheric life.

    • I confess to being a bit speculative in that point to TVD above. But it was speculation with some common sense attached. It’s too bad that more parents don’t document the conversations they had with—or directions they gave—their children about choosing colleges and selecting careers.

      I’m guessing we can only understand that particular force indirectly. And we can’t rely on 18-22 year olds to give accurate senses of how much their parents affected the outcomes of their positions. Since that age group is in and out of the fuzzy categories of young adult and prolonged adolescence (a phenomenon that, if memory serves, only began to be discussed in the early 1990s).

      An oral history or follow-up interview with William King, then president Stanford’s Black Student Union might be helpful. Surely someone has followed up with him. I wonder how well Stanford’s admissions office is represented in its archives? …Just thinking out loud here. – TL

  5. I’m not doing oral interviews/memoirs etc for this dissertation — “Just the archival/textual record, ma’am.” However, King did speak to/about his own family background/aspirations during the debate, and I am using those statements. But my sense (so far) is that direct parental involvement in the debate was minimal to non-existent, which may be a function of the institutional profile in particular, or the era in general, or both.

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