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The great books are those that tradition, and various institutions and authorities, have regarded as constituting or best expressing the foundations of Western culture (the Western canon is a similar but broader designation); derivatively the term also refers to a curriculum or method of education based around a list of such books. Mortimer Adler lists three criteria for including a book on the list:
- the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;
- the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit; "This is an exacting criterion, an ideal that is fully attained by only a small number of the 511 works that we selected. It is approximated in varying degrees by the rest."
- the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.
Thomas Jefferson, well known for his interest in higher education, frequently composed great books lists for his friends and correspondents, for example, for Peter Carr in 1785 and again in 1787.
In 1909, Harvard University published a 51-volume great books series, titled the Harvard Classics. These volumes are now in the public domain.
The Great Books of the Western World came about as the result of a discussion among American academics and educators, starting in the 1920s and 1930s and begun by Prof. John Erskine of Columbia University, about how to improve the higher education system by returning it to the western liberal arts tradition of broad cross-disciplinary learning. These academics and educators included Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, Jacques Barzun, and Alexander Meiklejohn. The view among them was that the emphasis on narrow specialization in American colleges had harmed the quality of higher education by failing to expose students to the important products of Western civilization and thought.
They were at odds both with much of the existing educational establishment and with contemporary educational theory. Educational theorists like Sidney Hook and John Dewey (see pragmatism) disagreed with the premise that there was crossover in education (e.g. that a study of philosophy, formal logic, or rhetoric could be of use in medicine or economics).
This list of great books started out as 100 essential primary source texts considered to constitute the Western canon. This list was always intended to be tentative, although some consider it presumptuous to nominate 100 great books to the exclusion of all others.
The Great Books Program is a curriculum that makes use of this list of texts. As much as possible, students rely on primary sources. The emphasis is on open discussion with limited guidance by a professor, facilitator, or tutor. Students are also expected to write papers.
In 1920, Professor Erskine taught the first course based on the "great books" program, titled "General Honors", at Columbia University. He helped mold its core curriculum. It initially failed, however, shortly after its introduction due to fallings-out between the senior faculty over the best ways to conduct classes and due to concerns about the rigor of the courses. Thus junior faculty including Mark Van Doren and Mortimer Adler after 1923, taught a part of the course. The course was discontinued in 1928, though later reconstituted. Adler left for the University of Chicago in 1929, where he continued his work on the theme, and along with the University president, Robert M. Hutchins, held an annual seminar of great books. In 1937, when Mark Van Doren redesigned the course, it was already being taught at St. John's College, Annapolis, besides University of Chicago. This course later became Humanities A for freshmen, and subsequently evolved into Literature Humanities.  Survivors, however, include Columbia's Core Curriculum and the Common Core at Chicago, both heavily focused on the "great books" of the Western canon.
A university or college Great Books Program is a program inspired by the Great Books movement begun in the United States in the 1920s. The aim of such programs is a return to the Western Liberal Arts tradition in education, as a corrective to the extreme disciplinary specialisation common within the academy. The essential component of such programs is a high degree of engagement with whole primary texts, called the Great Books. The curricula of Great Books programs often follow a canon of texts considered more or less essential to a student's education, such as Plato's Republic, or Dante's Divine Comedy. Such programs often focus exclusively on Western culture. Their employment of primary texts dictates an interdisciplinary approach, as most of the Great Books do not fall neatly under the prerogative of a single contemporary academic discipline. Great Books programs often include designated discussion groups as well as lectures, and have small class sizes. In general students in such programs receive an abnormally high degree of attention from their professors, as part of the overall aim of fostering a community of learning.
There are only a few true "Great Books Programs" still in operation. These schools focus almost exclusively on the Great Books Curriculum throughout enrollment and do not offer classes analogous to those commonly offered at other colleges. The first and best known of these schools is St. John's College Great Books List in Annapolis and Santa Fe (program established in 1937); it was followed by Shimer College in Chicago, The Integral Program at Saint Mary's College of California (1955), The College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, New Hampshire, and Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. More recent schools with this type of curriculum include Gutenberg College in Eugene, Oregon (est. 1994), Harrison Middleton University in Tempe, Arizona (est. 1998), Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming (est. 2005), and Imago Dei College in Oak Glen, California (est. 2010). The University of Notre Dame's Program of Liberal Studies, established in 1950, is a highly regarded Great Books Program that operates as a separate institution within the College of Liberal Arts.
The Center for the Study of the Great Ideas advances the Great Conversation found in the great books by providing Adler's guidance, and resource materials through both live and on-line seminars, educational and philosophical consultation, international presence on the Internet, access to the Center's library collection of books, essays, articles, journals and audio/video programs. Center programs are unique in that they do not replicate other existing programs either started or developed by Adler.
Over 100 institutions of higher learning in the United States, Canada, and Europe maintain some version of a Great Books Program as an option for students. Among these are:
- Baylor University ("Great Texts")
- Biola University, Torrey Honors Institute
- Columbia University 
- East Carolina University Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences
- Gutenberg College
- Harrison Middleton University
- Houston Baptist University, Honors College
- Mercer University
- New York University, Gallatin Program
- Palm Beach Atlantic University
- Pepperdine University
- Saint Mary's College of California (Moraga) ("Integral Liberal Arts Program")
- Shimer College
- St. John's College
- The College of Saint Mary Magdalen
- Thomas Aquinas College
- Thomas More College of Liberal Arts
- University of Dallas
- University of Notre Dame
- University of Texas at Austin, Thomas Jefferson Center
- Wyoming Catholic College
The great books curriculum was drawn into the popular debate about multiculturalism, traditional education, the "culture war," and the role of the intellectual in American life. Much of this debate centered on reactions to the publication of The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 by Allan Bloom.
The Great Books of the Western World is a hardcover 60-volume collection (originally 54 volumes) of the books on the great books list. Many of the books in the collection were translated into English for the first time. A prominent feature of the collection is a two-volume Syntopicon that includes essays written by Mortimer Adler on 102 "great ideas." Following each essay is an extensive outline of the idea with page references to relevant passages throughout the collection. Familiar to many Americans, the collection is available from Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., which owns the copyright.
Shortly after Adler retired from the Great Books Foundation in 1989, a second edition (1990) of the Great Books of the Western World was published; it included more Hispanic and female authors and, for the first time, works by black authors. During his tenure as president of the Foundation, Adler had resisted such additions.
We did not base our selections on an author's nationality, religion, politics, or field of study; nor on an author's race or gender. Great books were not chosen to make up quotas of any kind; there was no "affirmative action" in the process ... we chose the great books on the basis of their relevance to at least 25 of the 102 great ideas. Many of the great books are relevant to a much larger number of the 102 great ideas, as many as 75 or more great ideas, a few to all 102 great ideas. In sharp contrast are the good books that are relevant to less than 10 or even as few as 4 or 5 great ideas. We placed such books in the lists of Recommended Readings to be found in the last section in each of the 102 chapters of the "Syntopicon". Here readers will find many twentieth-century female authors, black authors, and Latin American authors whose works we recommended but did not include in the second edition of the great books.
Any recommended set of great books is expected to change with the times, as reflected in the following statement by Robert Hutchins:
In the course of history ... new books have been written that have won their place in the list. Books once thought entitled to belong to it have been superseded; and this process of change will continue as long as men can think and write. It is the task of every generation to reassess the tradition in which it lives, to discard what it cannot use, and to bring into context with the distant and intermediate past the most recent contributions to the Great Conversation.
- Homer – Iliad; Odyssey
- The Old Testament
- Aeschylus – Tragedies
- Sophocles – Tragedies
- Herodotus – Histories
- Euripides – Tragedies
- Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War
- Hippocrates – Medical Writings
- Aristophanes – Comedies
- Plato – Dialogues
- Aristotle – Works
- Epicurus – "Letter to Herodotus"; "Letter to Menoecus"
- Euclid – Elements
- Archimedes – Works
- Apollonius – Conics
- Cicero – Works (esp. Orations; On Friendship; On Old Age; Republic; Laws; Tusculan Disputations; Offices)
- Lucretius – On the Nature of Things
- Virgil – Works (esp. Aeneid)
- Horace – Works (esp. Odes and Epodes; The Art of Poetry)
- Livy – History of Rome
- Ovid – Works (esp. Metamorphoses)
- Quintilian – Institutes of Oratory
- Plutarch – Parallel Lives; Moralia
- Tacitus – Histories; Annals; Agricola; Germania; Dialogus de oratoribus (Dialogue on Oratory)
- Nicomachus of Gerasa – Introduction to Arithmetic
- Epictetus – Discourses; Enchiridion
- Ptolemy – Almagest
- Lucian – Works (esp. The Way to Write History; The True History; The Sale of Creeds; Alexander the Oracle Monger; Charon; The Sale of Lives; The Fisherman; Dialogue of the Gods; Dialogues of the Sea-Gods; Dialogues of the Dead)
- Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
- Galen – On the Natural Faculties
- The New Testament
- Plotinus – The Enneads
- St. Augustine – "On the Teacher"; Confessions; City of God; On Christian Doctrine
- The Volsungs Saga or Nibelungenlied
- The Song of Roland
- The Saga of Burnt Njál
- Maimonides – The Guide for the Perplexed
- St. Thomas Aquinas – Of Being and Essence; Summa Contra Gentiles; Of the Governance of Rulers; Summa Theologica
- Dante Alighieri – The New Life (La Vita Nuova); "On Monarchy"; Divine Comedy
- Geoffrey Chaucer – Troilus and Criseyde; The Canterbury Tales
- Thomas à Kempis – The Imitation of Christ
- Leonardo da Vinci – Notebooks
- Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy
- Desiderius Erasmus – The Praise of Folly; Colloquies
- Nicolaus Copernicus – On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
- Thomas More – Utopia
- Martin Luther – Table Talk; Three Treatises
- François Rabelais – Gargantua and Pantagruel
- John Calvin – Institutes of the Christian Religion
- Michel de Montaigne – Essays
- William Gilbert – On the Lodestone and Magnetic Bodies
- Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote
- Edmund Spenser – Prothalamion; The Faerie Queene
- Francis Bacon – Essays; The Advancement of Learning; Novum Organum; New Atlantis
- William Shakespeare – Poetry and Plays
- Galileo Galilei – Starry Messenger; Two New Sciences
- Johannes Kepler – The Epitome of Copernican Astronomy; Harmonices Mundi
- William Harvey – On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals; On the Circulation of the Blood; Generation of Animals
- Grotius – The Law of War and Peace
- Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan; Elements of Philsophy
- René Descartes – Rules for the Direction of the Mind; Discourse on the Method; Geometry; Meditations on First Philosophy; Principles of Philosophy; The Passions of the Soul
- Corneille – Tragedies (esp. The Cid, Cinna)
- John Milton – Works (esp. the minor poems; Areopagitica; Paradise Lost; Samson Agonistes)
- Molière – Comedies (esp. The Miser; The School for Wives; The Misanthrope; The Doctor in Spite of Himself; Tartuffe; The Tradesman Turned Gentleman; The Imaginary Invalid; The Affected Ladies)
- Blaise Pascal – The Provincial Letters; Pensées; Scientific Treatises
- Boyle – The Sceptical Chemist
- Christiaan Huygens – Treatise on Light
- Benedict de Spinoza – Political Treatises; Ethics
- John Locke – A Letter Concerning Toleration; Of Civil Government; An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Some Thoughts Concerning Education
- Jean Baptiste Racine – Tragedies (esp. Andromache; Phaedra; Athalie (Athaliah))
- Isaac Newton – Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy; Opticks
- Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz – Discourse on Metaphysics; New Essays on Human Understanding; Monadology
- Daniel Defoe – Robinson Crusoe; Moll Flanders
- Jonathan Swift – The Battle of the Books; A Tale of a Tub; A Journal to Stella; Gulliver's Travels; A Modest Proposal
- William Congreve – The Way of the World
- George Berkeley – A New Theory of Vision; A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge
- Alexander Pope – An Essay on Criticism; The Rape of the Lock; An Essay on Man
- Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu – Persian Letters; The Spirit of the Laws
- Voltaire – Letters on the English; Candide; Philosophical Dictionary
- Henry Fielding – Joseph Andrews; Tom Jones
- Samuel Johnson – The Vanity of Human Wishes; Dictionary; Rasselas; Lives of the Poets
- David Hume – A Treatise of Human Nature; Essays Moral and Political; An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding; History of England
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Discourse on Inequality; On Political Economy; Emile; The Social Contract; Confessions
- Laurence Sterne – Tristram Shandy; A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy
- Adam Smith – The Theory of Moral Sentiments; The Wealth of Nations
- William Blackstone – Commentaries on the Laws of England
- Immanuel Kant – Critique of Pure Reason; Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals; Critique of Practical Reason; Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics; The Science of Right; Critique of Judgment; Perpetual Peace
- Edward Gibbon – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Autobiography
- James Boswell – Journal; The Life of Samuel Johnson
- Antoine Laurent Lavoisier – Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry)
- Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison – Federalist Papers (together with the Articles of Confederation; United States Constitution and United States Declaration of Independence)
- Jeremy Bentham – Comment on the Commentaries; Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Theory of Fictions
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Faust; Poetry and Truth
- Thomas Robert Malthus – An Essay on the Principle of Population
- John Dalton – A New System of Chemical Philosophy
- Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier – Analytical Theory of Heat
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – The Phenomenology of Spirit; Science of Logic; Elements of the Philosophy of Right; Lectures on the Philosophy of History
- William Wordsworth – Poems (esp. Lyrical Ballads; Lucy poems; sonnets; The Prelude)
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Poems (esp. Kubla Khan; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ); Biographia Literaria
- David Ricardo – On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation
- Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice; Emma
- Carl von Clausewitz – On War
- Stendhal – The Red and the Black; The Charterhouse of Parma; On Love
- François Guizot – History of Civilization in France
- Lord Byron – Don Juan
- Arthur Schopenhauer – Studies in Pessimism
- Michael Faraday – The Chemical History of a Candle; Experimental Researches in Electricity
- Nikolai Lobachevsky – Geometrical Researches on the Theory of Parallels
- Charles Lyell – Principles of Geology
- Auguste Comte – The Positive Philosophy
- Honoré de Balzac – Works (esp. Le Père Goriot; Le Cousin Pons; Eugénie Grandet; Cousin Bette; César Birotteau)
- Ralph Waldo Emerson – Representative Men; Essays; Journal
- Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter
- Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America
- John Stuart Mill – A System of Logic; Principles of Political Economy; On Liberty; Considerations on Representative Government; Utilitarianism; The Subjection of Women; Autobiography
- Charles Darwin – On the Origin of Species; The Descent of Man; Autobiography
- William Makepeace Thackeray – Works (esp. Vanity Fair; The History of Henry Esmond; The Virginians; Pendennis)
- Charles Dickens – Works (esp. Pickwick Papers; Our Mutual Friend; David Copperfield; Dombey and Son; Oliver Twist; A Tale of Two Cities; Hard Times)
- Claude Bernard – Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine
- George Boole – The Laws of Thought
- Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience; Walden
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – Das Kapital (Capital); The Communist Manifesto
- George Eliot – Adam Bede; Middlemarch
- Herman Melville – Typee; Moby-Dick; Billy Budd
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment; The Idiot; The Brothers Karamazov
- Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary; Three Stories
- Henry Thomas Buckle – A History of Civilization in England
- Francis Galton – Inquiries into Human Faculties and Its Development
- Bernhard Riemann – The Hypotheses of Geometry
- Henrik Ibsen – Plays (esp. Peer Gynt; Brand; Hedda Gabler; Emperor and Galilean; A Doll's House; The Wild Duck; The Master Builder)
- Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace; Anna Karenina; "What Is Art?"; Twenty-Three Tales
- Richard Dedekind – Theory of Numbers
- Wilhelm Wundt – Physiological Psychology; Outline of Psychology
- Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; The Mysterious Stranger
- Henry Adams – History of the United States; Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres; The Education of Henry Adams; Degradation of Democratic Dogma
- Charles Peirce – Chance, Love, and Logic; Collected Papers
- William Sumner – Folkways
- Oliver Wendell Holmes – The Common Law; Collected Legal Papers
- William James – Principles of Psychology; The Varieties of Religious Experience; Pragmatism; A Pluralistic Universe; Essays in Radical Empiricism
- Henry James – The American; The Ambassadors
- Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Beyond Good and Evil; On the Genealogy of Morality; The Will to Power; Twilight of the Idols; The Antichrist
- Georg Cantor – Transfinite Numbers
- Jules Henri Poincaré – Science and Hypothesis; Science and Method; The Foundations of Science
- Sigmund Freud – The Interpretation of Dreams; Three Essays to the Theory of Sex; Introduction to Psychoanalysis; Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego; The Ego and the Id; Civilization and Its Discontents; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
- George Bernard Shaw – Plays and Prefaces
- Max Planck – Origin and Development of the Quantum Theory; Where Is Science Going?; Scientific Autobiography
- Henri Bergson – Time and Free Will; Matter and Memory; Creative Evolution; The Two Sources of Morality and Religion
- John Dewey – How We Think; Democracy and Education; Experience and Nature; The Quest for Certainty; Logic – The Theory of Inquiry
- Alfred North Whitehead – A Treatise on Universal Algebra; An Introduction to Mathematics; Science and the Modern World; Process and Reality; The Aims of Education and Other Essays; Adventures of Ideas
- George Santayana – The Life of Reason; Scepticism and Animal Faith; The Realms of Being (which discusses the Realms of Essence, Matter and Truth); Persons and Places
- Vladimir Lenin – Imperialism; The State and Revolution
- Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time (formerly translated as Remembrance of Things Past)
- Bertrand Russell – Principles of Mathematics; The Problems of Philosophy; Principia Mathematica; The Analysis of Mind; An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth; Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits
- Thomas Mann – The Magic Mountain; Joseph and His Brothers
- Albert Einstein – The Theory of Relativity; Sidelights on Relativity; The Meaning of Relativity; On the Method of Theoretical Physics; The Evolution of Physics
- James Joyce – "The Dead" in Dubliners; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Ulysses
- Jacques Maritain – Art and Scholasticism; The Degrees of Knowledge; Freedom and the Modern World; A Preface to Metaphysics; The Rights of Man and Natural Law; True Humanism
- Franz Kafka – The Trial; The Castle
- Arnold J. Toynbee – A Study of History; Civilization on Trial
- Jean-Paul Sartre – Nausea; No Exit; Being and Nothingness
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – The First Circle; Cancer Ward
The original edition of How to Read a Book contained a separate "contemporary list" because "Here one's judgment must be tentative" All but the following authors were incorporated into the single list of the revised edition:
- Ivan Pavlov – Conditioned Reflexes
- Thorstein Veblen – The Theory of the Leisure Class; The Higher Learning in America; The Place of Science in Modern Civilization; Vested Interests and the State of Industrial Arts; Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times
- Franz Boas – The Mind of Primitive Man; Anthropology and Modern Life
- Leon Trotsky – The History of the Russian Revolution
In 1954 Mortimer Adler hosted a live weekly television series in San Francisco, comprising 52 half-hour programs entitled The Great Ideas. These programs were produced by the Institute for Philosophical Research and were carried as a public service by the American Broadcasting Company, presented by National Educational Television (NET), the precursor to what is now PBS. Adler bequeathed these films to the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas, where they are available for purchase.
In 1993 and 1994, The Learning Channel created a series of one hour programs discussing many of the great books of history and their impact on the world. It was narrated by Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman, amongst others.
- [dead link]
- Adler, "Second Look", pg 142
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- Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr (The homage to Reason; Paris, August 10, 1787). In: Merril D. Peterson (ed.), Thomas Jefferson Works, 1984. (pp. 900 – 906).
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- "The Beginnings of the Great Books Movement at Columbia". Columbia Magazine. Winter 2001. Retrieved June 27, 2013.
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- Great Books – The Foundation of a Liberal Education, New York – Simon & Schuster, 1954.
- How to Read a Book, 1940, p. 375
- Nelson, Adam R. (March 11, 2009). Education and Democracy: The Meaning of Alexander Meiklejohn, 1872–1964. Univ of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-17143-8.
- O'Hear, Anthony. The Great Books: A Journey through 2,500 Years of the West's Classic Literature. Intercollegiate Studies Institute; 2 edition, 2009. ISBN 978-1-933859-78-1
- Center for the Study of the Great Ideas website
- Dorfman, Ron (April 25, 1997). "Culture Wars and the Great Conversation". Shattering Silences. PBS.
- Recommended Books National Association of Scholars