Books/Wide Reading, Curriculum, Living Books
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Echoes of CM in Adler’s Great Books Syntopicon by Leslie Noelani Laurio

I stumbled on Robert Hutchins’ 1951 Preface to Mortimer Adler’s Great Books of the Western World series recently, and was struck by how “CM” it sounded. Is this a case of great minds thinking alike, or mere coincidence? You be the judge; I’m going to present parallel quotes from both with very little comment and let them speak for themselves.

For starters, both recognize the need for a well-educated society. Hutchins says education is necessary for democracy.

“Democracy requires liberal education for all. We believe that this proposition is true. . . if this is the ideal, we should struggle to reach it and not content ourselves with inferior substitutes until we are satisfied that the goal cannot be attained.” – Robert Hutchins

Mason says proper education makes a nation more noble.

“Nations grow great upon books as truly as do individuals. . . A noble view of education was as righteousness exalting a nation . . . It rests with us to add to our faith, virtue, and to our virtue, knowledge. It is an unheard of thing that the youth of a great nation should grow up without those ideals, slow enough in maturing, which are to be gathered for the most part from wide and wisely directed reading.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6 pg 306-307

But both Hutchins and Mason recognized that education was failing the people of their era, leaving mankind lacking in both intellect and ethics.

“The rising generation has been deprived of its birthright; the mess of pottage it has received in exchange has not been nutritious; adults have come to lead lives comparatively rich in material comforts and very poor in moral, intellectual, and spiritual tone.” – Robert Hutchins

“Why do so many men and women seem incapable of generous impulse, of reasoned patriotism, of seeing beyond the circle of their own interests, is not the answer, that men are enabled for such things by education? These are the marks of educated persons; and when millions of men who should be the backbone of the country seem to be dead to public claims, we have to ask,–Why then are not these persons educated, and what have we given them in lieu of education?” ~ Charlotte Mason, Preface of Vol. 6

Is there a solution for this lack that will improve man’s situation? How about education in the form of books?

“Though we do not recommend great books as a panacea for our ills, we must admit that we have an exceedingly high opinion of them as an educational instrument. We think of them as the best educational instrument for young people and adults today.” – Robert Hutchins

“We have books, books teeming with ideas fresh from the minds of thinkers upon every subject to which we can wish to introduce children. . . ideas must reach us directly from the mind of the thinker, and it is chiefly by means of the books they have written that we get into touch with the best minds.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 3 pg 171, 177

“We owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; and the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6 pg 12

“The best thought the world possesses is stored in books; we must open books to children, the best books; our own concern is abundant provision and orderly serving.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6 pg 26

Adler’s Great Books project selected books based on which recognized masterpieces were most crucial to following the Great Conversation; Mason selected books that would transfer and awaken a student to Great Ideas.

“Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition. There never was very much doubt in anybody’s mind about which the masterpieces were. They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind.” – Robert Hutchins

“The Board asked itself whether an individual book contributed in an important way to the Great Conversation. . . We tried to find the most important voices in the Conversation.” – Robert Hutchins

“An early education from great books with the large ideas and the large virtues is the only true foundation of knowledge–the knowledge worth having.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6 pg 308

“As I have said, knowledge, that is, roughly, ideas clothed upon with facts, is the proper pabulum for mind. This food a child requires in large quantities and in great variety.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6, p. 256

“The children must enjoy the book. The ideas it holds must each make that sudden, delightful impact upon their minds, must cause that intellectual stir, which mark the inception of an idea,” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 3, p. 178.

Are you getting any inkling about what makes a book great or living? Here’s another criteria: both require that books be written with clear literary style.

“The best books get their power from the refinement and precise use of the common language. As far as the medium of communication is concerned, they are products of the most elegant literary style, saying precisely what is meant.” – Robert Hutchins

“The whole of a child’s instruction should be conveyed through the best literary medium available. His history books should be written with the lucidity, concentration, personal conviction, directness, and admirable simplicity which characterizes a work of literary calibre.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6, p. 339.

There should be no getting between the book and the reader, telling him what to think about the book.

“One of the policies upon which the Advisory Board insisted most strongly was that the great writers should be allowed to speak for themselves. They should speak with their full voice and not be digested or mutilated by editorial decisions. Undoubtedly this policy makes reading more difficult; for the reader becomes to this extent his own editor. No one will deny that many arid stretches are contained in the works of the great writers. But we believed that it would be presumptuous for us to do the reader’s skipping for him.” – Robert Hutchins

“We are determined that the children shall love books, therefore we do not interpose ourselves between the book and the child. We read him his Tanglewood Tales, and when he is a little older his Plutarch, not trying to break up or water down, but leaving the child’s mind to deal with the matter as it can.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 2 pg 231

“Let them get at the books themselves, and do not let them be flooded with a warm diluent at the lips of their teacher. . . The less parents and teachers talk-in and expound their rations of knowledge and thought to the children they are educating, the better for the children. . . Children must be allowed to ruminate, must be left alone with their own thoughts. They will ask for help if they want it.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 3 pg 162

And no editing, not even to remove politically outdated content or off-topic ramblings by the author. Readers should be allowed to discern for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

“In a conversation that has gone on for twenty-five centuries, all dogmas and points of view appear. Here are the great errors as well as the great truths. The reader has to determine which are the errors and which the truths. The task of interpretation and conclusion is his. This is the machinery and life of the Western tradition in the hands of free men.” – Robert Hutchins

“What the poor, as well as the rich, require is not to be taught other people’s opinions, but to be induced and enabled to think for themselves.” CM, quoting Stuart Mill, Vol 6 pg 126

Reading to educate oneself isn’t just a privilege; learning and being well-informed is a must, whether you’re an adult self-educating with Adler’s Great Books program, or an educator teaching children with Mason’s methods.

“We believe that the obligation rests on all of us, uneducated, miseducated, and educated alike, to . . . go on educating himself all his life.” – Robert Hutchins

“If we wish to do justice to ourselves . . . we must begin with our thoughts, remembering that in this matter we can be heroes, though nobody knows. . . we must work, read, and think . . . There is no person’s life which would not be exceedingly interesting if he lived it fully; and he whose life is full of interests does not seek excitement, from drink or other sources. The person who has interests gives them to everybody about him.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 4 pg 201

“We owe it to the past to use its gains worthily and to advance from the point at which it left off: We owe it to the future to prepare a generation better than ourselves. We owe it to the present to live, to live with all expansion of heart and soul, all reaching out of our personality towards those relations appointed for us.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 3 pg 85

Education with good books isn’t only good for society as a collective whole; it’s good for the individual, too, elevating him from mere mundane existence to a full, rewarding life.

“We are as concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking. We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation. We want them to be heard again, not because we want to go back to antiquity . . . We want the voices of the Great Conversation to be heard again because we think they may help us to learn to live better now.” – Robert Hutchins

“Given a well-educated man with cultivated imagination, trained judgment, wide interests, and he is prepared to master the intricacies of any profession; while he knows at the same time how to make use of himself, of the powers with which nature and education have endowed him for his own happiness; the delightful employment of his leisure; for the increased happiness of his neighbours and the well-being of the community; that is, such a man is able, not only to earn his living, but to live.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6 pg 121

It seems pretty clear to me, and both of them seem to agree: Education through reading great books is good for the country, good for the individual, and will help us to truly live. And this isn’t just for our students, but for us as adults. So, what are you waiting for? Go curl up with a really good book!

This entry was posted in: Books/Wide Reading, Curriculum, Living Books


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. I have to admit that I have just glanced over the quotes/comparisons you posted. I am writing because I also noticed some of the same parallels when I had an opportunity to read and look through Adler’s Great Books series last month. It is so CM that my husband and I hope to give each of our kids a copy of the set as graduation gifts to further their adult education. Now, I just need to see if anyone on the other side of the world has created a similar set for Asian Civilization.

  2. I have to strongly disagree with your comments:

    ” Education through reading great books is good for the country, good for the individual, and will help us to truly live. ”

    I guess it all depends on WHO you depend on to define a ‘great book.’ I, personally, will not depend on Adler (a self-proclaimed pagan when he wrote the Great Books list) nor Hutchins, who was listed as one of the most influential members of the school of secular perennialism. I know this flies in the face of a ‘classical’ education, but God gave us specific standards as to what we are to put in the minds and hearts of our children as well as ourselves. Just read the greatest book of all,,,Phil. 4:8!

    Charlotte Mason was a Christian and to compare her wrtitings to the writings of these 2 men is like comparing apples to oranges. They come from quite divergent worldviews.

    To ‘truly live’ my children will first of all be aquainted with the greatest book, the Holy Scriptures. Then, using that as their ‘filter’ they will be able to discern what is a ‘great book’ worthy of their time and effort.

  3. This is wonderful Leslie! There can be no argument that great books, however one defines them, are of significant importance in educating ourselves and our children.

  4. Thank you, Leslie (and/or Dr. Smith) for a wonderful compilation of quotes from CM and Robert Hutchins. Mortimer Adler is to be highly praised for pursing wisdom and truth through a lifetime of study and endeavor. And how gratifying that his pursuit led him to faith by the end of his life. Along the way he discovered much that is valuable to all those who seek wisdom and believe our apprehension of wisdom is a journey and not a destination! CM’s entire philosophy is built upon that notion and reminds us to continually humble ourselves on this pursuit. It would have been a treat to sit in on a panel discussion between these three great minds and lovers of truth!

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