Liberal Education

O Taste and See: A Commemorative History of the Wye Seminars

Each summer, faculty and academic deans from institutions across the country make their way to the Wye River campus of the Aspen Institute on the Eastern Shore of Maryland for a weeklong seminar. Described as professional development, it often turns out to be much more. The Wye Seminars have at their core a collection of classic texts—from Plato to the present, from both East and West—that are distributed to the participants in advance and serve as the basis for the morning seminar discussions. Though prompted by the texts, the discussions range widely, from issues of liberal education and its role in American society to questions of fundamental social and political values. The afternoons and evenings are devoted to recreation in the best sense—reading, thinking, small-group discussion, the arts, exploring the countryside, or engaging in athletic activities. For most participants, the result is a powerful experience of liberal education and intellectual community, which often translates into new perspectives on teaching and learning, new curricula, and new connections with colleagues at home campuses.

The seminar was developed some thirty years ago and was patterned on the Aspen Institute’s Executive Seminar. The founding fathers were Douglass Cater, at that time president of Washington College, and Josiah Bunting III, then president of Hampden-Sydney College. The seminar was first offered in a pilot version in the summer of 1983. Because of its overwhelming success, in 1984, it became, in Cater’s words, “a permanent institution.”

The University of Chicago and the Great Books movement

The history of the Wye Seminars is a chapter in a much larger story that has its beginning not at Wye or even Aspen, but at the University of Chicago with the Great Books movement and the work of Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the university from 1929 to 1951, and Mortimer Adler, for several years a faculty member at Chicago and for much of his professional life a public intellectual.1 Hutchins came to the University of Chicago as its president at the age of thirty, having begun his academic career as a faculty member and then dean at Yale Law School. In taking the helm, his intent was to steer the university away from its emphasis on disciplinary specialization and research, and back toward liberal education. In his inaugural lecture, he suggested the need for a reform of general education, but gave no specifics. Those were to be worked out by Adler. What Hutchins would contribute was great enthusiasm for liberal education and the task of reform, the influence and authority that could be exercised by a university president, a love of polemics, a personal flair that could be as much a curse as a blessing, and an unmistakable talent for public relations.

Adler, by contrast, was a teacher, writer, and philosopher. His academic career was by any definition unconventional. Though he learned classical Greek at a very young age and was able to read Plato by age five, he dropped out of high school at age fourteen to become a journalist. He found his way back to higher education by taking evening courses at Columbia University. Even though he had not completed a baccalaureate degree, he was admitted to graduate school at Columbia. In 1928, he was awarded a PhD in psychology and stayed on as a faculty member.

If there is a clear precursor of the Great Books seminars, it is John Erskine’s General Honors Course at Columbia. Erskine developed the idea for the course toward the end of the First World War. His intent was to counteract the growing emphasis on academic specialization, “scientific” scholarship, and the balkanization of the faculty into departments. He sought to accomplish this by reviving the ars liberales tradition of liberal education that focused on developing the whole person by reading, to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “the best that has been thought and said.” The two-year-long course titled “The Classics of Western Thought” covered some fifty-two works, ranging from Homer to William James, all read in English and not through the filter of critical scholarship. The course was based on a pedagogy of “highly civilized conversations about important themes and in a spirit of genuine inquiry.”2 As a student, Adler was a member of the first offering of the course in the fall of 1921; by 1923, he as well as classmate and future colleague Mark Van Doren were leading sections of it.

Adler recognized that this experience was clearly the most formative of his early intellectual influences and foundational to his subsequent life and work. What is more, the General Honors Course at Columbia paired with Contemporary Civilization became the model for general education reform nationally.

Hutchins had come to know Adler during his days at Yale Law School; in fact, the two had collaborated on an article on legal reasoning. In 1930, Hutchins hired him to teach philosophy at the University of Chicago. He found in Adler the person who could articulate his inchoate ideas about the importance of the Great Books. The two became partners not only in the reform of general education at Chicago, but also in many other projects to promote the study of the Great Books.

Hutchins arrived at the university as it was about to embark on a new general education program.3 The New Plan, as it was called, was largely the work of the Dean Chauncey Boucher; it was adopted by the faculty in 1931 and implemented the following year. To this, Hutchins added his own plan for a structural reorganization of the university into an undergraduate college and four academic divisions, which fit well with the new curriculum. The result was a two-year general education program organized by the college and two years of specialized education, organized by the departments within the four divisions. The first year of the general education curriculum consisted of five yearlong courses, one from each of the four divisions and a writing course. The four divisional courses, biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities, were interdisciplinary and interdepartmental. They were essentially survey courses offered in large lecture sections, with a weekly small group discussion, usually of a major writing. Class attendance was not mandatory; grades were based on comprehensive exams. The second year of general education consisted of electives that could be either general education courses or departmental offerings. Though Hutchins saw aspects of the New Plan as moving in the right direction, his support was tepid at best, and it became increasingly clear that he preferred something else.

In 1930, with Hutchins’s encouragement, Adler proposed a two-year-long General Honors Course, limited to twenty students, with enrollment by invitation only, that would count as an elective. The course covered classic texts from Homer to Freud. Hutchins volunteered to co-facilitate with Adler. The course was immensely successful; for not only could it count on the appeal of the Great Books to a hand-picked group of undergraduates, but the students also witnessed in Adler and Hutchins two very different intellectual styles, often in friendly conflict, and experienced a different pedagogy. That one of the two facilitators was the president of the university only added to the excitement.

Hutchins and Adler were also particularly interested in articulating the last two years of high school with the first two years of college in a curriculum that emphasized the Great Books. They believed that, properly taught, the Great Books were accessible to high school students and that early education was critical. Always willing to implement their own ideas, in 1933, Adler and Hutchins developed and co-taught a Great Books course at University High School, the university’s lab school, to pilot the new approach. That same year, the university approved a four-year high school/college general education program for University High, which was implemented in 1937.

It became increasingly clear that Hutchins’s real interest was in a four-year Great Books curriculum that was taught in small seminars and began during the last two years of high school. In 1933, he convened a group of faculty under the leadership of Adler and Ronald Crane to discuss informally what that might look like. In 1936, he appointed a Committee on the Liberal Arts that included Adler and others at the university, as well as some specially imported for the task. The latter included Richard McKeon, who had taught at Columbia with Adler and was offered a visiting professorship at Chicago in 1934; Scott Buchanan, who had been one of Erskine’s students and had known Adler at Columbia; and Stringfellow Barr, a friend of Buchanan’s from their Oxford days and the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. The latter two came from the University of Virginia, where they had developed a Great Books program. The Committee’s charge was to develop a curriculum for the four-year college that was based on the trivium and quadrivium and conveyed by the study of the Great Books. By 1937, it was clear that the effort would end in failure: not only was the committee beset by criticism from unsympathetic colleagues who opposed Hutchins’s leadership, but it could not finally agree on what books were to be included, how much freedom individual faculty would have in teaching them, and how such things as music education and laboratory science were to be dealt with.

With the failure of curricular reform at Chicago, Stringfellow Barr saw an opportunity at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. At the time, St. John’s was struggling financially and about to go under. In 1937, Barr seized the opportunity to rescue it and implement there the structures and ideas developed at Virginia and Chicago, with himself as president and Scott Buchanan as dean. Hutchins served as chair of the board. The New Program, as it was called, was a completely prescribed collegiate curriculum with everything taught by means of the Great Books. Though not to the degree found at St. John’s, several other colleges and universities throughout the nation adopted portions of what had become known as “the Chicago plan.”

With the appointment of Clarence Faust as dean of the college in 1941, Hutchins’s desires for a new curriculum finally prevailed. In 1942, after a major battle in which Hutchins cast the tie-breaking vote, the university created a four-year college, consisting of the last two years of high school and two years of college, with a fully prescribed curriculum devoted solely to general education, and offered in small seminars focused on the Great Books. A committee was appointed to develop a curriculum for it. In 1946, the final arrangements were hammered out and the new curriculum went fully into effect in 1947.

“The plan” always had its critics. In fact, it did not long survive Hutchins’s departure from the presidency of Chicago in 1951. However, the university initially flourished under it. Good students were drawn to it, and during the first four years of its existence, the university’s undergraduate enrollment grew from 1,700 to 2,700. However, after the war the situation changed; without Hutchins’s support and in response to declining enrollments, the university reintroduced greater flexibility into the general education curriculum.

Hutchins and Adler had always intended for the Great Books to have a strong presence outside the university. In the late 1920s, Adler and several of his colleagues at Columbia taught at the People’s Institute in New York City, where Great Books courses were offered to an adult, non-degree-seeking population. In the 1930s, he offered Great Books seminars to University of Chicago alumni. And in 1939, University College, the extension division of the University of Chicago, began offering Great Books seminars. In 1940, Adler published How to Read a Book, and as a result, reading and discussing Great Books became more of a grass roots movement.

The inspiration for something far more extensive came from Wilbur Munnecke, a vice president of the university and former executive of Marshall Fields. When approached by Hutchins for his advice about an executive training program for the university’s business students, Munnecke observed, “what we really need is a program to help people after they become executives. . . . What the businessmen of this town need to learn is not accounting and financing. They’re experts in their own businesses already, and they can hire experts in other lines, but they can’t hire anybody to read and understand for them.”4 Hutchins seized the opportunity and, in 1943, sent out invitations to thirty prominent business executives and their wives for a Great Books seminar, held at the University Club in downtown Chicago and moderated by Hutchins and Adler. The seminar met every two weeks and read not excerpts but entire works. The participants loved it!

The success of the seminar strengthened Hutchins and Adler’s conviction that the future of educational reform lay outside of the university and that adult education was “the substantial and major part of the educational process.”5 The success of their initial efforts provided a template for what they intended to disseminate more widely. Even better, the seminar provided testimonials from recognized and successful business people, which served to make the advertising material for the Great Books seminars persuasive.

With the focus on adult education and the engagement of the community outside of the university in the 1930s and 1940s, the social, cultural, and political rationale for the Great Books seminars came more to the fore. Hutchins and Adler argued that immersion in the Great Books was necessary to counter an increasingly positivist, “value-free” view of science in the West and the abandonment of the essential moral and metaphysic questions necessary for a healthy culture. Moreover, the humanistic values embodied in the Great Books were the foundation of the democratic tradition; their abandonment was the root cause of the decline of culture and the rise of authoritarian political movements. The case could be made even more cogently after the Second World War, when the need to rebuild Western culture and reestablish democratic traditions was even more evident.

Initially, the Great Books seminars were offered through University College, which was largely unprepared for the overwhelming response. Within the first year, there were thirty-four discussion groups throughout the Chicago area. To keep up with the demand, Adler developed a training course for moderators in 1944. By early 1945, there was a national network of some five thousand people involved in Great Book seminars, and by the end of the year that number had risen to twenty thousand. These exploding numbers were clearly more than the university could handle.

In 1947, Hutchins began to make plans to establish the Great Books Foundation, which would handle the rapidly expanding dissemination of the seminars. Put together in February with Hutchins as its president, the foundation began to take over the entire Great Books program from University College. The launch of the foundation also coincided with a post-war resurgence of interest in educational reform. The Harvard Red Book had been published the year before, and a general interest in education was widespread. Within the first year, the foundation added ten thousand participants in the Chicago area alone. In 1948, the city of Chicago officially celebrated “Great Books Week,” and Adler embarked on a national lecture tour to promote interest elsewhere.

A group of scholars at the Modern Language Association suggested that it would be appropriate to give this new spirit a public expression in a bicentennial celebration of the birth of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. But what began in academic circles was quickly appropriated by the cultural entrepreneurs and grew from the usual scholarly event to an international celebration intended to help heal the wounds of war and ameliorate the tensions of the Cold War. The promoters of the celebration agreed that it would not be wise to place it in a major city or national capital. What was needed was some place that was more out of the way. Hutchins suggested Aspen, Colorado.

The Aspen Institute

Though Hutchins played an important advisory role, the task of organizing the Goethe Bicentennial Festival was taken up by Walter A. Paepcke, president of the Container Corporation of America and a wealthy and influential Chicago businessman. Paepcke had long been involved in efforts to promote cultural renewal. Like Hutchins, he was a graduate of Yale, and he became one of Hutchins’s early supporters at Chicago.

To attract the sort of attention the festival needed, the first task was to create a publicity campaign to make “Goethe” more nearly a household word. To give the festival the intellectual heft it needed, Paepcke recruited an array of international intellectual luminaries. The prize catch was Albert Schweitzer, who was lured by a sizable gift to his foundation, and who was portrayed as a sort of “living Goethe.” In addition, Jose Ortega y Gasset played a central role, as did Hutchins’s good friend Thornton Wilder. The Minneapolis Symphony was booked for the occasion, along with several world-renowned soloists. The events were held outdoors, in the Aspen Opera House or under one of the large tents set up for the occasion.

The festival was held in June of 1949. With its ample offering of speakers, seminars, and musical events, it was very well received by those who attended; it was also a major public relations success. Naturally, this success led to the desire to build on the momentum generated.

Hutchins and Adler proposed the creation of a permanent educational institution, Aspen University, based on the philosophy and programs they developed in Chicago—undergraduate education, adult education, and philosophical conferences. In December of 1949, “Aspen University” took form as the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies with a board composed of Paepcke, Hutchins, Ortega, Wilder, and Erskine, with Schweitzer as an honorary member.

The following summer, a second conference was organized under the new banner of the Aspen Institute and with the tagline “Great Books, Great Men, Great Music.” Paepcke recruited a new group of intellectual luminaries—with an appearance by Dwight Eisenhower. In addition, the Aspen Summer Music Festival and the Aspen Film Classic Program were created, as well as the first photography conference. The speakers and the conversations were intellectually invigorating, and the arts were first rate. But the audience was small—for some events numbering fewer than one hundred—and composed mainly of intellectuals. Henry Luce suggested that the institute would do well to turn its attention to a mix of scholars and businessmen and to set as its goal the reform of business culture. Not only was this a much greater need, but businessmen would be able to pay the hefty fees necessary for the institute to break even.

With this change in purpose, the seminars took on a new focus. After the war, many saw America as the protector of Western civilization. At Aspen, this emphasis was transposed into an attempt to understand and clarify the values and beliefs foundational to American democracy. The seminars were to become less theoretical and more practical and to bring together leaders from all sectors of society, not just businessmen. Through this “cross-fertilization,” misunderstandings were to be dispelled and new ties were to be forged so that leaders could better serve America and hence the world. Accordingly, the publicity for the seminars became more pragmatic, promising that participants would become better leaders and better businessmen. The revised program was officially launched in 1953 as the Aspen Executive Program.

With the establishment of the Aspen Institute, a campus of permanent buildings was founded in Aspen. The Executive Seminars became routine during the 1950s and continued as the mainstay of the institute. In 1959, the Music Festival was spun off as the Aspen Music School and Festival. Paepcke died in 1960. Subsequent presidents broadened the institute’s horizons, making it an international center of public policy discussion. In 1978, Arthur A. Houghton gave Aspen his Wye River estate on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. As a result of tension with the town of Aspen caused by its desire to limit the institute’s expansion, plans were made in 1980 to move the institute out of Aspen altogether. The institute’s offices were moved first to New York City and then to Washington, DC, and Wye became its chief conference center. However, matters were worked out with the city of Aspen, and the institute maintained a presence there.

Wye Faculty Seminar

Though Aspen’s Executive Seminars did include some college and university faculty and administrators as part of Paepcke’s “cross-fertilization,” this hardly exhausted the potential for Great Books seminars to enrich higher education. Indeed, the need had become greater, for the conditions within American higher education that occasioned the Great Books courses in the 1920s had grown worse.

In 1982, Douglass Cater and Josiah Bunting settled on the idea of developing a version of the Executive Seminar intended to serve faculty at institutions like their own—small liberal arts colleges with enrollments of two thousand students or fewer. Cater had been a journalist, author, political analyst, and Washington insider. He served as a special assistant for educational issues to President Lyndon Johnson, was involved in the creation of several major pieces of education legislation, including the Higher Education Act, and played a major role in the creation of both the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Teachers Corps. Cater was also heavily involved with the Aspen Institute. He was a founding fellow and trustee, as well as a senior fellow and director of a special program on communications and society. Bunting was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute and a Rhodes Scholar. He served in the US Army and taught at both West Point and the Naval War College.

In 1982, Cater and Bunting received a grant from Exxon to begin the seminar and hired Sherry Magill as executive director. Magill planned the pilot version and developed the first curriculum. Cater and Bunting called on presidents of fellow institutions to support the seminar by providing faculty. The list of supporting colleges grew to include Hampden-Sydney, Hood, Spelman, Sweet Briar, and Washington; together they provided some twenty faculty for the first seminar. The fiscal and organizational details were handled by Washington College, and the seminar was held at the Wye River facility of the Aspen Institute. Cater and Magill also secured funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and from the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Cater remarked at the opening session of the seminar, “If we are not successful, no one will hear from us again. . . . But if we are, we intend for the Wye Faculty Seminar to become a permanent institution which will involve teachers from small liberal arts colleges in serious and sustained conversation about America’s values and purposes.”6

The purposes of the seminar, however, were not fully captured by Cater’s statement. More precisely, the seminar was “to counteract the isolated condition found among professors teaching in the nation’s small liberal arts colleges,” “to address the central purpose of a liberal arts education,” to bring “new purposes and coherence to the curriculum of participating colleges,” “to exchange ideas with other colleges, other disciplines, other professions,” and to “reveal the complementary relationship among the several disciplines.” There was also a focus on the civic dimension of liberal education, the role of liberal arts colleges in developing enlightened citizens, and “the fundamental, persistent questions posed by the American Polity.”7 “Citizenship in the American Polity” was the closest approximation to a title that captured all of this.

The pilot version of the seminar followed the format of the Aspen Executive Seminars quite closely. It extended for two weeks and was facilitated by Adam Yarmolinsky, who among other things was a seasoned Aspen moderator. In addition to the faculty participants, there were another dozen “resource persons” and “special guests” from business, government, the media, and private philanthropic foundations. The reading list was close to that of the Aspen Executive Seminars. Reflecting Aspen’s commitment to body, mind, and spirit, the afternoons were devoted to outdoor activities, and the evenings included special lectures as well as musical and theatrical performances. The two-week seminar concluded with a roundtable with representatives from the Kettering Foundation and the Association of American Colleges.

Because of the resounding success of the pilot version, a decision was made to make the Wye Faculty Seminar the “permanent institution” Cater hoped for. Washington College continued to take the lead, and assumed organizational and fiscal responsibility. The seminar period was reduced to seven days, and the number of “resource persons” and “special guests” was also reduced. The working definition of “faculty” was rather broad; it included not only teaching faculty, but also deans and librarians. Exxon, Kettering, the Atlantic Richfield Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Aspen Institute all provided funding. A Wye Governing Council was formed with Cater and Bunting as co-chairs.

While clear about the intended audience, the leadership of the Wye Faculty Seminar also had hopes for a broader impact. The faculty who attended the seminar took what they had experienced back to their home campuses. The result was not only revised curricula, but also Wye-inspired Great Books seminars for faculty colleagues. There was also a desire to develop Wye-type programs for high school teachers. In 1985, Magill worked with the Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee, North Carolina, to develop a five-day model for high school teachers; in 1987, she developed a program at Washington College for high school teachers that was a close replication of the Wye Faculty Seminar. By 1989, the seminar could claim to have inspired significant curricular change at six colleges, three faculty seminar programs, and two seminar programs for high school teachers. And there was more to follow.

In 1990, the leadership and organization began to change. The seminar became a “participating project” of the Aspen Institute. In 1990, Cater retired from the presidency of Washington College; Bunting left Hampden-Sydney for Lawrenceville, and Magill left Washington College to work for the Jessie Ball duPont Fund. Ladell Payne, president of Randolph-Macon College, was elected chair of the governing council. The reorganization included a formal relationship with both the Aspen Institute and the Association of American Colleges (AAC),8 who became its joint sponsors. Aspen was responsible for the fiscal affairs of the seminar and for raising the portion of the expenses not covered by participants’ fees. AAC was responsible for soliciting participation in the seminar and keeping it prominent in the attention of its members. To this end, AAC hosted regular demonstration seminars at its annual meetings.

In the early 1990s, the seminar began to reflect changes in the intellectual climate in America. As the Cold War receded in public importance, some attention to the issues of “multiculturalism” and “diversity” was included in the seminar. Non-Western readings were added. Scholarships were created to help recruit faculty from historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and Native American colleges. The focus on small private liberal arts colleges broadened to include community colleges as well as other public institutions.

Seminars were also created for higher education administrators, several on a pilot basis. Three-day seminars were offered for college and university presidents. In 1998, seminars were offered for student affairs administrators and academic deans. The Deans Seminar was the only one to become a regular offering. Reflecting its commitment to administrators as well as faculty, in 2009, the Wye Faculty Seminar became simply the Wye Seminars.

From the beginning, the appeal of Great Books seminars has been the experience of reading important texts, taking extended time for reflection, and engaging colleagues in thoughtful and rigorous discussion. For those who have not had the experience before, it can be life changing. For those who have, participation offers a powerful renewal in the deeper meaning of liberal education and intellectual community. As participants will testify,9 this experience itself is profoundly persuasive evidence that the seminars are worthwhile and worth continuing. Gustate et videte.  


1. See James Sloan Allen, The Romance of Commerce and Culture: Capitalism, Modernism, and the Chicago-Aspen Crusade for Cultural Reform (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2002). Allen sets the Chicago-Aspen movement in an even wider context. In addition, the Aspen Magazine produced a special commemorative issue in 2000, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Aspen Institute, that contains several good essays—including one by Allen—on the institute and the Executive Seminar.

2. John Erskine, “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent” (1915), quoted in Mortimer J. Adler, Philosopher at Large: An Intellectual Autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1977), 31.

3. John Boyer, dean of the college at the University of Chicago, has written extensively on the two major general education traditions at the University of Chicago, the New Plan and that associated with Hutchins. For a more detailed history and analysis, see “Continuity and Change: The College as an Advocate of Curricular Innovation and Debate” (1997) and “A Twentieth-Century Cosmos: The New Plan and the Origins of General Education at Chicago” (2006), volumes II and XVI in his Occasional Papers on Higher Education, available at

4. Quoted in “How Great Books Course Had Its Beginning Here,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 1, 1958.

5. “Adult Education,” a lecture published by the Great Books Foundation (Chicago, 1952), quoted in Allen, The Romance of Commerce and Culture, 110.

6. Quoted in “Wye Faculty Seminar: Final Performance Report,” December 1989.

7. Wye Faculty Seminar grant proposal to Bell Atlantic, n.d.

8. The name of the Association of American Colleges was changed to the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 1995.

9. See Aspen Institute, “Wye Seminars: 30th Anniversary Essays,” docs/seminars/Wye-Letters.pdf.

Robert Holyer is senior consultant at AGB Search.

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