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Diana Sheets: About the Passing of Max Weismann

Jun 10, 2017 by

An Interview with Diana Sheets: About the Passing of Max Weismann

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Diana, I understand that Max Weismann recently passed. What can you tell us about his life in general?

Max Weismann was born in Chicago in 1936 and died there on February 22, 2017. He worked as an expert in architectural design and construction management and was involved in some blockbuster showcase events including Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition (1962), the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and Montreal’s Expo 67.  Weismann’s talents as designer, builder, and creator of exemplary exhibits led to professional associations with Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Mies van der Rohe, Louis I. Kahn, Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breur, and Harry Weese (who, coincidentally, designed my house in Champaign, Illinois and, perhaps, more notably the subway system in Washington, D.C.).  The list of influential artists and designers with whom Weismann worked is impressive, including not only the aforementioned but also Alexander Calder, Jacques Yves Cousteau, and Moshe Safdie.

Weismann also pioneered a color imaging system utilized for design purposes that facilitated and improved the reliability of color proofing, printing, graphic design, as well as developing media projects associated with television and advertising.

He became closely associated with Dr. Mortimer Adler.  Together, they were co-founders of the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas in Chicago with Max serving as its president.  He also was the chairman of the Great Books Academy that brought the teachings of the classics of Western civilization to over 3,000 students.

2) Max Weismann might be seen as the last great connection between the “Great Books Movement” and its founders, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler.  How will Weismann’s death impact its influence?

Max Weismann was born and matured in the era of the Great Books.  The movement was shaped by the University of Chicago where Robert Hutchins served as president from 1929-1945 and subsequently as chancellor from 1945-1951.  Hutchins had recruited Dr. Mortimer Adler to the faculty.  The undergraduate college at the university was reconceived as a teaching platform for Hutchins and Adler to introduce students to the Great Books by means of class discussion groups engaging in Socratic dialogue.  Adler was the tireless promoter who ensured that the Great Books movement took root not only at the University of Chicago but also throughout the Midwest and, subsequently, nationwide.  Under the inspired leadership of Hutchins as president and later chancellor at the University of Chicago, that institution became known as the locus for the study of Western civilization’s great thinkers and the seminal writings that defined them.

As I point out in my essay “The Great Books and Cultural Identity: The Rise and Fall of Western Memory and Its Implications for our Time” (https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/54915), the Great Books movement grew out of a Great Books seminar introduced to undergraduates by Hutchins and Adler in 1930.  It borrowed and reimagined a course taught by John Erskine at Columbia University.  Students at the University of Chicago, under the guidance of Hutchins and Adler, were encouraged to discuss the seminal texts of Western civilization.

The seminar expanded to become an undergraduate program, then developed to become a movement across the country.  Its greatest influence was immediately after World War II through the beginning of the 1960s.  The movement’s reach was enhanced in 1952 when Encyclopedia Britannica published a 54-volume collection entitled Great Books of the Western World.  Robert Hutchins was editor in chief and Mortimer Adler was associate editor.  Adler’s tireless efforts to create the encyclopedia and promote the Great Books movement would consume his talents for the remainder of his life.

In terms of membership, the Great Books movement had some 50,000 adherents in 1947.  That figure declined in the 1950s to some 25,000 participants.  However, membership rose again in 1961 to approximately 47,000 in conjunction with a major campaign by Encyclopedia Britannica to promote the 54-volume set.

Over the years, enthusiasm for these foundational texts of Western civilization has waned and been replaced with a commitment to “social justice” and “identity politics”.  It’s hard to imagine, given the cultural values at present, that there will be another individual as dedicated to the cause as Max Weismann.

3) What was Max Weismann’s involvement in the Great Books Movement?

At Max’s memorial service, it was noted that in the 1950s, when Max was 21, he attended his first Great Books discussion group.  Ironically, what he thought would be a conversation about the “Declaration of Independence” turned out to be an exchange of views about Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto.  That discussion proved so captivating to Max that he devoted his life to the cause of the Great Books in an effort to impart its foundational philosophical ideas to future generations of teachers, children, and impassioned readers everywhere.

The Great Books movement came to define his worldview and much of his efforts.  Max’s memorial service was held on May 6, 2017 at St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church in Chicago, the very church in which Mortimer Adler’s memorial had been held on July 21, 2001.

4) How important was the Great Books movement to Max?

At his memorial service the eulogy, given by Dr. Peter Redpath, a professor emeritus of philosophy at St. John’s University in New York, was a sustained discussion of the Great Ideas, some of the seminal philosophers and their writings, including, not surprisingly, the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Thus, even at Max Weismann’s memorial the Great Ideas were conveyed as central to his life and his philosophical beliefs.  His widow, Elaine, emphasized to everyone at Max’s memorial her renewed commitment to his vision of supporting, now and in the future, the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas in Chicago.

5) How has he impacted you?

My first contact with Max Weismann came after a Q & A interview “Reading in the Age of the Internet” that I had with you for EdNews.org.  It was published online on January 20, 2009.  In our “conversation” you mentioned Alex Beam’s A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books.  I was noncommittal about Beam’s work since its treatment of the Great Books movement was odd, as if its members were some bizarre cult dredged up from an arcane past, rather than passionate and intellectually curious Americans dedicated to understanding the foundations of Western civilization.  Max was outraged by Beam’s irreverent approach to the Great Books movement and wrote a scathing online response, which I saved and from which I’ll quote in full.

RE: A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam Argumentum ad Hominem

The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.  As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins’ pithy essay, The Great Conversation.  If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

Max Weismann, President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of the Great Ideas,   Chairman, The Great Books Academy

I was very moved by Max’s reply.  The following year I mailed Max my essay “The Great Books and Cultural Identity: The Rise and Fall of Western Memory and Its Implications for our Time” published by Nova Science Publishers in your edited collection Reading in 2010: A Comprehensive Review of a Changing Field.   I felt that he would appreciate my fair-minded treatment of the Great Books Movement.

Max asked for a second copy of the book.  I mailed that as well.  In response, Max made me an honorary member for the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas in Chicago, placed me on the organization’s regular e-mail correspondence, and generously sent me two of Mortimer Adler’s books: Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind and How to Read a Book: A Guide to Reading the Great Books.

Max also mailed me a wonderful DVD of Mortimer Adler speaking with Charles Van Doren in a series of video conversations about their revised edition of How to Read a Book.  I recently watched that DVD again and was struck by how their entire conversation centered on the value, the import, and the sublime pleasure of books.  The world, by contrast, seemed diminished unless it was analyzed or amplified by books.  How to Read a Book placed center stage the authors’ conviction—and mine—that all that mattered in life could be gleaned and understood by books and the ideas expounded therein.

Today, by contrast, books have become peripheral, rather than central, to living.  The value and significance of reading and understanding the Great Books has all but disappeared, unless it can be relegated to political arguments founded upon social justice and identity politics.  Today, our responses seem predominantly visual and media driven rather than based on written texts.  We are living in a new age of orality where the works of the greatest philosophers have been consigned to the dustbin unless their ideas can be reduced to a pithy soundbite.

In all Max’s interactions with me, he was unfailingly helpful and generous.  Did I need a publisher?  Max gave me the name of his.  Did I need an endorsement for my latest book, the one you and I wrote together (The Doubling: Those Influential Writers That Shape Our Contemporary Perceptions of Identity and Consciousness in the new Millennium published in 2017 by Nova Publishers, https://www.novapublishers.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=59995&osCsid=47914a378cb24208416b28e69e17b2aek)?

Max generously supplied us with a glowing blurb.  Naturally, I made special arrangements with the publisher so that three chapters of our book appeared in a special journal sent to members subscribing to the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas in Chicago.  Of course, I mailed Max two complementary copies of the book.

But none of what I’ve written here does justice to Max.  He was passionately committed to the foundational texts that gave rise to Western civilization.  He was invariably warm and supportive.  Even though I never actually met him, the sense I had is that he would give me—and any strong supporter of the cause—the assistance necessary to accomplish whatever needed to get done.  For Max, understanding the ideas in the Great Books represented a secular spiritual quest in pursuit of truth and beauty undergirded by a profound moral philosophy.  Readers who entered into this revered “sanctuary” of Great Ideas inhabited with Max a textual “Holy Land”.  It was paradise achieved through scholarly devotion to these profound works that gave rise to knowledge and, ultimately, wisdom.

6) Now, what noteworthy things did he write and how much of an impact did he make on contemporary literature?

Max Weismann collected, assembled, and edited 500-plus pages of previously unpublished writings by Adler for his TV program “The Great Ideas”, which became the basis for the book How to Think about the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization.  It was published in 2000 by Open Court,  http://www.opencourtbooks.com/books_n/great_ideas.htm.

7) Is there a tribute page set up for Max Weismann online?

Readers might want to consult his Wikipedia page, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Weismann.

Max’s widow, Elaine, emphasized at his memorial that the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas in Chicago will continue.  I’m sure she and the organization would appreciate donations to this important not-for-profit 501 (c)(3) educational corporation.  They may be made through the Center’s website, http://www.thegreatideas.org/Membership.htm.

8) What have I neglected to ask?

My concern is about the future of the Great Books.  Without Max, without dedicated teachers committed to its cause, without nurturing and sustaining future generations of readers thirsting to understand the foundations of Western civilization and the ideas embodied therein, our civilization will die.

As a society we have to believe, understand, and embrace the Great Books that gave rise to Western civilization.  Modern society is an outgrowth of the ideas expressed in these important works.  Without these books and the profound truths they express, our fate would be perilous.  We’d be little more than primitive beasts: always surprised, always frightened, and we’d never understand the significance of the events unfolding.  Therefore, we’d never be able to contribute intellectually or culturally to alter the outcome.  Our lives would be a ceaseless and mindless struggle to survive.  Humankind, at its best, aspires to wisdom, which is achieved though reading and understanding the great teachings.  This intellectual journey reveals profound truths and sublime beauty along the spiritual pathway toward the divine.

I worry that Max might be the end of the line, the last of a generation of inspired thinkers, teachers, and scholars dedicated to understanding who we are and what we might become.  Let’s hope I’m wrong.  For our future as a society depends on continuing to read, cherish, and discuss the Great Ideas of Western civilization in order to nurture future generations of thinkers and writers, and philosophers who will, in turn, inspire subsequent generations in their quest for knowledge that will lead to wisdom.

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