Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe, not a cultural theorist. He correctly locates the Great Books among other middle class diversions like the Saturday Review of Literature and the Book of the Month Club. Newly affluent Americans wanted the trappings of learning – and the faux-leather volumes of the Great Books of the Western World fit the bill.First of all, I totally see the Harvard Classics as a piece of upwardly mobile furniture -- the equivalent of something cool from Pottery Barn. (In fact they'd be great in the background of Pottery Barn photo shoots.) I'm sure that's why my great-grandfather 1) bought them but 2) never seems to have opened them.
But beyond this, Beam doesn’t give much consideration to Hutchins’s brand of cultural uplift. Does establishing a canon of cultural greatness aid the preservation or defence of democracy? It’s not an easy question to answer...
But the question of whether cultural greatness = more democracy is an easy question to answer. The answer is "No." It seems to me, after a year of reading this stuff, that there's nothing inherently democratic, or inherently undemocratic for that matter, about cultural greatness. The instinct to make culture is universal and will persist under almost all political conditions -- except famine, maybe. The twentieth century is full of cultured barbarism; to avoid the obvious Furtwanglery example, look what happened to all the Russian arts institutions that only flourished under Communism.
Personally I'm skeptical of whether we can derive any political use from culture. Or to shade this statement a little bit, that we can derive any consistent or predictable use from it. It's part of my greater skepticism of the "Good For You" argument that seems to be the way they sold these Great Books series. Not that high culture, which we might define as works that have trouble paying their own way, isn't Good For You -- it's just that if it were only Good For You I'd say the hell with it.