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INVITATION TO LEARNING: Radio’s Obscure Intellectual Panel Program
Written by Martin Grams, Jr.
In 1940, a new invitation to learning was on the air.  Dr. Stringfellow Barr, president of St. John’s College at Annapolis, Maryland, extended the bid to those who would listen to learn on Sunday afternoons.  Pointing out that for more than 2,000 years Western civilization had drawn sustenance from liberal education, he took to the wave-lengths on a coast-to-coast network of more than eighty stations.  By exploring classic literature, which gave “cultural background to the nation’s founders,” as Dr. Barr explained, he aimed to strike a new keynote in liberal education by radio.  Good books were his forte in expediting the transformation of intellectual powers into intellectual habits.
“This is a broadcast to provoke good reading and thinking,” said Dr. Barr.  “We believe that the best way to encourage a listener to read a book is to let him hear other people, who have read it, discuss it.  Through their divergent opinions the radio listener may be stirred to read and see for himself with whom he agrees.”
First, confessing that he never was so scared as during the opening broadcast in May of 1940, Dr. Barr turned from his diagnosis of microphone fright to explain his formula of broadcasting.  It was vital, he contended, that conversation be sharp and witty, but not superficially so.  To maintain a fast, fresh and spontaneous pace, no script was prepared in advance.  Comment was born at the moment, and arguments were followed like a football as Dr. Barr and his ethereal team pounced upon ideas and opinions that kindled debate.  The program was not rehearsed; only the aspects of the book upon which the program hinged were reviewed at luncheon, prior to the broadcast.
“We guard against speechmaking,” continued Dr. Barr.  “Our discussion is sharp-edged by short sentences; its Platonio dialogue, light but interesting.  Books are selected because they are good, not because they are old or new.  Nevertheless, we find that many an aged book applies to the present.  For example, Plato’s Republic brings up the questions of censorship and war.  Every best seller that has survived as such for a hundred years or more possesses contemporary relevance.  That’s why they live on.”
Dr. Barr revealed that he was one broadcaster among the many who did not worry about the size of his unseen audience.  Six or six hundred, six thousand or six million, it didn’t matter, as long as some who listen “get light on things when they reflect; that the flash of inward light they get is intellectual light.”  He believed that much was to be gained by setting a standard for a broadcast, and then holding to it for the benefit of the few or the many who may listen to learn. 
As founding chairman of the program, Dr. Barr sought to make the “show” entertaining as well as informative through an exchange of ideas among three or four guests he invited to join him around the microphone; they were lawyers, Senators, professors, industrialists, financiers, preachers, Army officers, poets or sailors.  Their rereading of classic literature and the contagion they passed on through the air to others to reread, it was believed, would help modern man better to understand the power behind America’s basic traditions and how they could be kept alive.
By inviting an open exchange of opinion, fashioned on the radio, in accordance with the method adopted to foster liberal education at St. John’s, Dr. Barr also based his ethereal curriculum on one hundred great books from Homer to the present.  It was his belief that study of the masterpieces of literature, plus languages, science and mathematics, made for better equipped citizens than the average college curriculum.  That was the plan he followed at St. John’s; that was the plan he attempted to adapt to broadcast teaching.
A great book, he asserted, was one read by the greatest number of people from age to age; it was one with the largest number of possible interpretations and significances; it raised questions about the great themes in human thought, and it must be a masterpiece of the liberal arts.  Such was Dr. Barr’s definition. 
His idea for Invitation to Learning was born from the belief that in the dark hour when the American philosophy of life was seriously being challenged (America’s present involvement in WWII was knocking closer to our back door), it would be well to read or reread the books that formed the ideas of the founding fathers.  The program, therefore, intended to examine the intellectual sources of freedom, to offer to Americans a guide to the libraries of the architects of destiny.
Dr. Barr went on to point out that it was estimated that in 3,000 years Homer’s Iliad had been read by more than 25,000,000 people.  How many radio listeners might listen to an Iliad broadcast?  Wouldn’t it be too classic, too high brow for the multitudes?  Again he answered that he didn’t care how many listened.  His chief concern was that, among those who did listen, thinking was provoked, discipline and intellectual powers awakened.  It was obvious, he added, that “true learning cannot go on in vacuo.”  Therefore, through the broadcast of books, he hoped listeners would “hear great thinkers think.”
The variety and scope of the “classics” discussed ranged from religion, philosophy, history, ethics, poetry – and so on.  The July 7, 1940 broadcast introduced listeners to The Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five essays in which James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton explained and recommended the adoption of the Constitution.  The August 12, 1940 broadcast described The Confessions of St. Augustine, a great saint, biographer and psychologist who recorded the subtle transformation involved in a conversation from paganism to Christianity.
The prospectus pointed out that these programs, for the latter part, were organized primarily on the individual’s tragic necessity to come to terms both with society and with himself. 
The time slot changed constantly during the first season.  Although best remembered as a Sunday morning/afternoon program, the Invitation was heard for about six months on Tuesday evenings, during the first half of 1941.  The reasons for moving the series back to Sundays in June of 1941 is not known, but the program was never heard on any other day of the week.  It could be that the largest listening audience possible could be gained on Sunday afternoons, when many businesses were closed (and it’s historically known that many of the highest-rated programs on the major networks are Sunday vehicles).
Invitations to learning became an everyday affair with the ancient Greeks, who held banquets and parties as an excuse for dissertations on literature, philosophy and the arts.  Of the 67 broadcasts aired during the first season, one third of the discussions was routed in Greek literature (of Roman history).  One third were of historical documentation (i.e. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) and a dozen autobiographies, again of historical significance, were topics of the week.
By late 1941, Invitation was the only network sustaining program that successfully brought out the drama that existed in the disinterested play of ideas.  It has done so by getting articulate thinkers to talk spontaneously about a great work of literature.  The principle of the thing, as expressed by a CBS adviser: “While we are planning to defend our civilization we should not fail to keep it alive . . .”  A great feat accomplished when most considered the program generally as a hazardous and impractical experiment.  But when the first season ended, over two million people were members of the unseen audience, and it was estimated – according to The New York Times – that the sale of the books discussed, had gone up as much as 50 or 60 per cent in the leading bookstores of the nation.  *
*  Telephone and door-to-door surveys conducted in late 1941 revealed that the series was gaining listeners slowly but consistently.  And broadcasters know that a steady, slow climb upward in program popularity is far more valuable than an irregular graph revealing peaks and valleys.  And the fan mail – considered a thing of the past in radio, except where a free premium offer was used as the bait – was quite a heavy.  Best of all, every letter was further proof of the important part of the series was playing in making people read and reread the great books of the past.  Discussing a book on the air is merely the first objective in the network’s program plan.  More important is the fact that such programs made the listener think for himself.
This unusual program had an unusual studio – the famous Blue Room of CBS in New York – and it differed from usual studios not only in that it had windows, but it was furnished and decorated as an elegant living room – usually used for mass press interviews and receptions for famous guests.  However, when Invitation to Learning took to the air from this party room, there was very little of the party about it.  An hour before the program went on the air, the three speakers / guests, gathered in any convenient nearby studio for an advance warm-up period.  Here, they told each other what they liked and disliked about the book and author up for discussion.  There were no scripts in this series; hence it is essential to capture the right atmosphere for the actual broadcast.  The moderator, (who had no exact title but who may be called referee, umpire, chairman, or interlocutor), helped to chart a course for debate and discussion for the ensuing air session.  No attempt was made to tell each speaker what to say, but rather to outline topical approach to the discussions.
Each participant was pledged to read the featured book during the week before each broadcast.  Regardless of his knowledge of the work or the number of times he may have re-read it, he was asked to read it again.  How well this worked out may be judged from their comments on each work, the author, and the book’s acceptance through the years or ages.  Participants were permitted to bring notes and even the books themselves for quotation purposes, but these are rarely referred to, most of the remarks being drawn from their mental thesauri.
Every program was supposed to end with a quotation.  Hence, each of the three men was required to select what he thought was the most representative passage.  The moderator decided on the best one during the preliminary warming up period; the speaker suggesting it, was asked to read it at the specified time.  This was the only portion of the program that might be called “prepared.”  In such script forms are these episodes in existence at the University of Maryland, spanning the years of 1951 to 1953.
The series caught the public’s fancy after almost a year during which CBS executives good-naturedly commented, “We’re broadcasting thirty minutes of silence” or “Yours is the only program that uses a lorgnette instead of a microphone.”  But they found it difficult since to conceal their satisfaction.  Sex and love in the broadcaster’s book are topics generally calling for sotto voce discussion – if discussed at Vanity Fair, Madame Bovary, Francois Villon, and Oedipus Rex showed that a technique exists in which hitherto tabooed topics can be dealt with frankly and honestly – and without stepping on anyone’s toes.
Since its start in 1940, the low-rated program (CBS Radio once labeled it “our 69th most popular show”) ranged over most of the world’s significant literature – as far back as Homer (The Iliad and The Odyssey) and as recent as Dwight Eisenhower (Crusade in Europe).  It has had on board as talkers everyone from A to Z – poet W.H. Auden to psychiatrist Gregory Zilboorg.  On the unsponsored show, Herbert Hoover discussed Walton’s The Compleat Angler and Communist Earl Browder, Marx’s Communist Manifesto; sportswriter Red Smith talked about De Quincey, and sportscaster Red Barber about the Psalms.  There was even one show in which Clifton Fadiman spent a half-hour with Mother Goose.
Sadly, there has been, all along, a curious lack of cross reference in literary reviews and magazines, as if this on-the-spot attempt to keep alive the best of earlier cultures, the earmarks of them let us say, was not quite valid or respectable since it was done through a popular medium that is one of the essential earmarks of our own century.  Invitation to Learning was not by any means a perfect instrument, but it was an illuminating adventure and an attempt to give value to human reality in “real towns and on real land under weather and time.”
Martin Grams, Jr. is the author of numerous OTR books, including the documentary Invitation to Learning, (which has recently been published under a limited printing).  Various material and excerpts from the book was reprinted courtesy of the author.


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Copyright © 2002 by Martin Grams, Jr.  All rights reserved.  Printed in the United States Of America.  No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

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