U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Great Books Liberalism

Many USIH readers probably know by now that I am working on a book about the history of the Great Books idea in the United States, with a focus on the work of Mortimer J. Adler (right) and his intellectual community. As my project revisions deepen I am rereading material last studied during the 2000-2005 period. I am finding—with no small amount of pleasure—that my thinking has changed about the books and articles under consideration. My overall thesis holds, but I am seeing and finding more nuance within my chosen themes, as well as incorporating new themes.

Some of these changes in thinking are the result of my secondary readings. Over the past five years I’ve read many more histories, more closely, than I did as a graduate student. Back then, not surprisingly, I studied and merely ~read in~ books for classes and exams. Since graduation I have also been able to think more about philosophy, politics, and education theory.

But developments apart from reading have also enriched my view of the great books-Adler project. Indeed, the rise of the Tea Party within the conservative movement has, serendipitously, increased the strength of my arguments about Adler and great books supporters. I have long argued that the place of Adler and his community in the Culture Wars continuum has been skewed, by a fair number of academics and relevant cultural/intellectual/education historians, too far to the right.

There are a number of legitimate reasons for this. The biggest is the support of great books programs by cultural and intellectual reactionaries (e.g. Allan Bloom), as well as political conservatives (e.g. William Bennett). Religious education endeavors, moreover, have also colored the picture a political red. For instance, Catholic higher education institutions, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas College in California, use the great books idea as a signal for respect of traditional mores, norms, and ideas. There are also a number of Protestant colleges that use the great books to take a cultural stand.

That said, left-leaning academicians and critical historians have compounded this conservative perception by talking about the great books idea as static and unchanging. Even when they acknowledge change, they still associate the great books with hierarchical views of society, or stoke fears of an artificial, imposed ordering of the mind. Lawrence Levine acknowledged a changing history in his flawed but useful historical polemic, The Opening of the American Mind (1996). But he neglected to explore the fact that the great books idea can be used to forward a liberal or moderate mindset. All too often, many on the right (more so) and the left (still too frequently) believe that a course in the great books predetermines a conservative political teleology. Historical counterexamples exist. Savvy observers of literature and the great books (i.e. Margaret Soltan of University Diaries, May and Sept. 2006 posts) know that it can be adapted to left-leaning higher education environments, as is the case at St. John’s College (in Annapolis, MD, and Sante Fe, NM). A cursory historical review of St. John’s students and faculty, present and past, would dispel the great books-equals-conservatism myth.

Returning to Adler, his community of discourse, the Tea Party, and my book project, few understand—or have bothered to explore—the varieties of liberalism situated in the political make-up of the mid-twentieth-century great books supporters. And now that I have a better understanding of political liberalism, the rise of conservatism, and the present-day political situation, I too am occasionally surprised by the rationality, moderation, and good sense proposed by Adler and his community—when they were at their best. Adler was always something of a jack-ass personally, and he compounded this in the late 1980s and early 1980s because of rigidity, which I attribute to late-life senility. But he had his moments as a voice of reason.

For instance, I am currently rereading Adler’s 1970 book, The Time of Our Lives: The Ethics of Common Sense (TOL).[1] If you can put aside, momentarily, your doubts about the notion of a ‘common sense’—doubts I share, by the way—I’ve come to the conclusion that this book is the key to understanding Adler’s vital center-ish, and somewhat paternalistic, liberalism. Despite its weaknesses, this liberalism matters because of Adler’s long-term advocacy of the great books, its contrast to the associated politics outlined above, and finally because he retained this liberalism, both politically and socially, even into his senility. For some, indeed, this is what made him an enduring, attractive figure. If more conservatives today were knowledgeable of that liberalism, I am convinced there would be less enthusiasm for the great books idea by association (and perhaps more enthusiasm from moderate liberals for great books curricula). Adler put that liberalism on display all throughout TOL, even while he chastised and denigrated the counterculture, as well as youthful activists with far left political aspirations (read: revolutionaries).

The last quarter of TOL is dedicated to assessing “The Present Situation in Which We Find Ourselves” (Part IV). There is a chapter in that section titled “Is Ours a Good Society to be Alive In?” This is not an inconsequential question in 1970, a year where the populace—young and old—was still in the midst of the Vietnam War, as well as recovering from the shocking news of late 1969: the killings of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival disaster, the Manson murders, My Lai, etc. After acknowledging the difficulties of comparing the U.S. to other world societies, Adler concludes: “With all such considerations in mind, I still think it is fair to say that from the point of view of providing the external conditions of a good human life for a larger percentage of its citizens, the United States, is, on balance, as good as, if not better than, any other country in the world today, and vastly better than any state that ever existed in the past” (p. 219).

Taken out of the context of the reading, where Adler discussed what he called “the twentieth century revolution” in human affairs (e.g. the goods of Progress in terms of the Enlightenment project, broadly conceived for the world), this seems overly patriotic and perhaps jingoistic (p. 214).[2] It does not come across that way in the book. And of course the historian can, with some ease and the benefits of hindsight, judge him for underestimating the problems of Vietnam, racism, gender, and ethnocentrism.

Adler writes that this revolution “must go on” (p. 220). In so doing, he acknowledges the importance of social and political criticism within the United States. But what about the criticisms articulated, both directly and indirectly, by the counterculture and the youthful left? Adler writes that “we can dismiss the purely negative and nihilistic type of criticism that, failing to acknowledge the revolutionary accomplishments so far [in 20th-century America, broadly], does not propose carrying the revolution [read: reform] forward, but instead calls for the complete demolition of our institutions” (p. 220). In calling for the already ongoing twentieth-century revolution to continue, Adler spoke against the kind of revolution hoped for by the Weathermen and its successor the Weather Underground. At 68 years old, Adler could afford to speak of moderation and a long view since he was not targeted for the draft, as were the men who participated in groups like the Weathermen.

In discussing legitimate and illegitimate criticism of America, Adler supplies a long footnote on John W. Gardner‘s June 1968 commencement address at Cornell University. The title of Gardner’s speech says a great deal: “Uncritical Lovers, Unloving Critics.” While thinking about it this week, I have been screening The Weather Underground (2002) with my U.S. survey students. I’ve also been watching the news about the nation’s budget with, probably, the rest of you. Gardner’s address applies as much to radical Tea Party libertarians today as it did to 1960s student revolutionaries.[3] Here’s the excerpt Adler provided TOL, as well as his gloss at the end (the underlines are Adler’s):


Gardner [right] imagines a twenty-third-century scholar who, with retrospective insight, points out that “twentieth-century institutions were caught in a savage crossfire between uncritical lovers and unloving critics. On the one side, those who loved their institutions tended to smother them in an embrace of death, loving their rigidities more than their promise, shielding them from life-giving criticism. On the other side, there arose a breed of critics without love, skilled in demolition but untutored in the arts by which human institutions are nurtured and strengthened and made to flourish. …Where human institutions are concerned, love without criticism brings stagnation and criticism without love brings destruction. …The swifter the pace of change, the more lovingly men have to care for and criticize their institutions to keep them intact through turbulent passages. In short, men must be discriminating appraisers of their society, knowing coolly and precisely what it is about society that thwarts or limits them and therefore needs modification. […] To fit themselves for such tasks, they must be sufficiently serious to study their institutions, sufficiently expert in the art of modifying them.”

Patriotism is love of one’s country and its institutions, but the only kind of patriotism that can be recommended is the kind Gardner has described—the patriotism of ‘critical lovers’. Patriotism thus conceived is neither blind to faults, as parental love usually is, nor is it given to an over-estimation of virtues, as romantic love usually is. It is like mature, conjugal love—the love for a spouse which, while fully cognizant of all defects, would still wish to have no other. That is, perhaps, the reason why it is futile to expect the young of this or any other generation to be patriots in the true sense, rather than ‘uncritical lovers’ or ‘unloving critics,’ as most of them are. (pp. 336n6-337)


As you can see, Adler’s (vital, paternalistic) liberalism—as expressed in conjunction with Gardner—pushed for a critical spirit. That spirit was based on an updated Aristotelian logic and ethics that prioritized public philosophy in a democracy—meaning the infusion of the public square with dialectic principles rooted in a secular hierarchy of goods. That spirit, furthermore, found educational grounding in the public goods that Adler and his community saw in the great books idea.

At this point, meaning 1970, the canon had not yet been widely targeted for challenge. Even so, Adler and his community (Mortimer J. Adler, the Van Dorens, Clifton Fadiman, William Benton, Arthur Rubin, Jacques Barzun, Otto Bird, etc.) had already argued for the intellectual diversity within the Western tradition. He also liked to remind people that “there is much more error in the great books than there is truth.” [4] In other words, to Adler the Enlightenment project in America, evident in the ongoing revolution of Western political, economic, and social conditions—coming to fruition “as the technologically advanced, democratic, welfare state”—was buttressed by a great books-based liberalism (pp. 217-218). This great books liberalism celebrated reason, rationality, criticism, and the careful maintenance of existing, working institutions. Supporters of the great books saw a flexible, vigorous culture center that could hold in the midst of fracture and disintegration.

As a coda, I can’t help but wonder whether the Tea Party, were it more in touch with the (positive) historical development of the Western liberal tradition in terms of state-building, would be so eager to atomize individuals by working against the “general welfare” ideals articulated in the U.S. Constitution’s Preamble? Haven’t they read the great documents that some have called “The American Testament”? You can bet that great books liberals have. – TL


[1] Adler, The Time of Our Lives: The Ethics of Common Sense. Introduction by Deal W. Hudson (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996). The politics of the author to this introduction speak to the efforts by right-wing Catholic political activists to appropriate and hold onto the great books legacy in the face of overwhelming evidence against the GB idea supporting conservative political endeavors.

[2] And from TOL, chapter 20 passim.

[3] My students love watching this.

[4] Adler, A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 144.

26 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this terrific, thoughtful post, Tim! I’m finding these questions particularly interesting these days, as I’m set to teach a new Great Books course in the Honors College here at OU in the fall (more Columbia CC than Chicago, fwiw).

    Two small thoughts:

    1) It is said that Allan Bloom always considered himself a liberal (though that doesn’t, of course, mean that we ought necessarily consider him one).

    2) In what sense is St. John’s College a “left-leaning environment”? I’ve always thought that it was very politically heterogeneous. On the one hand, Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan, the founders of St. John’s Great Books curriculum, were definitely left-leaning (according to Wikipedia, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called Barr, whom he judged to be not a Communist but insufficiently anti-Communist, a “Typhoid Mary of the left.”). But St. John’s has also long had a strong Straussian presence (the initial connection was through Jacob Klein, one of Strauss’s closest friends from Germany, who taught at St. John’s for fifty years and served as Dean there for a decade). Strauss’s student Robert Goldwin served as Dean of St. John’s in the late ’60s and early ’70s. And many other Straussians have taught there, including Leon Kass.

  2. @LD: Have at it! What’s your research interest? Something related?

    @Ben: On (1), conceded—though one can be both a liberal and an intellectual reactionary. I suppose the difference between a conservative and a reactionary is one of temporal endurance (the former being reactionaries for a long time). On (2), I didn’t mean to preclude instances of conservatism (are Straussians always politically conservative? can some be political liberals while they’re cultural conservatives? You obviously are the expert on this). My statement about St. John’s left-leaning tendencies is a generalization from my overall reading meant to reflect the long duree of the institution. – TL

  3. @Tim: Let me put aside the rather vexed question of whether there are–or can be–liberal Straussians and focus on the Straussians actually at St. John’s, starting with Strauss himself, who concluded his career in Annapolis. Whatever the liberal credentials of the institution–and, as I suggest above, I agree with you that it has them–they have had conservative Straussians in positions of prominence going back at least to the mid 1960s. Robert Goldwin, who was Dean from 1966 until 1973, was a lifelong Republican who is best known as the White House intellectual during the Ford Administration. He got that gig because he was a longtime adviser to Donald Rumsfeld (indeed he left St. John’s when Rumsfeld was named Nixon’s ambassador to NATO and Rummy asked him to come along and be a speechwriter/assistant). After leaving the Ford White House, Goldwin spent the last three-and-a-half decades of his life at the American Enterprise Institute.

    (And just to be clear, the Dean at St. John’s is the very powerful second-in-command to the President. When Barr was President, Buchanan was Dean.)

    A number of very notable conservatives have also graduated from St. John’s, including Robert George.

  4. Excellent post, Tim. One of your finest! You should write a book…

    As you well know, I gave some space to Adler’s friend Hutchins in my book, and I found him to be the quintessential philosophical absolutist/political liberal when it came to education. I find nothing odd about this pairing, and think only historians deeply out of touch with intellectual history could be so unimaginative as to automatically link a anti-relativism (even regarding a western tradition) to political conservatism.

  5. @Ben: Fair enough. I suppose you’ve complicated my St. John’s example enough that I should’ve used Illinois’ Shimer College instead. Some of the latter’s left-leaning history is evident in this NYT article (11/4/2007). I suppose my thinking about St. John’s has been overly colored by Adler’s reminiscences (I recall him remembering it as left politically). And perhaps my memory of Charles A. Nelson’s Radical Visions: Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, and their efforts on behalf of education and politics in the twentieth century has faded. Or maybe your forthcoming work on the Straussians has uncovered a heretofore unrecognized strain of conservatism/political heterogeneity at St. John’s? In any case, thanks for the corrective!

    @Andrew: Thanks! I was happy to see Hutchins in your book. – TL

  6. Good post. Wide ranging, but cohesive.

    One thought I had: In addition to the conservative cultural polics of its contemporary intellectual champions, a central reason why people think of the Great Books approach as fundamentally conservative is the structural nature of a defined list/canon. As with the literary canon, either one defends a pre-established listing of great books, or one seeks to redefine the listing through the inclusion of previously unincluded authors, stand-points and ideologies, or one deconsturcts the idea to the point of its dissolution. While there are an infinite number of ways that one can define or redefine a “great books” approach, and while Adler’s position that such books should be read critically is surely significant, the presumption that there are some core set of books that everyone (in America) should read (rather than a tapetestry of brilliant and/or significant texts within which different individuals and communities of thinkers orient themselves) is a fundamentally conservative and communitarian one.

    This has pretty much no relevance to the political affiliation or charater of its historical proponents (though, of course, Western liberalism for most of its history embraced structures and beliefs that would currently be considered decidedly illiberal; this aside from the changing meanings of the term itself). It does, however, influence how we think of the fundamental project.

  7. Just to be clear, Tim, my disagreement was just with your description of St. John’s as “left-leaning” (fwiw, I wouldn’t call it “right-leaning” either). I think your larger point about Great Books liberalism is both important and correct. Like Andrew says, you should write a book 😉

  8. Jeremy: I like what you’re saying, but I’m not sure a list of 100 books comprised only of authors of color, women, etc. would be defined as conservative, at least in relation to how the term is used popularly (for its socio-moral-political referents). Maybe the bigger question is whether ‘excellence’ always and everywhere contains some kind of inherent conservatism? That said, I agree that any limited list denoted as a canon has some inherent ~academic~ conservatism associated with it. …Perhaps we’re saying the same things from different angles. – TL

  9. Perhaps we’re saying the same things from different angles

    I think that’s right. One could imagine a canon which would be anathema to contemporary conservatism and reeductional in its intent, but still fundamentally conservative in its relationship to the notion of a centrally determined shared culture. I guess this gets to the question of whether Stalinism was fundamentally radical or conservative.

    One can deconstruct the canon and still maintain a concept of excellence, though. It would just be a positional understanding of excellence: excellent for what; excellent for who? This wouldn’t have to be a political determination either, but one of appropriate toolkit. Many texts are excellent, but particular texts will seem more appropriate in different circumstances, from different positions, for differeent purposes. One wouldn’t have to deny that, say, Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is brilliant to recognize that it’s going to be more relevant to one set of questions/interests over another.

  10. Jeremy,

    I have only questions to offer:

    1. Are all canons, or book lists that purport excellence, determined on an exclusionary authoritarian basis? Put another way, can a shared culture that recognizes ideals of excellence come about through consensus, by democratic means?

    2. Does popular culture recognize true excellence?

    3. Can’t excellence be something more than positional? How is it that many different people came to share the idea that Van Gogh’s *Starry Night* represents excellence?

    3. Does the fate of democracy depend on more than just equality? Is it not true that justice demands judgments of things that are more or less important? Can democracy foster excellence at all?

    4. Between mid-century American political liberalism, present-day conservatism, and present-day liberalism, which is more amenable to fair judgments of cultural excellence? I can see arguments for and against all three.

    5. What role should, or can, intellectuals play in helping foster excellence in a democracy—meaning an excellence that is shared and more than positional?

    – TL

  11. Tim, right now my research interest is surviving the semester. Not sure what the over/under is on that.

    But, yes, one of my exam fields covers the construction and criticism of the Western literary canon, which seems to me to be related to the Great Books idea/controversies.

  12. When thinking about the Great Books, consider that some of the proponents (Hutchins and Meiklejohn are the two with which I am most familiar) were reacting to a Progressive Era/pragmatic mindset in which truth is constructed through investigation in discrete fields and then added together. In this mode of education, each _student_ does not need to learn essential truths; it is only necessary that each student learn how to make individual _contributions_ to a larger, social project of constructing truth. Many Great Books proponents hated this educational philosophy, which was focused more on training a _population_ rather than training _individuals_. They preached a return to the “liberal arts,” which connoted a freeing of the individual from the Weberian iron cage of modern society, while at the same time returning them to an older concept of social moral restraints.

    The Great Books become popular in the 1920s, in part, because proponents (similar to William Jennings Bryan and other anti-modernists) believed that pragmatism, which they associated with Darwinism, caused the destruction of World War I. The Great Books proponents–whether or not they were all politically liberal or conservative–were _culturally_ conservative insofar as they wanted to return to an imagined pre-Civil War mode of educational philosophy. They wanted students to read the great books so that they could get some of the “mental discipline” of early-1800s colleges (best expressed in the Whig faculty psychology), and they also hoped to extend this culturally conservative educational philosophy to the larger public.

    By disentangling political liberalism from cultural liberalism (at least temporarily), this might help to understand some of what made great books proponents like Adler tick.

    I deal with some of these issues in my forthcoming book about intercollegiate football reform and higher education–it was no coincidence that some Great Books proponents wanted to get rid of big-time football, which they associated with the problems of Progressive Era universities. (By the way, Tim, your dissertation helped me understand the broader contexts of the GB movement; I am looking forward to seeing your treatment of Adler published in book form. Good luck!)

  13. Brian,

    Thanks for chiming in.

    What you say about pragmatism is absolutely true, particularly in relation to M.J. Adler. This is what Andrew noted above in saying that anti-relativism does not mean anti-liberalism. But it’s not the end of the story.

    I wouldn’t say the great books idea became popular in the 1920s. I would say in the 1930s with academics, and in the 1940s with the population at large.

    My research has shown, Brian, that it is incorrect to say that great books supporters wanted a return to the “discipline and furniture” of the mind approach advocated in the Yale Report of 1828. While Adler and his cohort appreciated memory, they—with Adler as prime instigator—saw philosophy and ideas as the primary reason for studying the great books. To quote Lord Bolingbroke, to them “history is philosophy teaching by examples.” The Great Books, as products of history, contained philosophical ideas; the books they identified as “great” exemplified a “Great Conversation” about “Great Ideas.”

    So, we disagree. If Adler wanted his students and the public to remember anything from the great books, it was their philosophical content and not their historical details, characters, and particulars. Indeed, Adler displayed a disdain for pedantry and particulars in his memoirs—meaning remembering those details for memory’s sake.

    By saying this, I don’t deny that Adler and Hutchins and their friends were, at times, cultural conservatives, or had ideas about culture that we could perceive as conservative. I mean, FDR was no liberal by today’s standards.

    – TL

  14. Thanks for your response, Tim. I stand corrected on a point or two but I also must say that I disagree with some of your points, especially about the 1828 Yale Report.

    You may be right about Adler, and I claim no expertise about him. However, Alexander Meiklejohn would have made a very different claim. He explicitly _did_ want to return to antebellum Whig-style education and I believe that he saw the Great Books as an adjunct to the liberal arts education that he was implementing first at Amherst in the 1920s and then at Wisconsin’s Experimental College in the 1930s. While you may be right about the date of the emergence of the “Great Books” in academic and public popularity, I would point out that Meiklejohn started expressing his ideas about education and philosophy in the 1920s, even if he was not necessarily a “Great Books” proponent at that time.

    And, furthermore, I think that you may be mischaracterizing the 1828 Yale Report, as well as the way that early-1900s educators like Meiklejohn may have understood it. The Yale faculty were focused on instilling mental discipline-through rigorous study as well as campus surveillance-that would allow students to construct both an individual and a moral framework. I do not recall that they were interested in a curriculum that would facilitate mere “memory”. (Although they did want “mental discipline,” of which memory may have been one aspect.)

    Based on my reading of the Yale Report, I would never say that either the Yale faculty OR the Great Books proponents wanted anyone to remember “historical details, characters, and particulars.” (For the record, the 1828 Yale Report said that “mental discipline” was important, but that “mental furniture” was not.) Based on my understanding of early-1900s educators like Meiklejohn, they wanted students to read philosophy and the “Great Books” so that they would use the content to shape a moral individuality.

    Now, admittedly, the shaping of morality is not necessarily the same thing as a “Great Conversation” that cuts across the centuries. But I suspect that both the antebellum collegians and those who would revive that style of learning in the post-World War I era were not as far from engaging in such a philosophical conversation as you seem to be saying that they were.

    I would be interested to hear your further thoughts on this.

  15. Brian,

    First, I apologize if my comment appeared condescending or aggressive. I appreciate good conversation about my chosen topic, so I don’t want to run you off.

    The problem with looking for common ground in Meiklejohn is that he operated in a somewhat different discursive framework than Adler. The interacted some via U of C (I think Meiklejohn was invited there a time or two by Hutchins and/or Adler), but then they separated. Meiklejohn’s name comes up in Adler’s memoirs (in a friendly way), but they weren’t close friends.

    I apologize if I made the discourse about the great books idea appear more unified than it was. My concern, as you know, is with Adler and his special/close community because—and I think you’ll agree with me here—their discourse about the great books idea became the dominant one—for almost 50 years (1930s to mid-1980s). Meiklejohn wasn’t a part of the founding of the Great Books Foundation or creation of the Britannica set in 1952. Those are two signal events for involvement in the dominant discourse about the great books idea.

    As for the Yale Report of 1828 and its historical content and circumstances, I’m content to let that conversation lie for now. My only point was that twentieth-century great books supporters, as represented in the dominant discourse involving Adler, Hutchins, etc., did not seek a return in “mental discipline” insofar as any return would mean a rejection of modernity (e.g. return to Victorian education ideals). Rather, they saw the great books as perennially relevant—as always up-to-date and applicable to today’s problems. It would be wrong to say that they wanted the great books studied “for their own sake,” or for some esoteric understanding of a far-off, antiquated Western heritage. They advocated for usefulness and practicality without “Pragmatism.” In sum, it depends on what kind of mental discipline we’re talking about. And, to be fair to you, you only said “get some of the “mental discipline” of early-1800s” in your first comment. I overlooked the “some” during my reading of that passage.

    As for morality, well, it doesn’t come up a lot in the writings of Adler and Hutchins. They were more concerned about philosophy—pragmatism and relativism overall—than specific moral strictures. I suspect this is so because both, well, had significant moral failings in terms of sexual fidelity and intemperance. Of course hypocrisy has never been a straightjacket in terms of preventing sermonizing for some. But I think those two separated their advocacy for the great books from any kind of advocacy for American Victorian mores.

    How are we doing? I think we’re at least in the same mental city, or state, with this conversation. We’re just concerned with different higher education directions, methinks.

    Again, I’m sorry for any failing of tone in my first reply to you.

    – TL

  16. My apologies for the defensive tone; it was the end of a long teaching day and I was a little grumpy.

    I think the key point here is that many of the Great Books proponents were anti-pragmatists. Some of them were more interested in pedagogy than others were, but their approach to philosophy and pedagogy often had a great deal of overlap. However, of course, they did not agree on everything. Even Hutchins and Meiklejohn, who had some important points in common, disagreed on some key points. In any case, I do think that the common denominator that linked many of their ideas was that one had to get beyond the mentality of the pragmatic era. In some cases that meant a return to antebellum philosophical ideals (although I hesitate to use the term “Victorian” in the American context, because I think it raises more questions than it answers), while in others–perhaps Adler is a good example of this–it meant to rise above the fray of any kind of specific debates grounded in the historical moment.

    So, in some ways, I think we are roughly on the same page. The only additional point I would make is that I do seem to recall that Meiklejohn was on the board of advisors for the Encyclopedia Britannica set.

  17. Brian: I’ll double-check that advisory board reference on Meiklejohn. But I’m pretty sure his voice wasn’t a major one, or else I would’ve remembered more about his opinions and preferences. The 1952 GB set advisory board was officially led by Hutchins, but Adler chaired all the meetings. I recall from the minutes that Scott Buchanan, Adler, and Van Doren (Mark) had major voices. Hutchins hardly contributed (through most of the process, that is).

    BTW—On Victorianism in America, you might already know this literature, but I’ll throw it out for general reader consumption:

    1. Daniel Walker Howe, “American Victorianism as a Culture,” *American Quarterly* 27, no. 5 (December 1975): 507-532. It’s dated, but I think the argument holds.

    2. Daniel T. Rodgers’s *Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age* (1998).

    3. Leslie Butler’s *Critical Americans: Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Liberal Reform* (N.C. Press, 2007).

    – TL

  18. This is a month old now, but I hadn’t realized that you had responded to what I wrote. I suspect that a great deal of the space between our perspectives here lies in what and who we study and in somewhat different sympathies in the familiar, well-worn modernism v. post-modernism debates. To your (ancient) questions:

    Are all canons, or book lists that purport excellence, determined on an exclusionary authoritarian basis? Put another way, can a shared culture that recognizes ideals of excellence come about through consensus, by democratic means?

    I don’t really see how. The fact that canons have to be identified and specified (what makes the list, what doesn’t) show that they are orthodoxy rather than doxa, in Bourdieu’s sense. In a plural society judgements of excellence and essentialness are necessarily going to vary depending on one’s community, values, ideology, prejudices (as per Adler) and so on. The prescriptive definition of any particular canon will be necessarily anti-democratic, and a truly democratic canon will be a non-canon.

    Does popular culture recognize true excellence?

    Um, sometimes? Less glibly, I think that to believe there is any singular difintion of “true excellence” would be hubris, but for any of the many possible definitions, they will at times overlap with what is celebrated in popular culture.

    Can’t excellence be something more than positional?


    How is it that many different people came to share the idea that Van Gogh’s *Starry Night* represents excellence?

    They all share an aesthetic tradition. Step outside of that tradition by time or space/culture and “Starry Night” would be viewed not just as not representing excellence, but as an affornt. There’s no way out of the episteme. This doesn’t make judgements of excellence meaningless or arbitrary, they are never that, but neither are they universal.

  19. Does the fate of democracy depend on more than just equality? Is it not true that justice demands judgments of things that are more or less important? Can democracy foster excellence at all?

    There’s a difference between judgement and prescription, and there’s a difference between identifying excellence as one sees it and declaring ones own vision to be the universally correct one, indeed to be the one that others should be pedagogically subject to.

    Between mid-century American political liberalism, present-day conservatism, and present-day liberalism, which is more amenable to fair judgments of cultural excellence? I can see arguments for and against all three.

    Well, I suppose contemporary liberalism has the least in the way of prejudices to blinker it, though plenty of its own. I myself am from the country left of there, but my people, despite forsight in cetain areas, have their own rather checkered history. I think I’m clear, though, that any such judgement is going to be limited and that their can be multiple valid and conflicting judgements of excellence.

    What role should, or can, intellectuals play in helping foster excellence in a democracy—meaning an excellence that is shared and more than positional?

    Ah, here’s the rub. It’s never going to be more than positional. Never. Modern nations are too big and too plural for a shared notion of excellence to be organic (or, in Durkheim’s terms, to be mechanical, rather than organic).

    So what role for intellectuals? Well, ideally the same role as ever, of arguing for excellence where they see it. What I would hope would change from the supremacist or communitarian models would be for intellectuals to cultivate humility. By that I mean several things: recognizing that their own understanding of excellence, no matter how well informed, is still limited and at least partially subjective and that the judgements of others might reasonably differ; to recognize the limited nature of their own social and cultural worlds and to cultivate a curiousity about the worlds of others; to accept that the world is abig place and they can only ever hope to understand and appreciate parts of it; to try and understand what others might see as excellent, even if they do not ultimately share that judgement; and, again, to take the fruits of that informed journey beyond the self and back again, share them with others – proclaim the value of those works and ideas worth proclaiming.

    So that was long and pretentious, but felt worth writing anyway.

  20. Tim,

    You wrote,

    >Meiklejohn wasn’t a part of the founding of the Great Books Foundation or creation of the Britannica set in 1952.

    In fact, he was a member of Britannica’s Advisory Board that advised Hutchins on the selections for the 1952 set.

  21. Jay: Thanks for the comment. Brian Ingrassia and I covered this point in the comments just above yours. My corrected point (I didn’t double-check that statement before writing this post), in brief, was that Meiklejohn’s voice was a minor one in the advisory board’s deliberations. – TL

  22. Jeremy: Thanks for entertaining my questions. I’ll save my answers for the book project—probably in the conclusion (with the same or similar questions raised in the introduction). -TL

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