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). 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). 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. 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.”  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
 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.
 And from TOL, chapter 20 passim.
 My students love watching this.
 Adler, A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 144.