Aside from personal weaknesses, one of the reasons for the unevenness of my recent USIH posts has been the fact that I’ve been using every spare moment—burning both ends of the proverbial candle—to complete my book manuscript. Given that, and given the fact that I’m not in the mood to complete a planned post on the Cold War transition from ‘atomic’ to ‘nuclear’ language, I’m going to
engage in a little self-promotion provide you an exclusive preview of my forthcoming book.
USIH regulars may know that I’ve been working, for the past two years, on a book about the history of the great books idea focused on Mortimer J. Adler and his community of discourse. The Adler focus makes this a narrative of the twentieth century, particularly the 1920-2001 period. The book is under contract with Palgrave Macmillan, and will appear in its “Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History” series. My working title is Dreams of a Democratic Culture: The Great Books Idea, Mortimer J. Adler, and Twentieth-century America.
But what’s the book really about? What’s my argument? Why should you read it?
Those are all appropriate questions. The best way for me to begin to answer them is to give you a rough draft of my chapter abstracts (150-200 words each) and chapter subheadings/outlines. Here goes:
Total Words of Latest Draft: 116, 126
Estimated Publication Date: November 2013
Chapter 0: Introduction
A reader with no prior knowledge of great books or Mortimer Adler should obtain enough knowledge from the opening pages to decide whether she/he wants to learn more. After introducing both topics a discussion ensues of key terms, people, my argument, theory, and historiography. In its simplest form the book’s thesis is as follows: Mid-century intellectuals who promoted the great books idea shared a cosmopolitan dream of cultural democratization. Stated another way, the dream of great books enthusiasts was that all Americans, all Westerners, and all those living in democratic societies would benefit from a strong connection to the “great ideas” contained in great books. To support this argument I offer up my philosophical sources on culture, democracy, citizenship, cultural capital, consumption, communities of discourse, education, cultural politics, and cultural hierarchies. The historiography section addresses a few noteworthy dissertations, plus books and articles by Joan Shelley Rubin, W.B. Carnochan, Katherin Elise Chaddock, and Alex Beam. My acknowledgments conclude the introduction.
a) Teaser: Differences of Opinion on Adler
b) What are ‘great books’?
c) Intro to Great Books Idea and Adler
d) Book Thesis Explained
Chapter 1: The Great Books Movement, 1920-1948
This chapter explains the pre-Britannica development of the great books idea in relation to Mortimer J. Adler—before the Great Books set became the dominant representative entity. Adler’s early adult years are explored briefly, especially in relation to his work at the People’s Institute. The focus of this chapter is Adler’s How to Read a Book (1940), but it begins by offering brief introductions to Adler’s early influences and community of discourse, especially John Erskine, Everett Dean Martin, Scott Buchanan, Mark Van Doren, Clifton Fadiman, Arthur Rubin, and Robert Hutchins. The chapter thesis is this: The ideas they exchanged, as well as the tone and tenor of How to Read a Book, determined—for better or for worse—the trajectory of the great books idea for most of the twentieth century. Adler’s book exemplified the General Honors Approach to the great books idea. A close look at the construction and reception of Adler’s How To Read A Book (1940) reveals how the great books became a national sensation in the 1940s—a Great Books Movement. Adler’s book and its reviews show how he connected the great books idea to achieving the American dream.
a) Intro (Chicago’s Great Books Week)
b) How to Read a Book: The Inspiration
c) How to Read a Book: The Production
d) How to Read a Book: The Reception
e) Conclusion: The Great Books Movement
Chapter 2: Building Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World, 1943-1952
The focus here is on Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World (1943-1952). The reader will see the thought processes and practical decisions behind the conception and production of the first edition of the set. Thesis: Exploring Adler’s thinking reveals the roots both of the set’s popularity and later criticism—many paradoxes and ironies inherent in the Great Ideas Approach to the great books idea find their home in Adler’s philosophy of history. The chapter opens by analyzing the rhetoric of the 1952 kick-off banquet for the set. Before getting there, Senator and Britannica publisher William Benton is introduced. Although Robert Hutchins was the set’s chief editor, Adler has been widely acknowledged as Hutchins’s chief intellectual advisor. The deliberations of the Advisory Board and the work of the “idea index,” or Syntopicon, show how philosophy, friendship, history, and collective hopes for America’s future went into the production of the set. Adler’s philosophy of history is then explored in relation to the Syntopicon’s construction. The first at-large thinking about the set is explored via reviews by intellectuals. The chapter closes by returning to the kick-off dinner’s rhetoric.
a) Prologue (1952 Waldorf Astoria Banquet)
b) Introduction and thesis
c) The Conception
d) The “Non-historical Study of Ideas”: Adler’s Philosophy of History
e) The Proposal
f) Production and Appearances: The Advisory Board and the Idea Index
g) The Reviews
h) Conclusion (Return to Banquet)
Chapter 3: Making “Seventy-Four Corpses…Pay Off”: The Context and Commerce of the Great Books, 1952-1968
Thesis: These years constitute something of a high point for Britannica and the great books idea in terms of access and positive publicity. To understand how and why, the larger cultural context is covered first: the Cold War, cultural politics, family and social norms, and education. The Western cosmopolitanism of the Britannica set remained relevant (if not more so) in the Cold War context, and this attracted conservatives in a conservative age. Next one must explore very public intersections of culture and commerce enabled by the set. One of the important points is that, in these years, the story of Britannica’s set becomes the story of the great books idea, for better or for worse. Exchanges between William Benton, Britannica’s sales force (particularly Kenneth Harden), and Adler reveal how the Great Books were commodified—how they were promoted, marketed, and sold in the fifties. After a brief, three-year lull, sales skyrocketed in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. Adler’s role in this context is reduced, but he’s still active with Britannica.
a) Intro (Boom Times, Forbes, and Playboy)
b) Context: Early Cold War Political Culture and Politics
c) Context: Education
d) Context: Social Norms
e) Britannica’s Sales Efforts: 1952-1956
f) Britannica’s Sales Efforts: 1956 and Beyond
g) Conclusion (Harden and Fadiman)
Chapter 4: “Mixing Vice and Virtue”: Adler, Britannica’s Cottage Industry, and Mid-century Anxiety
Here the Britannica story turns toward its ongoing effort to transform the larger great books project into a sustainable commercial venture. Although Adler’s involvement in Britannica’s 1950s sales efforts was minimal, in the Sixties he becomes an active player in the creation a great books cottage industry (even while the Great Ideas and General Honors Approaches coexisted). The argument for this period is that the vices and virtues, of both Adler and Britannica, coexisted with the solidification of the great books idea in America’s educational and cultural life. Adler’s personal life is explored (affairs, divorce, remarriage) because that it sheds light on his movements related to Britannica. He was a part-time gadfly who never ceased talking about the great books’ virtues, even while his work lay primarily in promoting a public philosophy through his Institute for Philosophical Research. The articles Adler wrote for Playboy symbolize his unsteady personal life, engagement with consumer culture, and continued support for the great books idea. Finally, analysis of a 1962 Great Books “Awareness Study,” commissioned by Britannica and conducted by Marplan, reveals much about the audience and future prospects of the movement.
a) Intro (Adler and Playboy, 1965)
b) Adler in the 1950s
c) The Cottage Industry: Great Books Subgenres
d) The Audience: High-Profile Criticism, Notoriety, and Admiration
e) The Audience: Middle-Class Anxiety, Conformity, and Intellectual Life
f) Conclusion (Fadiman, Adler, and Playboy, 1966)
Chapter 5 : The Common Sense of Great Books Liberalism, 1965-1970
Alongside his work with Britannica in the late 1960s, Adler also conceived of his own philosophy of common sense. Three of his books—The Conditions of Philosophy (1965), The Time of Our Lives (1970) and The Common Sense of Politics (1971)—reveal the main and subordinate points of Adler’s system of common-sense philosophy, as well as his views on contemporary philosophy, politics, race, and education. Although The Time of Our Lives contributes to this system, in that book Adler prescribes a dose of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as a cure for wayward, radical youth. The Common Sense of Politics, however, links Adler’s mid-century liberalism to liberal education and reveals his Great Books Liberalism. Reviews of these books are briefly examined, as well as Adler’s reputation among philosophers in relation to the same. The chapter concludes with a look at Clifton Fadiman’s pessimistic reactions to both Adler’s project and the state of American society and culture.
a) Intro (Editing Lives with Charles Van Doren)
b) Common Sense: General Considerations
c) Adler’s Philosophy of Common Sense: The Conditions of Philosophy
d) Common Sense in Lives and Politics
e) Common Sense “Socialism”
f) Common Sense, Race, Cultural Differences, and Justice
g) Common Sense and Education Reform
h) The Reception of Lives and Politics
i) Conclusion (Fadiman and Seventies Pessimism)
Chapter 6: Diminished Dreams: Great Books in an Age of Crisis, Fracture, and Transition, 1968-1977
Even while Adler solidified a philosophical system behind his great books activities, by the mid 1970s the great books idea had experienced a precipitous reversal in fortune. This decline begins with declining sales of Britannica’s set. But the larger decline in interest for the idea is related to larger political and ideological shifts. The shift was from mid-century liberalism (with conservative overtones) to what has been alternatively called multiculturalism, postmodernism, or just personal liberation. America’s democratic culture existed in a period of crisis and fracture—accompanied by economic and cultural dislocations. Between all these phenomena, the dreams of great books promoters were diminished. Even so, Adler’s great books liberalism is clearly evident in new publications such as The Negro in American History and the 1972 rewrite, with Charles Van Doren, of How to Read a Book. A kind of Great Books Pluralism, or even relativism, is evident in both and other 1970s Adler writings. Britannica’s corporate activities in the mid-1970s are again explored, demonstrating how the great books idea became “sacralized” and “ossified” via the Franklin Library. The chapter ends with an examination of “EB 20,” the reception of Adler’s Philosopher at Large, and the passing of Robert Hutchins.
a) Introduction (Rubin’s Seventies Sales Strategies)
b) “Negro History” and Great Books Liberalism
c) How Read a Book, Revised
d) Gilded, Sacralized, and Ossified: The Franklin Library
e) The Britannica-Adler Symbiosis: “GB 20” and the Vicissitudes of Promotions
f) Epilogue: Hutchins’ Passing and Postmodern Pessimism
Chapter 7: “The Poobah of Popularizers”: Paideia, Pluralism, and the Culture Wars, 1978-1988
In this period the popularity of the great books idea increased, ironically, alongside a wider awareness of the idea’s weaknesses as a democratic cultural form. The great books idea was alive, paradoxically, because “the multiculturalists won the canon wars.” Even so, expanded great books reading lists were less a part of the center of America’s broader shared culture. Adler’s personal contradictions were woven into the fabric of the great books idea itself, and his trajectory in the 1980s embodied the trajectory of the idea. Interest in his popular 1978 book, Aristotle for Everybody, aided by interviews on shows like William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, helped Adler became something of an ‘Educator for Everybody.’ In this era one clearly sees competing, though sometimes complementary, forms of the great books idea in Adler’s thought. Even so, it is a Great Books Liberalism-Pluralism that appears in the Paideia education reform group. Paideia was implemented by a number of public schools, in spite of criticism about the Group’s goals. Adler spent a significant amount of time in the 1980s promoting and explaining the program. Finally, during this period an increasing number of higher education institutions began to utilize great books curricula.
a) Introduction (Adler’s renewal)
b) The Culture Wars: An Overview
c) “Flogging the Great Ideas”: The Popularizer on TV
d) Building Towards Paideia: The Background
e) Paideia: The Group, The Proposal, The Schools
f) Paideia’s Critics
g) Paideia’s Expansion
h) Conclusion: Great Books Renewed in Higher Education
Chapter 8: “The Most Rancorous Cultural War”: Bloom, Adler, Stanford, and Britannica, 1988-2001
Adler played only a bit part in the Culture Wars until 1988. At that point Adler reacted negatively to a series of public controversies related to the great books idea. Those reactions caused a reversion; Adler went from espousing Great Books Pluralism in relation to Paideia, to hi being a defensive Great Books Ideologue who advocated only the Great Ideas/Syntopical Approach. The chapter opens with an examination of Adler’s reactions to, and thoughts on, Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Despite Bloom’s advocacy for great books, Adler connects an “elitist” Bloom to Leo Strauss and finds much fault with both. Then the story shifts to the controversial “Stanford Debates.” The high-profile, intellectual conflict of ideas at Stanford put the Culture Wars about the canon on full display. Adler attended to those events, but responded to them indirectly, and poorly, with the publication of Britannica’s second edition of the Great Books (1990). Substantial attention is given here to Adler’s defensive, borderline racist rhetoric, and reactions to the same. After Adler’s death in 2001 several thoughtful reflections addressed Adler’s strengths, weaknesses, inconsistencies, and complexities.
a) Intro (Adler’s accruals of conservatism)
b) Bloom, Adler, and the Straussian Approach
c) The Rhetoric of Reactionaries: The Stanford Debates
d) Revising Britannica’s Great Books
e) The Release and High-Profile Reactions: The Beginning of the End
f) Lower-Profile Consequences: Avoidance, Denial, and Adler’s Passing
Chapter 9: Conclusion
The breakdown here says it all here:
a) Earl Shorris
b) Big Picture Reflections
c) Personal Epilogue
Appendices (14 total)