Book Review

How to Read the Great Bookies

This is the second installment of our S-USIH Roundtable on Tim Lacy’s book, The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea. If you’re interested in reading yesterday’s fantastic entry by Robert A. Delfino, click here. Today’s entry is from Bryan McAllister-Grande, a fourth-year doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Spencer Foundation New Civics Scholar. He is beginning a dissertation on the liberal education battles of the ’30s and ’40s and their relation to world citizenship and internationalism. He also had an essay published here titled, “The Metaphysical Club as a Bildungsroman”. Enjoy today’s entry, and check back tomorrow for another installment.

Review of Tim Lacy’s The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). 228 pages.

dreamofdemocultureThe appeal of reading this book is Lacy’s attempt to combine old-fashioned intellectual history with postmodern reception and cultural history. In one chapter, he dissects Mortimer Adler’s 1965 book The Conditions of Philosophy; in another, he extends his analysis to the sales figures of the Great Books collections and various reader and critical responses. Lacy even manages to weave together Adler’s writings for Playboy with his “high” philosophical thought. The Dream of a Democratic Culture is a work deeply self-reflexive about the discipline’s divisions between the intellectual, social, and cultural, and Lacy sees more unity than discord.

Lacy identifies the early Great Books advocates, with Adler at the center, as children of the Enlightenment rather than as reactionary conservatives. He argues that the Great Books Movement began in the ’20s and ’30s and served as a foundation for an expansive “cosmopolitan liberalism” (p. 115) up until the ’70s and ’80s, when it was taken over by conservatives and entirely stripped of its progressive origins. Lacy then takes his story directly to the Culture Wars, when Adler’s magnanimous vision was further attacked from all sides. These attacks, combined with Adler’s own aging mental state, led to his (and the Great Books Movement itself) post-70s link with neo-conservatism and right-wing ideology.

The author is adept at extending his story across the twentieth century, thus avoiding the easy argument that the Movement was overwhelmed solely by ’30s Deweyites, ’60s radicals, ’80s neo-conservatives, or ’90s multiculturalists. There is no single enemy in The Dream. In fact, one of Lacy’s claims is that the Great Books Movement in its early years could satisfy, in different ways, peoples of many stripes in many eras and contexts. Lacy’s focus on Adler is interesting in this respect; a Jew-and-sometimes-adopted-Catholic-who-later-turned-Episcopalian, Adler was both outsider and insider.

Lacy begins his storyin the ’20s, when Adler worked for the People’s Institute of New York. Around this time, Alder met his initial “community of discourse,” including Robert Hutchins, Scott Buchanan, Richard McKeon, Clifton Fadiman, and (later) Jacques Barzun. They adapted John Erskine’s more genteel General Honors Course at Columbia University into an entire academic program and burgeoning public philosophy project. Part of this project was a set of discussion groups and textbooks devoted to engaging the masses in a “Great Conversation” that would be dynamic and pluralistic, thus undergirding an intellectual, liberal democracy. This general point is also articulated by Katherine Chaddock Reynolds in her 2003 article on the Great Books Movement, but Lacy extends it further and broader.[i] The Great Bookies were cosmopolitans, he asserts, concerned with world freedom just as much as with American democracy.

In making these initial arguments for the progressive nature of the early Great Books Movement, Lacy downplays both the disagreements between this community of discourse, as well as the attacks that naturalists and other scientific democrats made against Adler, Hutchins, and his community in the ’30s and ’40s.[ii] (This is an interesting move that I will explore later in this review). Overall, Lacy implies the intriguing argument that Adler and his community were not so much anti-science as anti-positivism and anti-reductive naturalism — basically the same things that John Dewey and his followers were against, too. The Great Bookies could be these things but still stand firmly in the empirical and liberal tradition of the Enlightenment.

Rather than dwell on these fights — especially the battles that Alder and Hutchins fought at the University of Chicago in the ’30s — Lacy focuses on Adler’s How to Read a Book (1940), which he says “catapulted the great books idea into the Great Books Movement” (p. 26). This best-selling textbook-for-the-masses offered guidelines on how to think critically, as well as a vast and “inclusive” list of 130 great authors to learn from (p. 27). It was not dogmatic, Lacy argues, but rather offered a flexible set of guidelines for close reading of all kinds of texts. In this period (moving into the post-WWII era), Adler and his community promoted an inclusive idea of discussion groups extending out to every individual, regardless of race, gender, or class. These discussions would not promote a single truth contained in a fixed canon, but rather establish a foundation for exchange of views. Seeking a “deep thinking citizenry,” Adler and his community “sought the redistribution of cultural capital for a more democratized culture, not the total reification of an old, inflexible order” (p. 42).

As the Movement took off in the ’50s and ’60s, Lacy argues that Adler and his community made a number of detours and mistakes. One occurred when Adler did not fully work out, or operationalize, his “philosophy of history.” Lacy shows that Adler borrowed this philosophy of history (“objectivist realism”) from Arthur Lovejoy, but that Adler never quite worked out the appropriate balances between inductive and deductive thinking, and likewise between historicism and objectivism. These gaps in Adler’s thinking, Lacy argues, coincided with a more top-down approach of the Britannica brain trust, especially of Adler’s alter-ego, William Benton. The result was a move, in the ’50s, from “bottom up to a top-down” and to an overly objective approach to the Great Books Idea, a move that was never fully resolved or acknowledged by the actors themselves (p.51). “The most expedient solution for Adler and his community of discourse was to lesson context” and the degree to which subjectivity played in the selection and interpretation of the Great Books, Lacy writes (p. 58). This “little error” mixed a “false objective authoritativeness with democratic intentions” (p. 62), haunting the Movement for years to come and closing it off to more progressive and inclusive ideas in later years.

According to Lacy, the Great Books Movement reached its heights in the ’60s, when it played a decisive role in protecting the nation and its interests against Communism and conformity. Not only did the Great Books collections and productions fill in the missing gaps in the nation’s educational policy in the age of television, but the collection also provided important egalitarian strivings — a vision of a “classless” and “raceless” society that was, at the same time, democratic, creative, and capitalist (pp. 115 – 117). Yet, even this “cosmopolitan liberalism” was threatened, Lacy writes, by the very success of the Great Books themselves, by the intellectual and business mistakes made by Adler and his community of discourse, and by the Great Books appropriation into mid-century consumer capitalism. Although Adler and the Great Books survived the fractures of the ’70s, Lacy argues that Adler’s mistakes, along with the cultural climate, pushed Adler’s “prior arc of progressiveness” into the background. The Culture Wars further moved Adler into becoming a prototypical Cultural Warrior, which “rendered the great books idea, by association, into something preached and practiced by conservatives to defend tradition, guard Western culture, and uphold Christian morality” (pp. 191-192).

This is a compelling and multi-faceted narrative that revisits some of the big battles of the twentieth century. Lacy offers a number of insights on how the Great Books Movement served crucial political, intellectual, commercial, and cultural needs in each era he discusses and was never a one-trick pony. He is also proficient at synthesizing large amounts of secondary literature to bolster his claims. However, there are a few things about the book that push against my own methodological preferences.

In Lacy’s telling, Adler begins the story as a “secular” progressive whose basic good intentions seem to be gradually corrupted by the cultural forces and people around him, as well as by Adler’s own occasional mistakes and vices. As mentioned, Lacy’s attempts to weave together the “high” and “low” are admirable. But, rarely are Adler’s thought and beliefs deeply and critically examined in their contexts, leaving us to wonder in what specific ways Adler attempted to be more or less “secular” and “liberal” than the ideas of those interlocutors around him.

For instance, in the early parts of the book, Lacy is too dismissive of Adler’s religious beliefs. He selectively omits discussion of Adler’s most notorious piece of work, “God and the Professors” (1940 — the same year that How to Read a Book was published), a speech in which Adler put religion at the top of the pyramid of knowledge. In this same speech, which provoked the outrage of Dewey and Sidney Hook, Adler said that all naturalists and positivists (which he equated with basically the entire American academy) should be “liquidated” and called their religious skepticism more of a threat to the world than Hitler.[iii] It is hard to imagine a more virulent and strange expression of anti-modernism than “God and the Professors,” and it and other early writings are strangely absent from the narrative.

How, then, do we reconcile Adler’s “secular” vision of the Great Books with his militant religiosity and Allan Bloom-style elitism? Can Adler and his community of discourse really be cosmopolitan liberals AND fiery anti-naturalists without some more contradiction, contextualization, and paradox? Seemingly committed to his arcing narrative and to Adler’s broad (if imperfect) appeal across time and culture, Lacy does not seem that interested in negotiating this complex territory. Nor does he deal much with Adler’s complicated views on gender, race, and class, relegating these views to very short sections of the narrative. However you define “progressive” or “liberal” it seems impossible to call Adler’s vision of a classless, raceless world these terms without some irony and heavier scrutiny.

Related to this, the second thing I struggled with is the somewhat rationalist style of the book that recalled, for me, some of the criticisms that Quentin Skinner leveled at intellectual historians back in the ’60s. The Dream is divided roughly into conceptual typologies, each of which correspond to an era of the Great Books Movement’s history. So there is “Great Books Honors” and the “Great Ideas Approach” followed by “Great Books Liberalism” and “Great Books Pluralism,” and interspersed with some “Great Books Conservatism.” Although the meanings of these typologies shift over time in Lacy’s account and intermingle with each other, they resemble the “unit ideas” and syntopicon approach favored by Lovejoy and Adler themselves. These typologies are contextualized in the sense that they are put in cultural contexts, but they still operate like idealist clouds over the narrative. Their meanings and uses are not interrogated fully. “Honors” programs in the ’20s and ’30s, for instance, were often elitist imports from the Oxford system; if Adler sought to democratize them, we need to know how and why.

Despite these reservations, it seems important to identify The Dream as part of recent movement within the field to restore a sense of consensus, breadth, application to life, and optimism that began, arguably, at Wingspread. I fear that perhaps I missed the real kernel of truth lurking inside The Dream, but I was too focused on imagining Adler as the ultimate outsider-insider liberal of the ’30s, a figure with many masks and stories who still seems somewhat misunderstood.

[i] Chaddock, K. R. (2003). “A Canon of Democratic Intent: Reinterpreting the Roots of

the Great Books Movement,” The History of Higher Education Annual, 22.

[ii] I am using the term “scientific democrats” as Andrew Jewett uses it in Science, Democracy, and the American University From the Civil War to the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
[iii] Mortimer Adler, “God and the Professors,” Vital Speeches of the Day;12/1/40, Vol. 7 Issue 4, p. 98.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Bryan, thanks for this excellent review. As you can imagine, there were several aspects of the book that I have found very helpful, but I’m particularly glad you zeroed in on Tim’s attention to reception, popularization, etc. I thought the discussion of how the set was marketed, and to whom, and what use people got or hoped to get out of it was especially illuminating. Also very sharp: the “mimetic” quality you’ve identified in the text — a re-instantiation of the idea under study in the study itself. I’m very much looking forward to the author’s response to this and the other post.

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