Also, for those of you looking for the latest installment of Andrew Seal’s reading group for The Group, it is on hiatus until next week for the sake of the roundtable. Think of it as additional time to catch up (Including for yours truly).
I want to publicly thank Robert Delfino, Bryan McAlister-Grande, and Fred Beuttler for taking the time to read my book and write these reviews. I also thank Mary Ellen Lennon and Robert Greene for soliciting those reviews and shepherding the round table into existence.
There is no greater compliment to an author than thoughtful, engaged feedback on his or her work. With that, I am grateful that S-USIH continues to make its blog a functional space for scholarly conversations like this, about new publications and otherwise. I have been, and am, a part of that effort. And I hoped the blog would be this way from the start—even when my own book was more pipedream than reality. I’m pleased that, more than seven years after its creation, this blog is alive as a virtual place and hospitable to my own work.
What of the reviews? It’s hard to complain about the overall praise, whether deserved or not, or even off the mark. I’m grateful, so I won’t. With this response I’m going to reiterate the major points in the book while also diving into particular objections and points of concern raised by Delfino, McAlister-Grande, and Beuttler—in the order that the reviews appeared. I will spend a lot of time dwelling on Delfino’s larger points because they relate strongly to those made by McAllister-Grande and Beuttler.
The greatest part of Robert Delfino’s review addresses matters raised in chapter two. Those matters are, to me, crucial to understanding later, serious objections to Britannica’s set. By serious I mean to downplay generalized critiques—first appearing in the 1930s and continuing through the 1990s— that were based on objections to promoters’ purported dogmatic allegiances to philosophical schools (e.g. neo-Thomism), educational philosophies (e.g. perennialism), purported religion (e.g. Catholicism or Christianity generally), and personality. My goal in that chapter contained some irony: I wanted to broaden the conversation about the set by getting more specific—by homing in on the philosophy of history that lay behind the set’s construction. The dogmatic allegiances noted above have some truth to them based on certain figures, but do not seem to have played much part in the philosophy of history that animated great books promoters (Erskine, Adler, Hutchins, Buchanan, Fadiman, etc.). Indeed, that group was held together by a specific philosophy of history, as well as hopes about adult education, good citizenship, critical thinking, and cultural democratization.
Since few people objected to the latter goals, it seemed logical to me that the legitimate objections to their version of the great books idea, philosophically speaking, had to be rooted in issues about their philosophy of history. It had to be related to variations in historical thinking. This is so because their particular great books project—like every instantiation of the great books idea, everywhere and always—was a historical project.
That line of thinking appealed to me for reasons that are obvious and less so. Speaking both personally and professionally, I have devoted the greater part of my training and reading as a historian to pondering what constitutes good historical thinking. As one can see in my book’s coda and conclusion, that arose with my own reading in ‘great books’ and continued when I engaged the history profession—developing as a professional historian, reading in history theory and intellectual history, as well as teaching history. I confess to not having read Jorge J. E. Gracia’s Philosophy and Its History. After seeing Delfino’s review and the value he placed on Gracia’s book, I purchased it. Still, I cannot yet discuss, in any detail, Gracia’s thoughts on “intensional” and “extensional historicity,” or his particular view of philosophy’s “mainstream tradition.” While his book was neither a part of my graduate training nor part of my post-doctoral/professional reading, many other excellent works have influenced my thinking about the philosophy of history, the nature of ‘history’, and the foundations of good historical thinking. Authors of those works include David Lowenthal, Peter Novick, Sam Wineburg, David Hackett Fischer, E.H. Carr, Joan Scott, John Lewis Gaddis, Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, Margaret Jacob, John Burrow, Arthur Lovejoy, John Higham, Lewis Erenberg, Thomas Bender, and David Hollinger. Many of these names pepper the notes of my book, but they cover only my middle and late twentieth century influences.
Given those influences, I am confident in my findings and conclusions in relation to the philosophy of history behind the Britannica set’s construction. To wit, saying that a great books project is always “historical” does not mean, in turn, that all objections are related to “historicism.” While I concede that books (great and otherwise) contain ideas or concepts that transcend one’s time, that does not mean that readers can escape acknowledgment of how their own context connects to the context of a work’s production. That acknowledgment includes subjective factors that influence what one values in a text. If being a good critical thinker involves some understanding of historical thinking (and I’m fundamentally committed to that connection), then we must at least be explicit and conscious of the choices we make in both reading and selecting texts we hazard to label ‘great’. Submitting oneself to good historical thinking does not necessitate a submission to historicism in the extreme, just as good thinking about the present doesn’t mean one has succumbed to presentism.
One can teach so-called great books honestly by thinking both philosophically (about universal ideas and long-range conversations, or ‘dialectically’ if you want to use Adler’s term) and historically (about causation, change over time, context, contingency, particularity, chronology, characters, sources, storytelling). If philosophy is everybody’s business, then the philosophy of history is also everyone’s business. The common links between those two thinking projects (general philosophical and historical) consist in a sustained engagement with complexity, nuance, and subtlety. Because both types of thinking are humanistic, furthermore, they necessarily involve acknowledgments of subjectivity—i.e. relativity without falling into the black intellectual hole of extreme relativism.
Returning to the construction of Britannica’s set, or any set, the acknowledgment of subjectivity means being explicit about choices, commitments, and how one’s times influence the questions asked of the great books idea. Even though they used the great books idea for important, still relevant high ideas, such as battling for human rights and against anti-intellectualism, their weapons needed timely adjustments. Just as every generation rewrites its history, every generation must choose again its relevant canons. How long a canon remains relevant is mysterious—dependent on all the variables we see in the news (e.g. war, pestilence, environment, power plays, culture, etc.). Just as elements of history transcend historians, and certain themes, people, and events recur in their writings, then also certain books will reappear on each generation’s great books lists. But those lists will always be different. Certain great books promoters could not, at times, acknowledge the slow shifting grounds of excellence.
Although Adler (and Hutchins) were honest with readers in the fine print of the Britannica set, particularly its “Appendix II” on “The Principles and Methods of Syntopical Construction,” that honesty fell by the wayside when their cultural product became a commodity. Capitalism corrupted their ideals. How? The temporal philosophical commitments of the great books promoters could not be commodified as such, and hence were never emphasized publicly. Certainly William Benton did not have his sales crew wear these commitments around their necks, nor include them in promotional and marketing literature that were published in prominent periodicals and mailed to millions of homes across the United States and well beyond. Capitalism’s marketers cannot sell true complexity and subtlety. They might have done a better job selling historical context, but they never tried (i.e. I can imagine a companion historical volume for every single great books selection). What did sell—and what sold well—were god-like, authoritative pronouncements of greatness. Americans love confidence, and confidence men. Mass marketers love appealing universal statements. So when the commitments that informed Britannica’s selections in 1952 became outdated, Britannica’s marketers resorted to trickery, appeals to a certain kind of intellectual nostalgia, and playing on Cold War fears.
Insofar as that story relates to Adler, he never consistently talked to the public about the commitments that informed his philosophy of history and its relationship the set’s construction. At times, especially during his defensive moments in the 1980s, he was dishonest about those philosophical commitments. His (over)commitment to universalist and transcendent ideals marred his great books liberalism. He could not accept the fact that times had changed. The liberal criteria and context that drove his 1940s great books selections had shifted, necessitating a new American form (or forms) of the great books idea. But Adler pretended, in public at least, that subjectivity played no part in his historical thinking about great books. This dishonesty undermined his and his friends larger goal—explicitly laid out in works like How to Read a Book and The Great Conversation—of creating a critical thinking citizenry, rooted in a philosophy of common sense and aimed at the common good, that could support the robust give-and-take of politics that is necessary for sustaining democracy. In other words, during the Culture Wars, Adler “the Great Books Ideologue” undermined his “Great Books Liberalism” and even deeper strains of “Great Books Cosmopolitanism.” Dogmatism about historical thinking became, in the end, more prominent than Adler’s older dogmatisms about religion, Thomism, and educational practices.
Since I’ve gone overly long in replying to Delfino’s review, I must make what follows relatively brief.
Because of his own dissertation interests, Bryan McAllister-Grande touches on themes I’m exploring now as I continue my work on the history of the great books idea. My new project will explore “great books cosmopolitanism,” which of course overlaps some with American liberal education projects in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. And McAllister-Grande is right to link my work to Katherine Chaddock, whose 2003 article touched on my bigger themes even as I was linking them to Adler while finishing my coursework and diving into the archives as a Loyola Chicago graduate student. We were both looking at the Great Books Movement and its characters with a revisionist lens.
McAllister-Grande finds himself rebelling against my portrayal of Adler as a secularist in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. He argues that I was “too dismissive of Adler’s religious beliefs.” Furthermore, he asserts that I did “not seem that interested in negotiating [the] complex territory” that lies between Adler’s so-called “militant religiosity,” his secular vision, his anti-elitism, and his “fiery” anti-naturalism. Finally, McAllister-Grande claims that I do not “deal much with Adler’s complicated views on gender, race, and class.”
On Adler’s religious commitments, they are intensely complex. And they are not clearly linked, in my estimation, to his great books project nor his educational philosophy. I’m not saying that links are not there. Rather, to me it felt distracting from the story I wanted to tell about Adler and his community of discourse, and the long history of the great books idea over the twentieth century. So I made a choice. I mentioned Adler’s connections to Thomism and Catholics in the book, but chose to not tease out every strand of connection between his Thomism and his 1930s-1940s philosophy of education. I felt comfortable in that because Adler inherited his great books-based philosophy of education from John Erskine. Though likely inflected by Adler’s Thomism, the close-reading of great books he popularized came to him, in large part, from Erskine.
For what it’s worth, questions about Adler’s religious beliefs and commitments remained with me. Given an opportunity last year, on occasion of a call by the U.S. Catholic Historian for an issue dedicated to converts, I jumped at the chance to write about Adler’s varieties of religious experience. The result was an article titled “Intellectum Quaerens Fides: The Conversions of Mortimer J. Adler” (USCH 32, no. 2, Spring 2014).
I can say authoritatively, however, that Adler never possessed a “militant religiosity” to go with his defensive neo-Thomism (which he used to critique the aspects of modernity and modern American McAllister-Grande mentions—namely naturalism and positivism). That said, I can see how one might obtain that impression through a singular reading of that unusual speech Adler gave in 1940, “God and the Professors.” A better sense of Adler’s philosophical state of mind about religion can be obtained from a close reading of Art and Prudence: A Study in Practical Philosophy (1938). I analyze that book, that 1940 speech, and Adler’s personal correspondence in my USCH article. When McAllister-Grande reads those pieces separately and against each other, I would welcome a conversation—at this blog or elsewhere—about Adler’s religiosity and how it affected the Great Books Movement.
On race, class, and gender, I did everything I could—given Adler’s limited writings on the subjects—to address those topics, especially race and class. I made generalizations when I felt comfortable with the substance of that evidence. On race, one can usefully analyze Adler’s views on inequalities and the Civil Rights Movement by comparing his work as a co-editor (with George Ducas and Charles Van Doren, pp. 134-139) on the 1969 set, Negro in American History, with Adler’s later statements, in 1990, on authors of color in relation to the Stanford Debates and the second edition of the Britannica set (in chapter 8 of my book, which also addresses gender). Given those records, one can construct a clear narrative of decline for Adler in regard to empathy and sensitivity, both personally and in relation to the great books idea.
No one could read this book and honestly claim that I do not substantially address class issues, whether economic or cultural, in relation to Adler and the great books idea. Class—via equality—is central to my analysis of both the great books idea and Adler’s (and his community’s) thoughts about the same. Every single chapter touches on class issues. Indeed, no historian could write about democratizing culture in a capitalist economic system without addressing elitism, uplift, and the so-called middle classes. It’s impossible. I confess, however, to not teasing out all of my theoretical influences on economic class issues in my introduction, but I do address theory about cultural class and cultural hierarchies.
Fred Beuttler pushes the conversation toward education in a democracy—meaning educational institutions, advocates, philosophers, and critics. I believe he is right to point out that one could be neo-Thomistic foundationalist and still intensely support democracy and even pluralism. One of the regrets I have about my book was the lack of space to explore and analyze a number of articles Adler wrote, as a Thomist, defending democracy. Those articles appeared in The Thomist from 1941 to 1944 (co-authored with Walter Farrell, O.P.). Adler also made presentations the American Catholic Philosophical Association in 1939 and 1945 on the same subject. I appreciate Beuttler’s gentle correction on the influence the great books idea had (or more accurately did not have) on Harvard’s General Education in a Free Society report. Although Adler’s 1940s era “General Honors Approach” did have a critical thinking/close reading/”close inquiry” component via How to Read a Book, Beuttler (and Ethan Schrum in his work) are right to note that common knowledge about certain ‘great books’ was not a part of Harvard’s recommendations.
I appreciate the end of Beuttler’s review, where he notes that my story attempts to push the conversation about the great books idea away from lists and questions about particular books, and even from Adler to some extent. My goal was to direct readers towards the underlying philosophical issues that sustain, support, and usefully criticize the idea. McAllister-Grande wrote that he “perhaps missed the real kernel of truth lurking inside” my book. If my work aims for, and asks questions about truths—and I think it does—I would suggest that Beuttler’s reading captures several of them.
My hope was that an intellectual history of the great books idea, however typologically constructed and limited by my own subjectivity, would get behind the superficial distractions of personality, celebrity, and singular events that have clouded other historical accounts. I wanted to use the great books idea to explore the roots and foundations of reading, books, education, critical thinking, democracy, and citizenship. Having aimed high, I am satisfied that my readers, in this round table, have seen the value in that endeavor, no matter their reservations. – TL