Book Review

The Great Democratic Conversation, in and after “The Age of Adler”

Welcome to the third installment of the S-USIH Roundtable on Tim Lacy’s book, The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea. For the first two installments, check here and here. Today’s post is brought to us by Fred W. Beuttler, who directed the general education program at Carroll University from 2011 to 2014, and now is an assistant professor of history there. From 2005 to 2010, he was Deputy Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, and from 1998 to 2005 he was Associate University Historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

dreamofdemoculture  Over the past few months, a number of colleagues at the small Midwestern university where I teach have been preparing some common content for the interdisciplinary introductory freshmen seminar, entitled “Journeys to the Good Life.” We’ve been going back and forth on various texts, settling early on Homer’s Odyssey, but finding it difficult to gain agreement on any others. How does one engage eighteen year olds in the higher questions of the good life?

Attempting to gain some more scholarly perspective, one instructor suggested using the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which helpfully introduced a study of the meaning of life with this advice: “Despite the venerable pedigree, it is only in the last 50 years or so that something approaching a distinct field on the meaning of life has been established in Anglo-American philosophy, and it is only in the last 30 years that debate with real depth has appeared.” I’m sure glad that now our students have the definitive guidance from our professional philosophers to explore this “distinct field.”

This type of attitude is precisely the “cultural delusion” of modern Americans that Mortimer Adler observed almost three-quarters of a century ago.   There still is a broad cultural assumption that the extraordinary progress in science and technology carries over into the other fields of what he called “mental activity.” It is this approach, combined with professional expertise, that Adler sought to counteract with his larger program of educational reform centered around the Great Books. Believing that “philosophy is everybody’s business,” Adler sought to create an engaged citizenry through reading classic texts together.

Tim Lacy has given us a marvelously rich and contextualized historical account of this career-long effort in his The Dream of Democratic Culture: Mortimer Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012), a work that masterfully entwines intellectual, cultural, and business history in an effort to revise our notion of the Great Books, and to save the idea from ideologues of the Left and Right.   Here he succeeds quite well, although not too much, I hope, that it eliminates the controversy over the Great Books idea itself. For conflict sells, hopefully more than the massive multi-volume sets of the Great Books of the Western World (GBWW) (1952, 1990). And we intellectual historians can use these controversies as a way to keep the humanities alive for our students.

Lacy’s topic is the “history of the great books idea,” and, significantly, how that idea has changed over time.   He contextualizes that history as a form of a biography of one of the idea’s most prominent proponents, Mortimer Adler (1902-2001), bringing the story through the higher education fights of the 1930s, the various general education reform movements in the mid to late 1940s, through the Cold War and the 1960s, and on into the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s.

Lacy is careful to distinguish Alder the political liberal internationalist of the 1940s and 1950s from his incendiary and rather racist rhetoric of the 1990s, a strategy unfortunately necessary in such politicized times. Lacy emphasizes that Adler and his “community of discourse” were basically New Deal liberal internationalists who “advocated for codified human rights embedded in a world constitution,” and later in the 1980s promoted school reform, the “Paideia Program” that was effective in inner city schools. An explicitly revisionist history of Adler and the Great Books idea, Lacy steers a middle ground between the many who damn and the few who praise Adler, one whose personality had a tendency to get in the way of his ideas.

Lacy argues that the intellectual community around Adler “shared an implicit, cosmopolitan dream of cultural democratization,” to be realized through an educational program of study to create “empowered, cosmopolitan citizens comfortable with freedom in a century plagued with totalitarianism. Having sound philosophical foundations, each citizen would be a true free agent in the Western marketplace of ideas.”

Rather than focusing on one narrow issue, Lacy uses Adler’s biography to give us a fascinating look at an entire era, spanning most of the twentieth century.   He divides the Great Books movement into four major phases, emphasizing Adler’s role in each. First was the General Honors Approach, developed out of the course John Erskine taught at Columbia in the 1920s, and later the core of undergraduate reform at the University of Chicago under Robert Maynard Hutchins and Adler, a program which culminated in Adler’s best seller, How to Read a Book (1940). This inquiry-based approach “promoted deep, close readings” of a flexible list of liberal arts texts, seeking to rescue American education from its “intellectual parochialism,” vocationalism, and anti-intellectualism, through a “kind of American and Western cosmopolitanism.”

The second phase, the Great Ideas/Syntopical Approach, developed in the mid to late 1940s, and centered around Adler’s conception of the 102 Great Ideas, was a dream of “democratizing culture through adult education.” The earlier inquiry-based model was formalized in great books reading groups, which grew into a significant movement led by the Great Books Foundation, but the practical needs of acquiring the texts themselves led to its commercialization, in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s GBWW.   The commercial product had two parts: first, it enshrined a list of authors and texts in a fixed canon, and second, it was introduced by Hutchins’ vision of “The Great Conversation,” (the title of the first volume of the set), and Adler’s Syntopicon, an index of “Great Ideas” modeled on the “unit-ideas” of philosopher Arthur Lovejoy. One of the many strengths of Lacy’s book is his careful reconstruction of the inner process of compiling the Syntopicon from 1943 to 1948, although it would be interesting to speculate how the large staff was defended as essential to the war effort.

The third phase of the movement, from the mid-1950s through the 1970s, Lacy describes as “Great Books Liberalism,” which promoted a liberal education based on great books that would lead to responsible communitarian citizenship built around principles such as “racial and cultural tolerance, a positive view of the role of government, opposition to political anarchy, . . . support for the welfare state, and an awareness of the world community.”
Great Books Pluralism, lasting from the mid-1970s through the late 1980s, was its fourth phase, an approach which emphasized a tolerance of difference and an expanded canon, but Lacy suggests that this phase ended with emerging Culture Wars, especially with a competing Multiculturalism of the late 1980s and 1990s. Lacy brackets his whole account with Adler’s notorious 1990 interview, which led many to tar him, and the Great Books by association, as reactionary, racist, and culturally insensitive.

Lacy is careful to distance the later Adler from the earlier cultural program, something necessary for the rehabilitation of the Great Books program, to separate the democratic dreams of Adler the liberal from the cultural conservatism and doctrinaire elitism of figures like Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom. He also uses the consumer history of the commodity that is the set GBWW to underscore the links between popular promotion, funding, and educational reform, that shaped public perceptions of the whole program, for this was also a business enterprise, and one rather successful over several decades.

While Tim Lacy will no doubt eschew the term “Great” for his book, at least based on the criteria Mortimer Adler used, one can at least say it is a very good book, a work of intellectual history that combines a close reading of the works of a major public intellectual, along with a nuanced and archivally based study of a major popular movement. As such, it is a significant contribution to the literature, an accessible and well written account that deserves to be widely assigned in classes and even read by the general public, the larger audience for the Great Books program.

That said, I think it is appropriate to use Tim Lacy’s work as starting point to carry on part of our own “great conversation” about the broader vision of the role of intellect in a democratic culture, and specific cultural programs such as Adler’s.adler2

There are a couple of major questions here. One that needs to be addressed is whether Dewey’s equation of foundationalism with anti-democratic or non-democratic positions is really true. Certainly the recent historiography points in that direction, with “liberal arts education,” as being seen as inherently elitist, vs. general education on social scientific and pragmatist methods being more “democratic.” But Adler and the Great Books community didn’t think so, and Adler insisted through much of his career that the Great Books, and philosophical realism and foundationalism could be democratic. Indeed, M. L. King, whose Letter from the Birmingham Jail is now “canonical,” argued for civil equality on foundationalist principles. This is one large question.

A second is another cultural battle in which most of us are still in the middle of, not so much Culture Wars, but rather C. P. Snow’s two cultures, the relation of the humanities to the sciences, in the education of free citizens in a democracy. The Great Books program was only one of a number of competing educational reform movements in the middle third of the twentieth century, and one main reason for the shift to adult education is that Adler and Hutchins basically lost the curricular fight in the universities. Two of the competing programs were Harvard’s, enshrined in General Education in a Free Society (1945), and the President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education.   Lacy mentions that the Great Books had some impact on Harvard’s, although he downplays that it was basically rejected. As Jamie Cohen-Cole significantly reminds us, the Harvard plan eschewed creating a unified democratic culture around a common canon in place of a unity built around mental skills. The “Harvard committee came to a census that common knowledge was not an essential part of general education.” [Open Mind, 22]. Instead, general education would focus on developing a type of mentality, perhaps best described as the skills of “critical thinking.”

We should ask these questions again, because I think Lacy’s book has given us some tools to help us address some practical concerns as intellectual historians, for the more difficult issue is the lack of a common culture itself. The much mocked “Great Conversation” has declined significantly, as conversation has polarized, narrowed, and fragmented, a real “age of fracture” with little or nothing beyond it to hold a common democratic culture together.
For the past three years, I have directed the general education program at my small university. Like many such institutions, we used to be a liberal arts college, but pressures and demands from students have shifted numbers towards the health sciences and business, understandably so, given a tight economy and high tuition costs. There are numerous ironies here. First is how the two main bachelors degrees have shifted – the BS was created in the nineteenth century as the easier degree, whereas now few would consider the BA the more rigorous, except of course in those few departments which have retained a foreign language requirement, most of which are reducing in the interests of recruiting students.

Given these trends, it may be time to revisit the Harvard Red Book’s rejection of common content, at least at some level. The broader retreat from content in the liberal arts puts us humanists at a distinct disadvantage in the curricular and departmental “wars” taking place in our universities. In listening to my colleagues in the history department discuss “general education,” they always insist that studying history provides simply “critical thinking,” rather than any specific content or historical knowledge.   But that begs the question as to what one is critically thinking about – and why then does a student need to take this course and read this book, rather than other ones.

In some sense, if we do not have some “great ideas” as common topics of our “great conversation,” talk will simply default into lowest common denominators, like television shows or movies. The central problem is that the sciences as taught are cumulative, while the humanities are not.  Science instruction builds on previous knowledge and method.  A professor in an advanced class in the health sciences, for example, can rely on the fact that every student would have passed a year of anatomy and physiology, plus chemistry and physics.  Science students not only have mastered a common methods and skills, but also have common content. But as we know in our history classes, we cannot rely on our students having much knowledge in common at all. The sciences then have common method and common content; the humanities are left with only critical thinking. As historians we know there are flaws in Adler’s reliance on Lovejoy’s “unit ideas,” but one central strength is that a curriculum ordered around a loose canon of “great books” can build on itself, getting students into the promise of engaging in a broad conversation.
Lacy’s story of a “dream of a democratic culture” has three elements: the life and career of Mortimer Adler, the cultural industry surrounding the Britannica set GBWW, and the Great Books Idea itself.   Lacy reminds us of the subjective and contingent nature of the project, and so, in our historical age, we can ask, what would Adler’s project look like if it had been done now? The expensive cultural furniture that was the GBWW set has been replaced by readily accessible texts on internet, virtually free (although the complete set is for sale on DVD for under $20 — see ), thus eliminating one limiting factor. And Lacy has shown us that it is possible to separate out the program from the irascible temperament of Mortimer Adler.

Thus, the barriers of commodification, cost, and the curmudgeon are now gone, leaving the possibility of content. Lacy reminds us that Adler’s Great Books program had actually two components – first, common texts, and second, a common method of close inquiry, critical thinking. It may be time to move towards a limited sense of common texts, perhaps along the more flexible lines of Erskine’s General Honors approach, along with our methods of close critical reading, to help us flesh out the dream of a democratic culture with some sense of the common. But can the reading of certain texts lead to a democratic culture, which would define and uplift the “Best” or “Great” and make it accessible to all, by creating a common language and experience? Maybe it is too much of a hobby, competing against football and YouTube, and so maybe that dream of a common democratic culture is gone, even at a small university.   But that means that the humanities will ultimately lose the curriculum wars too, and we are just left with an empty “critical thinking” that cannot stand up to the cumulative nature of the natural sciences. This leaves our students with the delusions of those experts who think that the “meaning of life” is a “distinct field” strictly for professional Anglo-American philosophers. At least Adler refused to limit himself to the professional philosophy of the academy. Perhaps a more civil version of the same approach could be a good model for the public intellectual in an age of MOOCs and merely vocational education.

In his “Coda and Conclusion,” Tim Lacy asks for “lessons” from the study, careful to defend the great books idea as a “big tent,” and one not inherently conservative. One of the strengths of a good book is the ability to keep the conversation going, and this book does that quite well. His story is less about particular book lists than it is about an educational process, where books and ideas are “contested, reinterpreted, and recontextualized by audiences,” with meanings often differing from authorial intent. Adler believed that a democratic culture should be “the civilization of the dialogue or symposium,” with all sitting around a metaphorical table, “differing in their opinions, disagreeing and arguing,” but all participating.

One hopes that Palgrave will soon come out with a paperback version to assign to my classes, so they can study the history of this cultural ideal. In the meantime, I need to prepare one of my favorite introductory classes, where I spend a day teaching freshmen how to do the close reading of primary sources, through my notes on that programmatic text that started it all, How to Read A Book. My continual fantasy is that this text will spark future readers, just as it did Tim Lacy (and me) when we first read it, to continue our great conversation.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Another fine review. I especially appreciate Prof. Buettler’s insight above, framing current curricular battles as a tug-of-war between humanities and sciences not just in an epistemic sense but also in an economic sense — that is, a reshuffling of distribution requirements also redistributes the “wealth” of instructional hours among different departments of a university. And in a higher education system increasingly in the thrall of neoliberal market logic, the “insufficiently attractive” humanities disciplines are in real danger of being pushed out of the undergraduate curriculum altogether. So I’m not sure if the problem these days is “two cultures” so much as one culture. The barbarians might be at the gates, but these days they’re coming from the business school. (Not that the applied sciences haven’t gotten in their licks – but more on that tomorrow.)

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