In a piece for The American Conservative, titled “In Defense of Difficulty” (and appearing the March-April paper issue), Steve Wasserman argues that something of an Arcadia of middlebrow thought existed from roughly the 1940s until around 2000. But the “New Information Age,” brought into being by the world wide web, deflated the positive intellectual climate of that period. As with the aftermath of the Dot.com bubble, the world wide web has brought only a kind of longer-term intellectual recession rather than the promised “radiant future.” Here’s how Wasserman characterized the dream:
The digital revolution was predicted to empower those authors whose writings had been marginalized, shut out of mainstream publishing, to overthrow the old monastic self-selecting order of cultural gatekeepers (meaning professional critics). Thus would critical faculties be sharpened and democratized. Digital platforms would crack open the cloistered and solipsistic world of academe, bypass the old presses and performing-arts spaces, and unleash a new era of cultural commerce. With smart machines there would be smarter people.
Instead, the internet has become “a vast Democracy Wall on which any crackpot can post his or her manifesto. Bloggers bloviate and insults abound. Discourse coarsens.”
I disagree, but, for now, my larger and more substantial response is to Wasserman’s characterization of a golden age of middlebrow thought that preceded it. That is not only an Arcadian, overly nostalgic vision of middle and late-century U.S. intellectual life, but also a distorted view of the effects of great books promoters during the same time period. Wasserman’s version of American intellectual history underestimates both pre-WWII complexities (whether vital or morbid) and those that have arisen since 2000. His mistake, like Russell Jacoby’s, has been to mistake upheaval and change as only, or primarily, degradation and decline. And, in relation to Wasserman’s argument about the last 15 years, his thinking will appear, in long form, in a forthcoming book titled The State of the American Mind: Sixteen Critics on the New Anti-Intellectualism. Not having accessing to the longer piece or the book, here I will only offer some preliminary points of concern in relation to the American Conservative piece. In the process I do not mean to devalue Wasserman’s and his colleague’s call for complexity, rigor, difficulty, and nuance in relation to today’s larger intellectual landscape. Those are admirable and needed traits. Rather, I have problems with the historical thinking about anti-intellectualism supporting those goals.
I. Pre-1940s Intellectualism and Anti-Intellectualism
Every age in U.S. history has its characteristic anti-intellectualism(s) and prominent strains in the history of thought, whether in relation to that age’s so-called intellectuals or the larger populace. In addition, it is often difficult to disentangle what is political and ideological (e.g. proposals and reactions) from what is a true antipathy to complexity, nuance, and difficulty. In other words, charges of anti-intellectualism are sometimes cover for political differences and social problems. Although we could go as far back as the founding and antebellum eras for examples of accusations of anti-intellectualism, and Wasserman references Hofstadter’s work on those periods, here I will limit myself to the Progressive Era.
Although Wasserman argues that the post-WWII period witnessed the rise of a “cultural ecology that permit[ed] the second-rate to fail upwards,” the history of thought before World War II, and before World War I even, reveals a rich tapestry of thinking venues for adults, outside of small intellectual spheres, that might be attracted to non-elite thought. For instance, Chautauquas (i.e Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circles), began in upstate New York in the mid-1870s and spread around the country until the 1920s, functioned as “a company of pledged readers.” Those circles offered readings for participants, aspiring, as documented by Lawrence Cremin, for a “school at home, a school after school, [and] a ‘college’ for one’s house.” The goal was to “secure to [participants] the college student’s general outlook upon the world and life, and to develop the habit of close, connected, persistent thinking.” 
Chautauquas were more than just great books reading clubs for bourgeois or Philistine Americans. Members included teenagers, tradespeople, housewives, ministers, servants, teachers, and the elderly. They read “standard popular works” from contemporary authors such as John Richard Green, Charles Merivale, Henry White Warren, J. Dorman Steele, Richard T. Ely, Jane Addams, etc. Membership reached 200,000 during the 1890s and 300,000 by 1918 before a decline in the 1920s. Those numbers congregated in about 10,000 local circles, with “a quarter in villages of less than 500…and half in communities between 500 and 3,500.”  Chautauquas were conveniently ignored or underplayed in Hofstadter’s works (i.e. Anti-Intellectualism and Age of Reform, respectively). And it should be noted that this was only one of many non-elite forms of adult education in the late-eighteenth-century matrix of voluntary associations that included YMCAs, churches, libraries, women’s clubs, farmers’ groups, and settlement houses.
The kind of anti-intellectualism that arose in that environment and during the Progressive Era coincided with the rise of specialization, experts, and the universities. Standard textbooks on that era note the tension between social control/order and social uplift (or social justice) that existed among elite Progressives. Given the penchant for control, it is not surprising that some portion of the populace, educated and otherwise, might actively resist the top-down initiatives of experts and intellectuals. As Hofstadter himself noted, there was a “continued coexistence of reformism and reaction” in the period. He argued that “the Progressive movement was the complaint of the unorganized against the consequences of organization.” He added that “the central theme in Progressivism was this revolt against the industrial discipline.”  But it was during the Progressive Era, Hofstadter added, that “the estrangement between intellectuals and power…came rather abruptly to an end.” To purify and humanize politics and power, he wrote, “the functions of government would become more complex,” which, in turn, created a “great demand” for experts.  Those experts and intellectuals would necessarily have to be in control (exhibit “mastery,” in Walter Lippmann’s words) and organize the revolt against industrialization.
Thus the old “anti-intellectualism” was really about resistance to control (however necessary). Hostility to experts and intellectuals, in this context, could be about necessary restrictions to individual freedoms for the sake of the common good. Of course those experts overextended at certain points, repressing unnecessarily the cultural and religious pluralism of the nation’s new immigrants. Anti-intellectualism in those cases became a defense of identity and a reaction to unnecessary conformity. And what was the use of that authority or conformity in sparsely populated rural areas, such as in Plains states and out West? What expertise was required in those areas? And when Progressive intellectuals and experts supported President Wilson’s entry into World War I, the eventual backlash against the war necessarily included a new skepticism of intellectuals.
When anti-intellectualism appeared, then, in this era, it wasn’t about resistance to nuance, rigor, difficulty, complexity, or cultural uplift. It was about skepticism in the face of a new form of power and new political framework.
II. The Great Books Arcadia, Revised
Early in his article Wasserman asserts the following:
In the postwar era, a vast project of cultural uplift sought to bring the best that had been thought and said to the wider public. Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago and Mortimer J. Adler were among its more prominent avatars. This effort, which tried to deepen literacy under the sign of the “middlebrow,” and thus to strengthen the idea that an informed citizenry was indispensable for a healthy democracy, was, for a time, hugely successful. The general level of cultural sophistication rose as a growing middle class shed its provincialism in exchange for a certain worldliness that was one legacy of American triumphalism and ambition after World War II. College enrollment boomed, and the percentage of Americans attending the performing arts rose dramatically. Regional stage and opera companies blossomed, new concert halls were built, and interest in the arts was widespread. TV hosts Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and Dick Cavett frequently featured serious writers as guests. Paperback publishers made classic works of history, literature, and criticism available to ordinary readers whose appetite for such works seemed insatiable.
And Wasserman mimics Adler’s and Hutchins’ democratic ideals, as great books promoters, when he wrote the following:
The pleasures of critical thinking ought not to be seen as belonging to the province of an elite. They are the birthright of every citizen. For such pleasures are at the very heart of literacy, without which democracy itself is dulled.
With all of this in mind, Wasserman adds that one might see “the middlebrow culture of yesteryear was a high-water mark.”
But Adler’s and Hutchins’ project, however noble, was more of a dream than a reality, both from the beginning and as time progressed in the postwar period. Their aspirations did produce some successes. Sales of Britannica’s Great Books set started slow but eventually reached more than respectable numbers. A cottage industry of great books reading programs and adjunct sets followed. Colleges and universities adopted great books programs. Public awareness of the great books idea, Hutchins, and Adler were high. But numbers of great books reading groups—the dialogical heart of the great books program—never really rose as dramatically as did the sales. And despite some successes with some college programs, great books reading groups were primarily an adult education phenomenon built and maintained, by and large, by volunteer labor. In an age of abundance, the competition for adults’ evening and weekend time and energy was fierce (e.g. television, film, vacations, and other leisure pursuits). The sharpening of critical thinking skills were exchanged for relaxation and diversion. Paperbacks contained pulp fiction as much as great books and classics.
From the 1920s and into the 1950s, the great books idea–no matter its Western focus—was cosmopolitan in relation to the larger American populace. In this way the great books fought American-style parochialism and myopia. Great books forced U.S. readers to reckon with important European and Mediterranean strains of thought. Even if the great books idea was presented in a middlebrow fashion (to follow Joan Shelley Rubin’s line of thought), reading those works forced adults to think beyond the newspapers, radio entertainment, and beyond simplistic political ideology. In this way the great books idea fought America’s mid-century anti-intellectualism.
If the so-called “great books movement” had any success, it came primarily during the 1940s and 1950s. By the end of the 1960s sales of Britanica’s set had diminished, and the Culture Wars had already begun to fragment any sense of common identity (however real or false) that had helped maintain some consensus about great books lists. That fragmentation grew in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If there was ever a great books-based middlebrow culture “that permit[ed] the second-rate to fail upwards,” it was gone by the late 1960s.
Did the great books movement fight anti-intellectualism? Surely. Was it the Arcadia Wasserman asserts? Maybe for a time. Most certainly not, however, for the full period he asserts. Did that great books movement allow for a higher critical culture, one that supported and appreciated the nuances of book criticism and intellectual integrity? Perhaps—again, for a time.
The power of the great books idea persisted longer in the academy than elsewhere. That’s why the great books idea, as it existed in college curricula, became a target in the 1980s. The old lists that supported those academic great books programs had not been adjusted to the new needs of rigor, neither for students, faculty, nor the citizenry at large. The historical thinking that informed the old lists was outdated. Not only had the domestic society and culture changed which the liberal arts had served, but a new corporate cosmopolitanism outside the academy demanded new cultural capital for understanding a wider range of consumers and employees. Given that, dissenting from the great books idea as it existed in the academy in the 1980s was not anti-intellectualism. Rather, the postmodern resistors were more sensitive to the changed human skills and sensitivities needed outside the academy–the world which higher education served. It was the defenders of the old great books idea that were, ironically, anti-intellectual in relation to the new, post-1960s globalism. It’s not that the books on those old lists weren’t great. Rather, different great books were needed to understand the new intellectual environment—i.e the new difficulties—of the transnational citizen.
III. The So-Called “New Anti-Intellectualism”
Wasserman asserts that a “new anti-intellectualism” has arisen since around 2000. How? For starters, he despairs that the old means of intellectual dissemination have been decimated: “Today, America’s traditional organs of popular criticism—newspapers, magazines, journals of opinion—have been all but overwhelmed by the digital onslaught: their circulations plummeting, their confidence eroded, their survival in doubt.” Without the old organs of circulation, Wasserman fears for the mental health of the populace.
The new means of dissemination privilege anti-intellectual modes. To make his point, Wasserman enlists the thinking of Leon Weseltier:…
[Next week will be the second and final installment of this reflection. – TL]
 Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876-1980 (NY: Harper & Row, 1988), 432, 434-35.
 Cremin, 435-36. Cremin’s numbers come from John S. Noffsinger’s Correspondence Schools, Lyceums, Chautauquas (NY: Macmillan, 1926).
 Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (NY: Vintage, 1955), 21, 216
 Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (NY: Vintage, 1963), 197
 Ibid., 213.
 Much of what follows in the next 5-6 paragraphs is distilled from the work and thought I put into my book, The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).