Originally published by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952, Great Books of the Western World offered a selection of core texts representing the highest achievements of European and North American culture. That was the ambition. But today the set is perhaps best remembered as a peculiar episode in the history of furniture.
Many an American living room displayed its 54 volumes -- “monuments of unageing intellect,” to borrow a phrase from Yeats. (The poet himself, alas, did not make the grade as Great.) When it first appeared, the set cost $249.50, the equivalent of about $2,200 today. It was a shrewd investment in cultural capital, or at it least it could be, since the dividends came only from reading the books. Mortimer Adler – the philosopher and cultural impresario who envisioned the series in the early 1940s and led it through publication and beyond, into a host of spinoff projects – saw the Great Books authors as engaged in a Great Conversation across the centuries, enriching the meaning of each work and making it “endlessly rereadable.”
Adler's vision must have sounded enticing when explained by the Britannica salesman during a house call. Also enticing: the package deal, with Bible and specially designed bookcase, all for $10 down and $10 per month. But with some texts the accent was on endless more than rereadable (the fruits of ancient biological and medical research, for example, are dry and stony) and it is a good bet that many Great Books remained all but untouched by human hands.
Well, that’s one way to tell the Great Books story: High culture meets commodity fetishism amidst Cold War anxiety over the state of American education. But Tim Lacy gives a far more generous and considerably more complex analysis of the phenomenon in The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea, just published by Palgrave Macmillan. The book provides many unflattering details about how Adler’s pedagogical ambitions were packaged and marketed, including practices shady enough to have drawn Federal Trade Commission censure in the 1970s. (These included bogus contests, luring people into "advertising research analysis surveys" that turned into sales presentations, and misleading "bundling" of additional Great Books-related products without making clear the additional expense.) At the same time, it makes clear that Adler had more in mind than providing a codified and “branded” set of masterpieces that the reader should passively absorb (or trudge through, as the case may be).
The Dream of a Democratic Culture started life as a dissertation at Loyola University in Chicago, where Lacy is currently an academic adviser at the university’s Stritch School of Medicine. In its final pages, he describes the life-changing impact on him, some 20 years ago, of studying Adler’s How to Read a Book (1940), a longtime bestseller. He owns and is reading his way through the Great Books set, and his study reflects close attention to Adler’s own writings and the various supplementary Great Books projects. But in analyzing the life and work of “the Great Bookie,” as one of Adler’s friends dubbed him, Lacy is never merely celebratory. In the final dozen years or so before his death in 2001, Adler became one of the more splenetic culture warriors – saying, for example, that the reason no black authors appeared in the expanded 1990 edition of the Great Books was because they “didn’t write any good books.”
Other such late pronouncements have been all too memorable -- but Lacy, without excusing them, makes a case that they ought not to be treated as Adler’s definitive statements. On the contrary, they seem to betray principles expressed earlier in his career. Lacy stops short of diagnosing the aging philosopher’s bigoted remarks as evidence of declining mental powers, though it is surely a tempting explanation. Then again, working at a medical school would probably leave a non-doctor chary about that sort of thing.
I found The Dream of a Democratic Culture absorbing and was glad to be able to interview the author about it by email; the transcript follows. Between questions, I looked around a used-books website to check out the market in secondhand copies of Great Books of the Western World is like. One listing for the original 1952 edition is especially appealing, and not just because of its price (under $250, in today’s currency). “The whole set is in very good condition,” the bookseller writes, “i.e., not read at all.”
Q: How did your personal encounter with the Great Books turn into a scholarly project?
A: I started my graduate studies in history, at Loyola University Chicago, during the 1997-98 academic year. My initial plan was to work on U.S. cultural history, with a plan to zoom in on either urban environmental history or intellectual history in an urban context. I was going to earn an M.A. and then see about my possibilities for a Ph.D. program.
By the end of 1998 the only thing that had become clear to me was that I was confused. I had accumulated some debt and a little bit of coursework, but I needed a break rethink my options. I took a leave of absence for the 1999 calendar year. During that period I decided three things: (1) I wanted to stay at Loyola for my Ph.D. work; (2) Environmental history was not going to work for me there; (3) Cultural and intellectual history would work for me, but I would need to choose my M.A. thesis carefully to make it work for doctoral studies.
Alongside this intense re-education in the discipline of history I had maintained, all through the 1997 to 1999 period, my reading of the Britannica's Great Books set. I had also accumulated more books on Adler, including his two autobiographies, during stress-relief forays into Chicago's most excellent used bookstore scene. Given Adler's Chicago connections, one almost always saw his two or three of his works in the philosophy sections of these stores.
During a cold December day in 1999, while sitting in a Rogers Park coffee shop near Loyola, this all came together in a sudden caffeine-laced epiphany: Why not propose the Great Books themselves as the big project for my graduate study? I sat on the idea for a few days, both thinking about all the directions I could take for research and pounding myself on the head for not having thought of the project sooner. I knew at this point that Adler hadn't been studied much, and I had a sense that this could be a career's worth of work.
The project was going to bring together professional and personal interests in a way that I had not imagined possible when thinking about graduate school.
Q: Did you meet any resistance to working on Adler and the Great Books? They aren’t exactly held in the highest academic esteem.
A: The first resistance came late in graduate school, and after, when I began sending papers, based on my work, out to journals for potential publication. There I ran into some surprising resistance, in two ways. First, I noticed a strong reluctance toward acknowledging Adler's contributions to American intellectual life. As is evident in my work and in the writings of others (notably Joan Shelley Rubin and Lawrence Levine, but more recently in Alex Beam), Adler had made a number of enemies in the academy, especially in philosophy. But I had expected some resistance there. I know Adler was brusque, and had written negatively about the increasing specialization of the academy (especially in philosophy but also in the social sciences) over the course of the 20th century.
The second line of resistance, which was somewhat more surprising, came because I took a revisionist, positive outlook on the real and potential contributions of the great books idea. Of course this resistance linked back to Adler, who late in his life — in concert with conservative culture warriors --- declared that the canon was set and not revisable. Some of the biggest promoters of the great books idea had, ironically, made it unpalatable to a great number of intellectuals. I hadn't anticipated the fact that Adler and the Great Books were so tightly intertwined, synonymous even, in the minds of many academics.
Q: Selecting a core set of texts was only part of Adler's pedagogical program. Your account shows that it encompassed a range of forms of instruction, in various venues (on television and in newspapers as well as in classrooms and people’s homes). The teaching was, or is, pitched at people of diverse age groups, social backgrounds, and so on -- with an understanding that there are numerous ways of engaging with the material. Would you say something about that?
A: The great books idea in education --- whether higher, secondary, or even primary --- was seen by its promoters as intellectually romantic, adventurous even. It involved adults and younger students tackling primary texts instead of textbooks. As conceived by Adler and Hutchins, the great books idea focused people on lively discussion rather than boring Ben Stein-style droning lectures, or PowerPoints, or uninspiring, lowest-common-denominator student-led group work.
One can of course pick up bits of E.D. Hirsch-style "cultural literacy" (e.g., important places, names, dates, references, and trivia) through reading great books, or even acquire deeper notes of cultural capital as described in John Guillory's excellent but complex work, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993). But the deepest goal of Adler's model of close reading was to lead everyday people into the high stakes world of ideas. This was no mere transaction in a "marketplace of ideas," but a full-fledged dialogue wherein one brought all her or his intellectual tools to the workbench.
Adler, Hutchins, John Erskine, Jacques Barzun, and Clifton Fadiman prided themselves being good discussion leaders, but most promoters also believed that this kind of leadership could be passed to others. Indeed, the Great Books Foundation trained (and still trains) people to lead seminars in a way that would've pleased Erskine and Adler. Education credentials matter to institutions, but the Foundation was willing train people off the street to lead great books reading groups.
This points to the fact that the excellent books by famous authors promoted by the great books movement, and the romance inherent in the world of ideas, mattered more than the personality or skill of any one discussion moderator. All could access an engagement with excellence, and that excellence could manifest in texts from a diverse array of authors.
Q: It seems like the tragedy of Adler is that he had this generous, capacious notion that could be called the Great Books as a sort of shorthand – but what he's remembered for is just the most tangible and commodified element of it. A victim of his own commercial success?
A: Your take on the tragedy of Adler is pretty much mine. Given his lifelong association with the great books project, his late-life failings almost guaranteed that the larger great books idea would be lost in the mess of both his temporary racism and promotion of Britannica's cultural commodity. The idea came to be seen as a mere byproduct of his promotional ability. The more admirable, important, and flexible project of close readings, critical thinking, and good citizenship devolved into a sad Culture Wars spectacle of sniping about race, class, and gender. This is why I tried, in my "Coda and Conclusion" to end on a more upbeat note by discussing the excellent work of Earl Shorris and my own positive adventures with great books and Adler's work.
Q: Was it obvious to you from the start that writing about Adler would entail a sort of prehistory of the culture wars, or did that realization come later?
A: At first I thought I would be exploring Adler's early work on the great books during my graduate studies. I saw myself intensely studying the 1920s-1950s period. Indeed, that's all I covered for my master's project which was completed in 2002.
However, I began to see the Culture Wars more clearly as I began to think in more detail about the dissertation. It was right around this time that I wrote a short, exploratory paper on Adler's 1980s-era Paideia Project. When I mapped Paideia in relation to "A Nation at Risk" and William Bennett, I began to see that my project would have to cover Bloom, the Stanford Affair, and the 1990 release of the second edition of Britannica's set. Around the same time I also wrote a paper on Adler's late 1960s books. When I noticed the correlation between his reactions to "The Sixties" and those of conservative culture warriors, it was plain to me that I would have to explore Adler as the culture warrior.
So even though I never set out to write about the Culture Wars, I got excited when I realized how little had been done on the topic, and that the historiography was thin. My focus would limit my exploration (unlike Andrew Hartman's forthcoming study), but I was pleased to know that I might be hanging around with a vanguard of scholars doing recent history on the Culture Wars.
Q: While Adler’s response to the upheaval of the 1960s was not enthusiastic, he was also quite contemptuous of Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. How aware of Bloom's book and its aftermath were you when you bought and started reading the Great Books?
A: Honestly, I had little knowledge of Allan Bloom nor his ubiquitous The Closing of the American Mind until the mid-1990s. This requires a little background explanation. I started college in 1989 and finished in 1994. As a small-town Midwestern teenager and late-1980s high schooler, I was something of a rube when I started college. I was only vaguely aware, in 1989, that there was even a culture war ongoing out there (except in relation to HIV and AIDS).
I'm ashamed to admit, now, how unaware I was of the cultural scene generally. Moreover, I was insulated from some of it, and its intensity, during my early college years when it was at its height because I began college as an engineering student. Not only was my area of study far outside the humanities, the intensity of coursework in engineering sheltered me from all news beyond sports (my news reading outlet at the time). Even when I began to see that engineering wasn't for me, around 1992, my (then) vocational view of college caused me to move to chemistry rather than a humanities subject.
My own rudimentary philosophy of education kept me from thinking more about the Culture Wars until my last few years as a college student. It was then that I first heard about Bloom and his book. Even so, I only read passages in it, through the work of others, until I bought a copy of the book around 2000. I didn't read The Closing of the American Mind, word-for-word, until around 2003-04 while dissertating.
Q: There was no love lost between Adler and Bloom – you make that clear!
A: In my book you can see that Adler really wanted it known that he believed Leo Strauss and all his disciples, especially Bloom, were elitists. Adler believed that the knowledge (philosophy, history, theology, psychology, etc.) contained in great books were accessible to all. While scholarship and the knowledge of elites could add to what one gained from reading great books, there was a great deal in those works that was accessible to the common man and hence available to make better citizens.
So while Adler was sort of a comic-book character, you might say he was a clown for democratic citizenship -- a deceptively smart clown champion for democratizing knowledge and for raising the bar on intelligent discourse. This analogy is faulty, however, because of the intensity and seriousness with which he approached his intellectual endeavors. He loved debate with those who were sincerely engaged in his favorite topics (political philosophy, education, common sense philosophy, etc.).
I see only advantages in the fact that I was not personally or consistently engaged in the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It has given me an objective distance, emotionally and intellectually, that I never believed possible for someone working on a topic that had occurred in her/his lifetime. Even though I started graduate school as something of a cultural and religious conservative (this is another story), I never felt invested in making my developing story into something that affirmed my beliefs about religious, culture, and America in general.
A belief that tradition and history had something to offer people today led me to the great books, but that did not confine me into a specific belief about what great books could, or should, offer people today. I was into great books for the intellectual challenge and personal development as a thinker, not for what great books could tell me about today's political, social, cultural, and intellectual scene.
Q: You defend Adler and the Great Books without being defensive, and I take it that you hope your book might help undo some of the damage to the reputation of each -- damage done by Adler himself, arguably, as much as by those who denounced him. But is that really possible, at this late a date? Won’t it take a generation or two? Or is there something about Adler's work that can be revived sooner, or even now?
A: Thank you very much for the compliment in your distinction about defending and being defensive. I did indeed seek to revise the way in which Adler is covered in the historiography. Because most other accounts about him have been, in the main, mocking and condescending, any revisionary project like mine would necessarily have to be more positive -- to inhabit his projects and work, which could result in something that might appear defensive. I think my mentor, Lewis Erenberg, and others will confirm that I did not always strike the right tone in my early work. It was a phase I had to work through to arrive at a mature, professional take on the whole of Adler's life and the Great Books Movement.
As for salvaging Adler's work as a whole, I don't know if that's possible. Some of it is dated and highly contextual. But there is much worth reviewing and studying in his corpus. My historical biography, focused on the great books in the United States, makes some headway in that area.
Some of Adler's other thinking about great books on the international scene will make it into a manuscript, on which I'm currently working, about the transnational history of the great books idea. If all goes well (fingers crossed), that piece will be paired with another by a philosopher and published as "The Great Books Controversy" in a series edited by Jonathan Zimmerman and Randall Curren.
I think a larger book on Adler's work in philosophy is needed, especially his work in his own Institute for Philosophical Research. I don't know if my current professional situation will give me the time and resources to accomplish much more on Adler. And even if my work situation evolves, I do have interests in other historical areas (anti-intellectualism, Chicago's intellectual history, a Jacques Maritain-in-America project). Finally, I also need keep up my hobby of reading more great books!
Those five simple words should stand at the center of all conversations about higher education; participants in such conversations should recite them on a regular basis. Instead, I hear the drumbeat language of “disruption” — new models of higher education will do to “legacy” colleges and universities what the steamboat did to the sailing vessel, or more recently, what Amazon did to Borders. The disruption gurus see a new business model on the horizon, approaching fast and preparing to vanquish all postsecondary institutions that do not embrace a particular kind of innovation. Those institutions will decline because they cannot compete.
The disruptive steamroller now bearing down on higher education is a product strategy known as “unbundling.” Just as iTunes has driven the album out of the market by enabling consumers to purchase their music one song at a time, students are increasingly able to purchase their degrees, one or two courses at a time, from different providers. “Like steam,” proclaims one Harvard Business School professor together with the executive director of an “Institute for Disruptive Innovation,” “online education is a disruptive innovation — one that introduces more convenient and affordable products or services that over time transform sectors.”
The argument goes something like this. Skyrocketing tuitions have put college out of the reach of millions of Americans (not to mention millions more around the world with access to a computer but not a campus). In a market economy, when a product becomes too expensive for consumers, innovators who can satisfy demand more efficiently will drive existing businesses to the margins — in this case, to the kind of luxury market that prefers a CD to an MP3. Here, the avatars of disruption don’t completely agree: some, like the keynote speaker at the recent Ithaka Sustainable Scholarship Conference, readily admit that “traditional” institutions generally provide a superior education, given the virtues of face-to-face interaction and the multidimensionality of student life; others insist that consumers of such educational Cadillacs are mere chumps, spending thousands of dollars on prestige, along with a “student life” consisting mostly of parties that would be more cheaply and safely held at home.
Given these excessive costs — generally attributed to inefficiency, salaries paid to professors more interested in research than in teaching, and a broken business model that federal financial aid subsidies keep insulated from market forces — consumers will increasingly choose cheaper degrees that do a better job of preparing them for the workplace. These new degrees use technology more efficiently, reward competence over time in a classroom, and liberate students to take courses where they are available, rather than suffer from the corporeal implications of how many bodies can fit into a single classroom, or how often a given course appears on the schedule. Statistics 101 is full at your university? No big deal; just take the MOOC and get credit in the same way your university gave credit for that Advanced Placement course you took in high school.
Liberated from such luxuries as student counseling (academic and otherwise), full-time faculty, sports, dormitories (fancy and otherwise), meadows and plazas, orchestras, offices of community relations that actually provide services rather than public relations, subsidized clinics, and various other luxuries unnecessary to a student’s first job (as opposed to a career), the new-model colleges can indeed do it cheaper. And this is not a bad thing: millions of people across the planet hunger for knowledge and ought to have the access that online education can provide.
It is a grim reality of many large (mostly public) universities that students unable to get a spot in required courses cannot graduate in four, even five years.
The history major who can’t take the entry-level requirement until junior year has a problem that “unbundling” can solve, whether through a MOOC or some other online venue. I would love to see the American Historical Association participate in any innovation able to address this problem. I also appreciate how a degree earned through a set of courses taken at various places, online and otherwise, makes good sense to people unable or unwilling to pay for a “traditional” college education. Those of us who consider humanities and social science essential to career preparation should dedicate ourselves to ensuring that such degrees include high-quality history education, provided by professionals who are properly compensated for their time and expertise. We should be similarly committed to widening access to higher education of all kinds, and to the kinds of lifelong learning that can be facilitated by distance educational resources.
But education is not music. I don’t care whether everyone in my city is willing to sacrifice sound quality, and the artistry involved in constructing the content of a CD, for the convenience and cost of an MP3. Nor do I care if “legacy” airlines are pushed aside by the disruptive innovations of creative entrepreneurs. The big corporations, analogous to 19th-century shipping magnates, can fall victim to “disruption” and we will have traded very little for new efficiencies. The same cannot be said for education, which is not merely a consumer purchase but a public good. Part of the reason for a seemingly failing financial model in public postsecondary education is found not on the cost side, but rather in a decline in public funding. At non-flagship public universities and community colleges, the cost per student (as opposed to what students actually pay) is generally not increasing. Students cannot get into courses in part because public colleges and universities do not have adequate public funds. It is incumbent on us to make a better argument for such funding, but we should not assume that the market can do the job better. More efficiently, maybe. But not better.
Moreover, we will all lose if we allow markets to determine the institutional framework of higher education. The self-described disruptors claim to be doing what scholars do: competing in a marketplace of ideas, with the same imperative to think outside the box, explore new models, and reward creativity. But, in my field, history, we know that the best new scholarship builds upon the old, rather than casting it to the scrap heap. We learn from our predecessors; they spare us the inefficiency of having to reinvent the wheel. We are not out to destroy them in the way of the business world to which the disruptors look for models of change.
Let us make room, then, for the innovations that broaden access, while participating in the conversations that will shape and deploy those innovations. Markets ought not be considered the arbiters of quality education. To allocate public resources based on how much an education costs, and whether it can provide minimal competencies, is a strategy to impoverish public culture. Education is not just a tool for individual advancement; it is also a public instrument to promote democratic citizenship. The system works better for all of us if more people can recognize a logical fallacy, read a data table, understand the text and context of the Constitution, and decipher debates surrounding the causes of the Great Depression. An unbundled degree offers a better education compared to no degree at all (something to be taken seriously), but it is a narrow and often isolated experience compared to the liberal education that is available in the hundreds of institutions across the nation that offer curriculums, rather than courses.
We need to determine what, precisely, is being disrupted by new business models, ensuring that as we transform higher education with digital tools, we also conserve essential elements of the best system of higher education in the world, measured by the number of people from around the globe who either flock to our institutions or try to replicate them back home (often with strong public backing), having grasped the fact that education, after all, is a public good.
Many of the elements we treasure in a “traditional” education are somewhat intangible, or difficult to explain without sounding either elitist or archaic, but they are benefits nonetheless, and public funds should subsidize the financial aid necessary to keep them accessible to those determined to reap their benefits but unable to afford their cost. I encourage our colleagues to figure out how to participate in and adapt new forms of instruction. But I also challenge the entrepreneurs who profit from those new forms to join American traditions of philanthropic citizenship and support the infrastructure of “bricks and mortar” education for those who desire it — not only those who can afford it.
James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association.
Friends and colleagues familiar with my longstanding support of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and my extensive criticisms of the Israeli government's expansionist policies and violations of Palestinian human rights may be puzzled that I have weighed in publicly in opposition to the proposed academic boycott of Israel endorsed by the council of the American Studies Association (ASA) and now the subject of a membership vote in that organization. But the fact is that such a boycott is at best misguided. Not only is it the wrong way to register opposition to the policies and practices it seeks to discredit, it is itself a serious violation of the very academic freedom its supporters purport to defend.
The ASA Council, however, disagrees. In an extraordinarily one-sided FAQ on the ASA website, advocates of the boycott assert that, like the AAUP, the ASA "unequivocally asserts the importance of academic freedom and the necessity for intellectuals to remain free from state interests and interference as a general good for society," making no mention, of course, that the very organization they cite, the AAUP, has publicly and forcefully opposed as a violation of academic freedom the very boycott they advocate. Then, in language that can only be described as Orwellian, the FAQ contends that "the academic boycott doesn’t violate academic freedom but helps to extend it. Under the current conditions of occupation, the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students is severely hampered, if not effectively denied."
I have little doubt that conditions under which Palestinian scholars and students must function leave much to be desired, including with respect to academic freedom, but I wonder how boycotting Israeli universities does anything to improve that situation and thereby "extend" academic freedom. Does the ASA seek to make a general statement about Israeli policies in the West Bank, or is the organization making a statement about academic freedom in Israeli institutions? If the former, one immediately wonders why they do not advocate an academic boycott of Chinese higher education institutions in response to the occupation of Tibet, where conditions for native Tibetan scholars and students are certainly worse than in, say, the Palestinian Bir Zeit University on the West Bank. If the latter, I wonder how they have determined that Israeli institutions of higher learning are so much more culpable than those elsewhere.
As our "Open Letter" noted, the AAUP doesn't have "the organizational capacity to monitor academic freedom at institutions in other countries, nor are we in a position to pick and choose which countries we, as an organization, might judge." Yet the ASA, which has no special academic interest in the Middle East, feels comfortable boycotting Israeli universities while ignoring seemingly more obvious violations of both academic freedom and broader human rights in Iran, China, North Korea, Singapore, Zimbabwe, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and Russia, to mention but a few examples.
According to one Israeli human rights organization, Israeli forces killed 6,722 Palestinians between September of 2000 and October of 2013. In Iraq, however, American troops took the lives of more than half a million civilians. That, by the way, is the same America whose "culture and history" members of the American Studies Association are said to approach "from many directions" (quotations from "What the ASA Does"). In 2006 the ASA adopted a resolution condemning the U.S. invasion of Iraq, noting among other things that the invasion "threaten[ed] academic freedom" (whether in Iraq, the U.S., or both is unclear). Were I an ASA member I would surely have supported that resolution. Yet the ASA did not even consider an academic boycott of American universities in response to the American occupation of Iraq as they do now in response to the less murderous Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Well, some might say, they can't really advocate a boycott of themselves, can they? But in fact that is precisely what supporters of this proposed boycott are doing. Omar Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian advocate of the boycott, is himself a former student and part-time instructor at Tel Aviv University. He is one of many Palestinian and Arab Israeli students and faculty at Israeli colleges and universities. As Emily Budick, an American-born Israeli professor of American studies at Hebrew University, wrote in the AAUP's Journal of Academic Freedom:
Over the years I have taken great pride in the achievements of my Arab and Palestinian students. Last year one of my former graduate students became the first woman mayor of Bethlehem. I was similarly thrilled when several Palestinian students greeted me the first day of classes this year to bring regards from another former student of mine who was their teacher at the Arab university where they'd done their undergraduate degrees and who had encouraged them to do their graduate work at Hebrew University. Last year a full 50 percent of my Introduction to American Literature class was populated by Arab and Palestinian students.... If you want to stop Palestinian progress, then boycott the Israeli academics who contribute (along with Palestinian and Arab teachers) to their education and well-being. If you want to further the rights and liberties of Palestinians, then help us continue to provide Palestinian students with the best education we can.
In fact, if there is anywhere in Israeli society where support for a fair and just peace and for Palestinian human rights can flourish it is the country's universities. Boycott supporters are ironically only strengthening the hand of those right-wing forces in Israeli society who seek to muzzle the kind of questioning and dissent, and who reject the spirit of tolerance, that are often found among Israeli and Palestinian scholars in Israel's institutions of higher learning. The ASA foolishly seeks to punish potential allies largely to the benefit of common opponents.
Indeed, the whole idea of boycotting academic institutions in order to defend academic freedom is utterly wrongheaded. Violations of academic freedom can be found anywhere. In the AAUP we encounter such violations, petty and large, on a daily basis in the U.S. In the very worst of these cases, when all efforts to correct the situation fail, we place administrations on our censure list. But that list is not a boycott list. We do not and will not ask our colleagues to boycott institutions that violate academic freedom or that support policies we abhor. Instead we call on people to organize and struggle to effect change in such institutions, both from inside and out. If we resist the temptation to boycott offending institutions in our own country, where we have full opportunity to determine all the relevant facts, how then can we agree to support such boycotts of foreign institutions?
The AAUP does not have a foreign policy; our members may and do disagree about numerous international conflicts and controversies, including the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But if the members of the ASA can somehow achieve broad agreement on such a controversial question as this one, we would not gainsay their right to pass resolutions on it as they did during the Iraq War. But a boycott is quite another matter.
Finally, I cannot fail to mention that the leaders of the ASA are not conducting this election in a spirit of frank and free discussion. AAUP's "Open Letter" was preceded by a private communication prior to the ASA council's approval of the boycott resolution. The ASA declined to circulate that communication among members and then rebuffed a request to post the "Open Letter" on its website along with other background material on the boycott proposal. The ASA has also declined to inform members of a letter in opposition to the resolution signed by eight former ASA presidents and other prominent ASA members.
By contrast, this fall the AAUP published an issue of our online Journal of Academic Freedom, much of which was devoted to articles calling on us to abandon our opposition to academic boycotts and advocating such a boycott of Israel. Some supporters of Israel criticized us for this, but we stood by our commitment to the journal as an open forum for debate and discussion. The articles attracted a good number of reader responses representing different points of view, all now published as part of the issue along with replies from the original authors. ASA members would do well to compare this to the ASA leadership's approach to dissent. Those seeking to make up their own minds about the boycott proposal should consider the various arguments pro and con published in our journal instead of relying on the one-sided and disingenuous presentations sadly offered on ASA's website.
Henry Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay; first vice president of the American Association of University Professors; and chair of AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, whose greatest achievement, someone once said, was keeping it to just the one volume.
As discussed here a short while ago, the revisionist interpretation of American populism appearing in Hofstadter’s book The Age of Reform (1955) has taken a lot of positivistic hits by subsequent historians. He over-generalized on the basis of a (very) narrowly selected pool of primary sources -- and in the final analysis, he wasn’t really writing about the 1890s at all, but rather his own times, equating the mood and worldview of McCarthyism with the agrarian radicals of the People’s Party. Hofstadter was more conscious of the pressure of contemporary affairs in Anti-Intellectualism, which he wrote was “conceived in response to the political and intellectual conditions of the 1950s.”
It was “by no means a formal history,” Hofstadter wrote, “but largely a personal book, whose factual details are organized and dominated by my views.” I take that to be a concession, of sorts, to historians who were finding The Age of Reform problematic. His strength was the essay more than the monograph. A passage such as the following is remarkable for – among other things -- how its urbane diction just barely subdues the remembered experience of dread:
“Of course, intellectuals were not the only targets of McCarthy’s constant detonations -- he was after bigger game -- but intellectuals were in the line of fire, and it seemed to give special rejoicing to his followers when they were hit. His sorties against intellectuals and universities were emulated throughout the country by a host of less exalted inquisitors.”
It is also remarkable for needing only the slightest change of wording to sound uncomfortably applicable to more recent events. The problem lies not with this or that demagogue but with something deeper. Hofstadter spent 400 pages sounding it out. But the American science and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov condensed it into one sentence of a column for Newsweek in 1980: “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ ”
Neither as broad in historical scope as Anti-Intellectualism in American Life nor as trenchant as Asimov’s zinger, Aaron Lecklider’s Inventing the Egghead: The Battle Over Brainpower in American Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press) is explicitly framed as a response to another decade – the ‘00s. While challenging Hofstadter’s ideas, Lecklider, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, follows his lead in responding to a past that, while recent, somehow already seems distinctly periodized.
It was the worst of time, full stop. Figures in the Bush administration were openly contemptuous of “experts,” with all their “knowledge” about “reality.” The Bush-bashers called the president stupid, and his supporters called the Bush-bashers stupid, and there was a TV game show called “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” which hinted that the whole country was stupid, and that’s O.K. (It did well in the ratings.) The culture war was fought with the bluntest of weapons -- not between the intelligentsia and the ignorati, but between anti-intellectuals and anti-anti-intellectuals. The latter expression, while clumsy at best, acknowledges something important: anti-anti-intellectual ≠ intellectual. Laughing at a satirical interview with a creationist on “The Daily Show” entails no substantial engagement with the life of the mind.
Much of the edifying conflict was fought out in popular culture and the mass media – terrain that, Lecklider argues, historians and social critics of Hofstadter’s era either neglected, at best, or regarded as stupefying and regressive. Hence their interpretations of American cultural history tended to be narratives of decline.
In reply, Inventing the Egghead presents a series of case studies from the first six decades of the 20th century in which conflicts over the power and the possession of intellectual capital were fought out in a wide range of popular venues: cartoons, movies, jokes, Tin Pan Alley songs, newsmagazines, posters, popular science journals, handbooks on efficient housekeeping, etc.
The chapters proceed chronologically, from the rechristening of a Coney Island park in 1909 as an institute of science (to skirt blue laws) to Einstein as cult figure, to aspects of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Deal “brain trust,” and on up to the stress-inducing utopia of Oak Ridge and the coining of “egghead” as pejorative. The effect is one of cultural history as collage. Running through all these topics and cultural forms is an uneasy and constantly shifting set of attitudes towards what Lecklider calls “brainpower.”
In the author’s usage “brainpower” means the power to acquire or to stake a claim to knowledge and expertise, whether respected and professionally credentialed or not. Conflicts over who possesses brainpower (and who doesn’t) are continuous. So are disputes over its value and limitations. And that flux comes, in part, from the frequently changing needs of an economy that requires technological advances as well as a steady supply of human brains, serviceable as a factor of production.
In short, there were grounds for ambivalence about brainpower -- for reasons more various and complex than some notion of an unchanging American cultural disposition toward anti-intellectualism. “Competing representations of intelligence” in popular culture, Lecklider writes, “could alternately smash the pretensions of an intellectual elite, position ordinary men and women as smarter than experts, appeal to intellectual culture to validate working-class positions, and dismantle intellectual hierarchies. These representations were often uncomfortable and contradictory, sometimes even self-defeating, particularly when the value of intelligence was diminished in order to level the intellectual playing field.”
But other strains of popular culture – a number of distinctively WPA-era posters promoting libraries, for example -- served to recognize and foster peoples’ self-respect regarding their own mental capacities.
Earlier I suggested that “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” implied the viewer probably wasn’t. On reflection, that may have been too dour a view. Perhaps the title gives the viewer something to which to aspire. Be that as it may, in the representations of brainpower that Lecklider inspects, the expressions of ambivalence tend more often to have more hostility or disparagement in the mix than respect for self or others. While written, and blurbed, as an alternative to Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the book ends up seeming like the extensive elaboration and updating of a point Hofstadter made there in passing: "As the demand for the rights of the common man took form in 19th-century America, it included a program for free elementary education, but it also carried with it a dark and sullen suspicion of high culture, as a creation of the enemy."
Some people will bristle at the expression "high culture." They always do. (I'm not overly fond of it.) But that response misses the point, which, again, was put quite plainly by Isaac Asimov a while back. "I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual," he wrote. "I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning." That is as cheerful a face as can be put on our situation.