(Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Mark Edwards, Assistant Professor of History at Spring Arbor University and Co-Chair of the next Society for U.S. Intellectual History Conference, which will take place in the fall of 2014 in Indianapolis. This essay is crossposted at the Religion in American History blog.)
A few months ago, Loyola’s Tim Lacy blogged here about Mortimer Adler, the subject of his new book, The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History, 2013), which is due to hit bookshelves—do we still have those?—in three days. As his subtitle suggests, Lacy uses Adler to explore one of the most controversial subjects in twentieth-century American education, the “Great Books” movement. I think, when most of us hear the words Great Books, we think Alan Bloom and conservative culture warriors. One of Lacy’s central and most welcome contentions is that the Great Books idea has never been the sole possession of the American right or left. Rather, both sides have, at different times, looked to such projects of cultural cohesion to save them from a variety of perceived existential threats (check out the conversation regarding Lacy’s 2011 blog post, “Great Books Liberalism,” for a nice introduction to the book). Lacy is most concerned with, in his words, “those people, those mid-century intellectuals who promoted the great books idea, [who] shared an implicit, cosmopolitan dream of cultural democratization” (p. 6). As he elaborates:
The meaning of this argument is revealed by examining the aspirations and actions of both promoters and reader-consumers. From the promoters’ viewpoint, democratization meant redistributing what Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital.” Through ideas and knowledge contained in great books, promoters hoped to enlighten the American polis and buttress Western democratic societies against malicious political systems, such as communism and fascism. Moving from the social to the singular, supporters held that the steady accumulation of individual intellectual progress obtained by studying great books (not to exclude other means) would 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. They would raise political discourse and cast the best votes possible. And evidence exists that readers were enthusiastic about the great books’ potential to supplement their knowledge of the world—to help them process and act on the ambiguities of modern life. Stating the thesis another way, the dream of great books enthusiasts was that all Americans, all Westerners, and all those living in democratic societies would benefit from some connection to great books (p. 6).
As Lacy makes plain, the Great Books Idea was part of a larger ongoing conversation about the resiliency and relevance of the Western liberal arts tradition. In that light, his book could not have come at a better time for me. Continue reading