Blue Collar Intellectuals

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In his latest book, Blue Collar Intellectuals, author Daniel J. Flynn reminds us of a time when Americans engaged in far more elevating pursuits than they do today. “For much of the twentieth century, there was a concerted effort among intellectuals to spread knowledge and wisdom far and wide,” Flynn writes. “Correspondingly many regular people took full advantage of the great educational effort.” That effort was led by Flynn’s “blue-collar intellectuals,” people from working-class backgrounds determined to make great works and high-minded concepts accessible to mass audiences. The book focuses on six such people, all of whom left an indelible mark on the American landscape.

Flynn begins with “Apostate Historians” Will and Ariel Durant, a couple “joined in scandal” when the former seminarian turned life-long socialist ended up marrying one of his students in 1913–when she was just fourteen years old. Despite its intemperate beginning, the marriage lasted sixty-eight years. Will’s first big break came when he teamed up with nascent publishers Simon and Schuster, who turned his book, The Story of Philosophy, into a blockbuster hit. The royalties allowed Will and Ariel to see the world, re-invigorate their marriage, and begin their writing partnership as America’s foremost blue-collar historians.

It was a partnership that made them beloved by the masses, who devoured their eleven-volume series entitled The History of Civilization, even as it enraged much of an intelligentsia who couldn’t forgive them for their disdain of Soviet Russia, their lack of “proper” historical credentials, and their non-conformist approach to history. A 1968 Pulitzer Prize and a 1977 Medal of Freedom illuminated their success, best described by Flynn in six words: “The Durants wrote to be read.”

Flynn moves on to “The People’s Professor” Mortimer Adler, a brilliant but egomaniacal high school dropout who managed to earn a Ph.D., despite never having earned a Masters or Bachelors degree, or even high school diploma. Adler at first eschewed the idea of making great works accessible to the masses. His vision began to take shape as the result of a relationship with fellow upstart Robert Maynard Hutchins, who became president at the University of Chicago in 1929, at age thirty. When Hutchins asked Adler for advice on education, Adler said the only course he found valuable was one driven by The Great Books, a collection of writings by the world’s greatest thinkers.

In a class aimed a local businessmen, Adler met advertising powerhouse William Benton, who used his fortune to advance Adler’s idea of creating a “syntopicon,” a synthesis of topics, that made the wisdom of the Great Books accessible by everyone. Putting together the ambitious project–and selling it–took an enormous amount of time and effort. In the end it was worth it. More than one million sets were sold and continued to sell until 2011, when publisher Encyclopedia Britannica discontinued them. For more than half a century, Adler gave regular Americans access to the foundations of Western civilization previously enjoyed only by the privileged few.

“Free Market Evangelist” Milton Friedman, who taught for thirty years at Chicago University beginning in 1946, is Flynn’s next subject. The economic Nobel Prize winner became one of the foremost proponents of free-market capitalism during his distinguished career. This fealty was born of a blue-collar existence early in life, when Friedman waited on tables and sold textbooks. His ability to make the mind-numbing subject of economics accessible to the masses, even as he challenged liberal, New Deal-inspired economic orthodoxy, culminated in a regular column for Newsweek magazine beginning in 1966, and a PBS television series, Free to Choose, aired in 1980. Perhaps the best testimony to Friedman’s greatness is the fact that many of his ideas have become an indelible part of our economic underpinnings, even as many Americans don’t know where they originated.

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  • Robert Pinkerton

    Missing from this roll of (deserved) honor is Eric Hoffer. How about discussing him in your next installment?

  • ebonystone

    The Durants, Adler, Friedman, Bradbury; that's five. Who's the 6th? Or the 5th and 6th, if the Durants count as one.
    I'm guessing H.L. Mencken.

  • Mo86

    This book was just recommended to me. Thank you for the review.