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.
Another familiar figure in Flynn's cast of characters is "Poet of the Pulps" Ray Bradbury, one of America's foremost pop culture authors. Bradbury, a "nerd's nerd" who grew up in poverty in Illinois, was anything but shy. But his continuing rejection by his peers engendered his idea of achieving ultimate acceptance by becoming a star. Bradbury achieved that reality primarily as a short story writer, mostly in the sci-fi genre, and a lot of his work appeared in "all-too accessible" publications. That made him oh-for-three among the cognoscenti who were also offended by his small-town, Midwest sensibilities, and his disdain for human spirit-sapping technology such as video games. But the audience he reached loved him.
Since he couldn't afford college, Bradbury developed his talent at the Los Angeles Public Library, which he often referred to as his "alma mater." His seminal work, Fahrenheit 451, sold millions of copies, and remains in print today, most likely due to its relevance: despite being published in 1953, it is a dark vision of a state-controlled society hostile to books, where people are hooked on cheap entertainment and drugs. Flynn sums up Bradbury's great contributions to America quite simply. "Bradbury's books glorified books," he writes.
Flynn makes plenty of trenchant observations about our deteriorating society, beginning with his first sentence, "Stupid is the new smart." And he makes a great case for why it is happening, noting that pop culture "has divorced itself from the life of the mind," even as "those who pursue the life of the mind have insulated themselves from pop culture." Good stuff, some of which may have packed a harder wallop at the end of the book, rather than the beginning. Yet for those interested in the kind of accessible ideas that influenced millions of regular Americans--courtesy of regular Americans--Blue Collar Intellectuals is a solid read. Alas, for Flynn and for society in general, those likely to benefit most from a book like this are least likely to read it.
Yet Flynn remains reasonably hopeful. "Regular people can still find smart if they look hard enough," he writes. Here's hoping some of them look hard for Blue Collar Intellectuals.
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