“Stupid is the new smart,” and “Pop culture is a wasteland” are just a few lines from Daniel J. Flynn’s introduction to Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America. Certainly, one does not need to read Flynn’s account to surmise that there are grave problems with our culture. But many would miss some great stories and a return to a people and time that crafted a great uplifting for mass audiences.
Flynn has profiled six intellectuals or thinkers who sprung out of the immigrant backgrounds and / or a working “blue collar” origins. They opened up and popularized the great works, theories, and conversations of Western Civilization for the everyman. It seems it is of little coincidence that in profiling Mortimer Adler, Eric Hoffer, Ray Bradbury, Will and Ariel Durant, and Milton Friedman, Flynn touches on diverse streams of thought such as history, literature, economics, philosophy, and popular story teller. Flynn laments that we do not see these type of public intellectuals today and we are surrounded by passive and meaningless entertainment that not only debases but detaches us from the great ideas and a common heritage.
Will and Ariel Durant popularized history with their widely popular 11-volume The Story of Civilization. Flynn lauds them as writers who “extracted history from the academic ghetto whither it had retreated, opening the conversation about the past to all comers.”
Mortimer Adler, who compiled The Great Books of the Western World set, once quipped, “The only education I got at Columbia was in one course.” That course studied the classic works of Western Civilization and Adler sought to package them for mass consumption. A brilliant mind, Adler received a Ph.D from Columbia without ever receiving a high school diploma, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. Adler held a disinterest and disdain for the academic bubble, and in turn academics turned their noses up at his work for packaging and popularizing the great works. “The Great Books Movement, for better or worse, offered education minus the middleman. It is no wonder the middleman objected so vociferously,” says Flynn.
The idea that somebody who took on entrepreneurial endeavors and worked a myriad of jobs in the economy might make a better or more notable economist makes sense. But it’s not always the case, when one looks at say the lifelong academic John Maynard Keynes. Flynn notes what many free marketers already know about Milton Friedman and that is he “waited tables, peddled socks door-to-door, and manned roadside fireworks stands. He attended the public schools and lived in rent controlled apartments.” Friedman harnessed his experiences, professorship, books, a “Newsweek” column, and a PBS series to popularize libertarian free-market economic principles. He transformed public policy and much of the economic lingo and ideas we borrow today directly comes from the free-market economist.
Eric Hoffer, the longshoremen philosopher, was the favorite author of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His book The True Believer covers the psychology of mass movements. “Hoffer’s patriotism stemmed from the belief that America was the workingman’s country. That the everyman became president hardly proved America’s mediocrity; it proved the excellence of the American everyman,” says Flynn.
Ray Bradbury, still writing, and most noted for Fahrenheit 451, could not afford college. He has proudly said that he is an alumnus of the Los Angeles Public Library. Bradbury glamorized small town Midwestern life and the significance of books, while slamming the detached superficial culture that suffers from a lack of education and critical thinking.
Flynn has weaved together some wonderful stories to remind us that great culture and deeper ideas are accessible to the masses. I have often wondered how some history professors could turn a lively and passionate subject boring. History, and other academic subjects, have too often been turned into gender-bending, “evil colonialist” type studies, eschewing much of the established work of Western Civilization. They deliberately use their own inner language and codes. “The ivory tower has become a tower of babble,” Flynn says.
He makes the easy case that a vapid society is objectionable and bankrupt of purpose, meaning, and ideas. He also highlights the less known significance on society of six influential thinkers, who because of their background, were able to help uplift the masses to the great ideas and release those ideas from an academic ghetto. Outside of Friedman, I did not know much about these figures and the stories he tells are lively and I did not realize how some of these thinkers already had had an influence on me. Growing up, my family had the set of The Great Books of the Western World, so it was fascinating to hear the story behind it.
As somebody with a divinity degree, and as an observer of ministry and churches, I thought about this problem in our faith culture. Today, there is a serious issue with the need to see Church as a form of entertainment first. Too often churches reflect the very same problems that plague our culture. There is little use for serious deeper reflection in some churches, and little use for the study of doctrine and traditions. The consequences are that confusion abounds today about what Christianity teaches and its transformative power. A revival and renewal is not just needed in culture, but in many of our churches too. There is a great need for teachers and preachers to deliver that word in days such as these as well.