Book Review: Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America
Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America by Daniel J. Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have neither the patience, nor the political fixation really, to view C-SPAN on any regular sort of basis, but I am a frequent viewer of their cultural programming, in particular BOOKTV, television for serious readers, which they generally air on CSPAN2 during the weekend. It was here that I was first introduced to Daniel J. Flynn, as I watched him give a talk to George Washington University’s Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, one night while I was drunk.
Don’t ask me why I was drunk. I was simply in the habit at the time of drinking late into the night and watching pre-recorded lectures I had saved to the DVR. I don’t why I enjoyed this practice as much as I did or why I had to be drinking when I did it, but I did find it extremely pleasurable and I learned a great deal because of it. You might also say that, because of this peculiar habit, I represent Flynn’s target audience to a tee.
In this thin volume, Flynn tells of an era that, if not exactly prelapsarian, was a time at least when a fair number of regular, walking-around Americans showed interest in the intellectual traditions of the West, and how a small number of artists and thinkers, many from working-class backgrounds, aspired to bring high culture to the Everyman.
In the book Flynn chronicles the stories of six such intellectuals. Will and Ariel Durant, the husband-and-wife team who were the distillers of Western civilization, and who’s books made the best-seller lists for decades, Mortimer Adler, the manic philosopher who put the best of what has been written and said into the hands of ordinary men through his Great Books project, Milton Friedman, who is perhaps the twentieth-century’s most influential economist, Eric Hoffer, the “Stevedore Socrates” of San Francisco who remains as refreshingly counter-cultural today as he was in his own time, and finally Ray Bradbury, the seemingly tireless fiction writer whose truth-telling tales of dystopia and fantasy intelligent readers have never found tiresome. These blue-collar intellectuals all spoke to the educated laymen without also talking down to them and in the process, uplifted the masses and rescued ideas from the academic ghetto.
Twentieth-century America was actually a time that witnessed a democratization of education that has been unparalleled anywhere in human history. Aided by cheap printing, technological innovations in communications, and a wider dissemination of wealth, strivers bettered themselves through the G.I. Bill and adult continuing education programs; National
Educational Television and university-of-the-air style radio programs; Little Blue Books, the Book-of-the-Month Club, the advent of paperbacks, and broad “outline” books; popular middlebrow magazines such as Saturday Review and The New Yorker, and social outlets such as community book clubs, museums, Andrew Carnegie-funded libraries, and the Great Books programs.
Such sins were not easily forgiven however, as blue-collar intellectuals proved to be as unsettling to the intellectual elites as the nouveau rich had been to old money. Worse still, they replicated their numbers through evangelization. The elite dismissed the democratization of knowledge and wisdom as an invasion of their turf by undesirables. Rather than welcoming the massive attempt at intellectual uplift, elite intellectuals heaped scorn upon it. “The Great Books Movement, for better or worse, offered education minus the middleman. It is no wonder the middleman objected so vociferously,” writes Flynn. In response, established intellectuals began to adopt a vocabulary to demarcate intellectual class---“lowbrow,” “middlebrow,” “highbrow”---with “middlebrow” becoming a slur akin to “bourgeois” in the Marxian vernacular. Which was a direct attempt to marginalize popular culture in favor of high culture. Postmodernism however, more readily perceived the advantages of the middlebrow cultural-position that, while aware of high culture, was also able to balance aesthetic claims with the claims of the everyday world. Which is also part of what forms Flynn’s rather astute premise for the book.
But what’s really exceptional about each of these thinkers, to me at least, is that they all shared one common denominator, they were people who gained much of their education on their own, through books.
Ray Bradbury, the poet of the pulps, for example, didn’t study creative writing or literature at a top university. He was unable to afford college. He grew up in extreme poverty, having to share his parents pull out couch along with his brother, even into adulthood. Instead he went to the library three days a week, later proudly claiming the Los Angeles Public Library as his alma mater. The wannabe author read and wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Immersing himself in books made him an intellectual; doing so at the public library made him a blue-collar intellectual. Bradbury valued an education over a degree.
Which makes this book about far more than a few blue-collar intellectuals. It’s really about the value of an education. A real education, not just the attainment of some degree, which is essentially a paper note of recognition that you attended a particular school at a particular with your name printed in calligraphy. “We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed,” lamented W. A. Pannapacker, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Much of our K-12 schooling now involves educating to a standardized test, superficial learning that does to the mind what Botox, steroids, and plastic surgery do to the body. Our current educational system has a tendency to simply reduce education to mechanical skills, all the while undermining creativity and independence. Anyone who doesn’t fit into this mold is cast aside. The status quo has no use for them. This type of education is also predominant in colleges where we have a system that only allows for professional training that prepares cogs to fit into the economy rather than liberally educated citizens who will be ready for the responsibilities of freedom. People are instead pushed into diploma mills, which is really a sort of University of Phoenix model of education. Institutions that shun broad knowledge graduate shallow people with narrow interests.
So part of the question is, how do we disable an educational system that is uniformizing people across the socioeconomic spectrum in order to remind ourselves that the hotel maid who makes up our bed may in fact be an amateur painter? The accountant who does our taxes may well have a screenplay that he works on after the midnight hour? I think what is less clear, to many people, is just how much talent and creativity exists through all walks of life. Which is why books like this one is so important, because there is more genius in the working-class than anyone cares to notice. Blue-collar intellectuals have ideas that are vibrant, rooted in the everyday lives of real people. They are in a word, pragmatic. Which harkens back to something Eric Hoffer, once said, “America is the working man’s country.”
I ended up identifying with each of these thinkers in very different and yet profound ways, and I believe that the average reader will also. This is a book for anyone who believes that a life of the mind is best lived while living life in the real world, rather than chasing rainbows down rabbit holes.
However, the lack of blue-collar intellectuals today does much, I think, to explain the suffering of both the economy and blue-collar workers themselves. We are surrounded today by passive and meaningless entertainments that not only debases but detaches us from the great ideas and our common heritage. The real threat to the life of the mind today, as I see it, comes not from the people who burn or ban books, but so often, from the people who refuse to read them. To loosely paraphrase working-class heroes Archie and Edith Bunker, Mister we could really use a man like Milton Friedman again.