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Great Books As Weapons

From this article: “During the Cold War, the CIA loved literature — novels, short stories, poems. Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov. Books were weapons, and if a work of literature was unavailable or banned in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, it could be used as propaganda to challenge the Soviet version of reality. Over the course of the Cold War, as many as 10 million copies of books and magazines were secretly distributed by the agency behind the Iron Curtain as part of a political warfare campaign.”

Even Britannica’s *Great Books* set was used in this effort. I hope to document and discuss this, as well as other international/transnational uses of the great books idea, in my next book project. – TL

A Great Books Sensibility: Call for Comments

Yesterday at the USIH blog I put up this post on the notion of “a great books sensibility.” It’s the first of what will be three or four such essays. Please check it out and leave a comment. I plan on using this theory in an upcoming book, and would like critical feedback so as to develop more nuance. – TL

Not Hegemonic Enough: Deneen on Conservative Great Books Promoters

I hadn’t read, until recently, either this Jan. 2013 piece or the one Patrick Deneen wrote in March 2010 when I was working on my book. But in the more recent article he makes the case I make in my work. Namely, if conservatives and liberals really understood what constituted “the books movement” and the mid-century liberals (and moderates) who promoted it, their roles might’ve been reversed during the canon battles of the Culture Wars.

Note how Deneen wants to promote, ironically, a more narrow form of “critical thinking” (his quotes, not mine) that leads to particular truths (i.e. humility, limits, virtue). He complains, in essence, that conservatives who promote great books haven’t been hegemonic enough in their aspirations. They need to aspire to rid the great books idea of contradictions, but especially of works that promote empiricism, positivism, relativism, and scientism (e.g. from authors such as Bacon, Hobbes, and Dewey).

On the plus side, it’s nice to see Deneen acknowledge that not all invocations of “great books” are the same. – TL

[Note: Updated 2 pm, 2/18/2014]

The Fallacy of Conflating Educational Gains With Economic Prosperity

Based on numbers from the Economic Policy Institute, the Atlanta Journal Constitution‘s Maureen Downey reported the following yesterday:

Low-wage workers have far more education now than they did back in 1968. In 1968, 48 percent of low-wage workers had a high school degree, compared to 79 percent in 2012. Correspondingly, many more low-wage workers have attended at least some college or have a college degree, which the graph identifies as ‘college experience.’ While only 16.8 percent of low-wage workers in 1968 had gone to some college or had a college degree, that group had grown to nearly half (45.7 percent) by 2012.

The bottom line is that minimum wage in 2013 is far less now than it was in 1968 despite the economy’s productivity more than doubling, and low-wage workers attaining far more education.

But our leaders keep telling us that more education will solve all of our nation’s economic problems! On the contrary, this is *precisely* how we devalue education in America. Read more…

Humanities Relevance as a Zero-Sum Game

I’m a little late to this party started by Natalia Cecire, but I really appreciate her piece. I would only modify it to say that even some humanities professors don’t appreciate the revisionist nature and ongoing relevance of the field. Some have a vested interest in a certain line of interpretation and hold out, contrary to all evidence, against new views. They are constricted by a fear that their past (or present) work will be deemed automatically irrelevant by reinterpretations. I know, for instance, one prominently placed history professor who persistently and negatively reviewed my Adler projects. That one person caused my work to be rejected, explicitly, by one journal and two publishing houses. Who knows how many others were influenced by that person’s views. And I know of *worse* stories from other humanities colleagues. New research can feel threatening the humanities establishment. Relevance is a zero-sum game to those folks.

Back to Cecire’s piece, here’s a long passage that I particularly appreciated: Read more…

The Warm Dream of Intellectual Awakening

I just read this. I’m not impressed.

The author sells the warm dream of intellectual awakening, but ignores the cold realities of indebtedness and, more importantly, a political climate that has fostered job stagnation.

Apart from that, all three of the following sentences from Andrew Simmons—read in the context of his piece—are flat-out false: Read more…

Archives Morality Tale

I’m writing an article on the Catholic conversion of Mortimer J. Adler. As of this morning I’m down to the final ten percent of the piece (I am limited to 10,000 words).

It’s turning out, here in the final stages of writing, that the most important piece of my puzzle of a story is a fall 1936 letter written by Adler to Harold Wechsler. Adler’s University of Chicago appointment was tri-partite (law, psychology, philosophy), so some of his work brought him into contact with law professors like Wechsler, who was at Columbia University. But this letter ranged far beyond legal research matters. In it Adler laid out the larger context of his potential conversion (as he saw it), his reasons for converting, his desire to convert, and the obstacles to conversion. It’s a proverbial gold mine.

In the context of research, the most fascinating thing about the letter—which I found during 2003-05 period of archival work at the University of Chicago—is that Wechsler is not mentioned a single time in either of Adler’s autobiographies (i.e. Philosopher at Large, 1977, or A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror, 1992). Since Adler converted to Catholicism in 1999, I wouldn’t expect him to see, retrospectively, this particular 1936 letter as important. Rather, the letter displays a depth of knowledge Wechsler has about Adler, as evident in the highly personal confessions in this letter. Indeed the letter rivals a few I’ve seen from Adler to his best friend, Robert Hutchins, in terms of Adler pouring out his mind. In relation to my project, I think the letter both explains why Adler didn’t convert in the 1930s and why he did the deed in 1999. It’s an amazing find.

The moral of the story is this: No matter how much you think you know about a person, through their published works of memoir or autobiography (in this case two!) and otherwise, the archives will still surprise you. Not only does Wechsler’s name not come up in Adler’s autobiographies, but his name is also rare within even Adler’s archived correspondence (housed at U of C, but also Syracuse University, University of Texas, and some at the University of Nebraska). Anyway, always go to the archives. If you don’t, you’re shorting yourself and your subject.

I’m so happy that I spent so much time at the U of C’s Regenstein. And I’m very happy now, in retrospect, about the money I spent copying letters, lectures, and other documents. The coin lost was painful at the time, as my spouse will attest, but it’s been very useful as my scholarship has progressed. That money spent ten years ago, and the findings it obtained for me, are still bearing fruit even after publication of The Book. – TL


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