- - Friday, December 2, 2011


By Daniel J. Flynn
ISI Books, $27.95, 224 pages

In this thin volume, Daniel J. Flynn tells of an era that, if not exactly prelapsarian, was a time when a fair number of regular, walking-around Americans showed interest in the intellectual tradition of the West, and a small number of artists and thinkers catered to this desire for knowledge.

In a chunk of the mid-20th century, before the life of the mind retreated totally to the campus, built walls around itself and developed various obscure languages, a number of thinkers, many with working-class backgrounds, aspired to bring high culture to Everyman.

Mr. Flynn draws profiles of six of these: Eric Hoffer, Milton Friedman, Mortimer Adler, Ray Bradbury and Will and Ariel Durant. Their tools in this intellectual crusade were books - either their own books or, in the case of Adler’s Great Books of the Western World, the books of the recognized great thinkers of the West.

In the introduction to “Blue Collar,” Mr. Flynn, a friend of the written word and the life of the mind, takes aim at what he and many others see as pop culture’s current wasteland. Academic levelers receive their lumps for replacing Shakespeare and Dickens with comic books and video games. Multiculturalists are gigged for replacing books that contain the cornerstones of Western civilization with books by Guatemalan lesbians just because they’re by Guatemalan lesbians.

“Stupid is the new smart” is the opening sentence of the book. This is hard to dispute when professors at our more prestigious universities can insist that “World of Warcraft” is “not altogether different from ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ “

Mr. Flynn supports his portrait of cultural devolution by quoting contemporary writers and academics. Here are just a few: “Video gaming is just a new form of literacy.” “Reality shows challenge our emotional intelligence.” “Who cares if Johnny can’t read? The value of books is overstated.” “If you’re not on MySpace, you don’t exist.” And, “Watching cartoons is ‘a kind of mental calisthenics’ for small children.”

Mr. Flynn also takes academe to task for extreme specialization of scholarship and for adopting exotic languages that exclude the general public from whatever the scholars discover. The World Wide Web doesn’t escape his charges and specifications, either. He claims the Internet, which was supposed to open the world to us, has in fact made us more insular, with virtual life replacing real life.

By contrast, Mr. Flynn raises up those who, back in the cognitive age, attempted to bring learning to the general public, to spread knowledge and wisdom far and wide rather quarantining it on campus.

For decades, Will and Ariel Durant made best-sellers of their 11-volume “The Story of Civilization,” the final volume of which was “The Age of Napoleon” in 1975. “The Story of Civilization” of 1926 became the most unlikely blockbuster, remaining one of the top 10, nonfiction best-sellers for four years.

Mortimer Adler, who, like Will Durant, was born to limited means in the Northeast, wrote his own books, but his contribution to adult education in America was the Great Books of the Western World collection. Against serious odds, it became both an intellectual and a commercial success in the 1950s. Some doubtless used the handsome sets, unattended to, as furniture. But many read them and were lead by them to other reading.

Milton Friedman, the poor Brooklyn-born son of immigrants from Carpatho-Ruthenia, used his books, the most famous being “Capitalism and Freedom”; his Newsweek column; and a successful PBS television series, “Free to Choose,” to increase economic literacy in the land.

Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher, published “The True Believer” in 1951, one of the most insightful treatments of mass movements by one of the least likely intellectuals in history.

Ray Bradbury, the only one of Mr. Flynn’s blue-collar intellectuals still alive, was born in small-town Illinois but soon moved with his family to Los Angeles. In his career, he wrote charming and thoughtful short stories that celebrate family and small-town life. His best-known work is “Fahrenheit 451,” which tells of firemen who burn books, but it is really a caution about the danger posed by people who don’t read books.

Mr. Flynn’s brief for the life of books and the mind is compelling, and his profiles of intellectual heroes of modest beginnings are informative and affecting. Mr. Flynn’s previous books include “A Conservative History of the American Left,” “Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas” and “Why the Left Hates America.”

Larry Thornberry regularly writes for the American Spectator.

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