My grandfather was a self-educated man; it’s unclear whether he even made it to high school, yet he picked up a Masters Degree in Real Life via a voracious reading habit and thirty years in the Marine Corps. Of the many books he cherished, there was one he esteemed above all others: The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. This general survey of the greatest thinkers of all time was the only book he refused to lend me–as he simply could not bear to part with it.
On an unconscious level I always understood that my grandfather’s situation and station were unique to his era; I certainly couldn’t have gotten as far as he did with so little formal schooling. But my analysis never went much deeper than that. Now Daniel J. Flynn has written a fascinating book that fleshes out this singular phenomenon in American history and gives people like my grandfather a name: The Blue Collar Intellectuals. This slim volume, published by ISI Books, is intended more as a primer than an in-depth study, yet Flynn manages to give the reader much to ponder over the course of 150 pages. Unconsciously mimicking the style of his own blue-collar hero Eric Hoffer, Flynn has divided the narrative into five sections, each dealing with a different intellectual (or, in the case of Will and Ariel Durant, a pair of intellectuals). In addition to Hoffer, the so-called “Longshoreman Philosopher,” and the Durants, authors of the preposterously ambitious Story of Civilization series, Flynn profiles Mortimer Adler, founder of the Great Books program (the series of hard-bound classic texts and the discussion groups that emerged around them); Milton Friedman, the storied, libertarian-leaning economist; and Ray Bradbury, that giant of science fiction and fantasy literature who passed away not long after this book’s release.
From the very first page it’s apparent that this is a personal, idiosyncratic project for Mr. Flynn, who previously made his mark with such explicitly political fare as A Conservative History of the American Left and Intellectual Morons. Regardless of topic, Flynn always presents his ideas in a catchy, epigrammatic style that lends itself well to being read aloud. In this respect his work has long borne the stamp of the blue collar intellectuals. It’s no coincidence that Flynn is, as his bio states, “a popular radio guest and frequent speaker on college campuses.”
“I can relate to blue collar intellectuals because I am one,” he tells me. “I earned a scholarship to college by delivering the Boston Globe for five years, starting when I was eight. I hauled hot-dogs in the dog days of August up Fenway Park’s bleachers. I served as a gunner in a Light Armored Vehicle in the Marines. Thankfully, now, I write. A premise of the book is that the intellectual and the everyman are both better off when they mix than when they are apart.”
In Flynn’s estimation, a blue collar intellectual possesses two primary characteristics: first, he comes from a working class background. He may or may not have attained a college degree–which is by no means a requirement to write authoritatively on a topic. Indeed, Hoffer and Bradbury seem to have educated themselves entirely from books (the latter boasting, according to Flynn, to have “graduated from the Los Angeles Public Library”). Second, the blue collar intellectual is more inclined, perhaps as a result of said background, to write for a mass audience than for fellow academics. This makes sense: the blue collar intellectual essentially writes for “the common man,” that is, a man like himself. This “pandering” approach partly explains the long-term hostility held by many establishment academics toward these renegade educators: the academics, locked in that endless cycle of writing and publishing exclusively for each other, secretly yearn for the popular appeal that comes so easily to their blue collar counterparts. They may also envy the blue-collar intellectual’s natural gift for showmanship: a necessary trait if one is to gain and hold peoples’ attention, but one that is lacking in the many academics who, to their great folly, either ignore or take that attention for granted. All of the personalities profiled in this book were quite comfortable on the public stage and were adept at exploiting the media to ensure maximum exposure. Hoffer, in particular, hammed it up in TV appearances with his longshoreman’s outfits, cigars, and “gee whiz” persona. Even the relatively stilted Friedman endeared himself (and his ideas) to millions of viewers via his TV series Free to Choose. He had the common touch and knew how to work it.
“There’s a tendency to think that Milton Friedman was born bald in a banker’s suit and nerd glasses in the University of Chicago economics department,” Flynn says. “He wasn’t. He grew up in Rahway, New Jersey, scooped ice cream in his parents’ shop, sold fireworks by the roadside, and earned a state scholarship to Rutgers. There, discovering a tradition of green ties and white socks for freshmen, he sold the items door-to-door. He waited tables for the promise of a mere lunch. He partnered with Barnes & Noble in a book-buyback scheme. His work in the economy prefaced his thoughts on the economy. He practiced entrepreneurship before he praised it.
“Contrast Friedman’s background to the other great economist of the twentieth century: John Maynard Keynes. The son of an academic and a social-gospel do-gooder, Keynes attended Eton and Cambridge, cavorted with an aristocratic, free-love clique and worked exclusively in government and academia. Keynes’s economics resided in the ether because he did.”
Obviously, a writer need not have sprung from blue collar roots to have broad appeal. The exceedingly upper-crust William F. Buckley Jr. managed to score a surprise hit with his book God and Man at Yale at around the same time that the blue collar intellectuals emerged into public view. Conversely, there have certainly been academics from working class backgrounds who made no attempt to present their ideas to the masses. But Flynn convincingly makes the case that for a brief moment in American history a concerted effort was made on the part of popular writers and thinkers to elevate the masses, and by any measure their efforts proved more effective and farther-reaching than subsequent Washington-instigated social engineering initiatives. People like my grandfather could not get enough of the blue collar intellectuals’ brand of self-service education, and the benefits of this pursuit proved self-evident: Robert Michael Lurie climbed, fairly rapidly, from the level of “mud Marine” to the higher echelons of the airline industry, at one point piloting the likes of Emerson Fitipaldi and Arnold Palmer around the world. Did he owe this spectacular ascent to Will and Ariel Durant? Not exactly; but if he were here today, he would probably be the first to admit that the works of the Durants and others of their ilk fired his imagination and his desire to learn more about the great ideas and thinkers of Western Civilization. This undoubtedly helped him immeasurably when he found himself rubbing elbows with colleagues and employers who hailed from radically different social and educational backgrounds than his own.
So what happened to the blue collar intellectual, now so conspicuously absent from the landscape? “The everyman extends his arms ever lower rather than reaching higher as he did during the twentieth century,” Flynn says. “Perhaps for reasons of supply and demand, few blue collar intellectuals now attempt to uplift a mass audience.
“One of the great ironies of our age is that the smartest people have dedicated their lives to making everyone dumber. The technological gizmos and gadgets that captivate seemingly everybody under the age of 40 serve to dull and distract our minds. How we use our leisure time is largely a waste of time. Shakespeare didn’t Tweet. Neither did Ray Bradbury, who recently passed away. Bradbury wrote more than six-hundred enduring stories without the benefit of computers, the internet, or eReaders. He relied on his imagination, which is a casualty of the onslaught of the passive entertainment that he decried. It’s important to remember that before the state burned books in Fahrenheit 451, the people stopped reading them.”
Ironically, a small shred of hope can be found via the very technologies that on a mass scale destroyed the demand for self-education. The ubiquitous iPad and iPhone, for example, contain options for downloading–for free–actual university courses in the sciences and humanities via iTunes U. Also, at nearly any public library in the country one can rent numerous Great Courses on CD, MP3 or streaming audio. “Smart is there if you look for it,” Flynn concedes. But his larger point–that “smart” is no longer popular, as it once was, and that we have no modern, large-scale equivalents to the Great Books, University-of-the-Air radio programs, National Educational Television, and the Little Blue Books–is unassailable. The History Channel and The Discovery Channel are, for the most part, watered-down substitutes. And PBS and NPR, propped up by government funding, are not exactly wolfed down by the working class.
This state of affairs should be of great importance to all Americans. Yet Flynn addresses his book primarily to fellow conservatives–a narrow focus that at first seems a drawback to a project that, theoretically, could have had much larger scope and appeal. Yet Flynn may not have had a choice here: despite the progressive, egalitarian impulse that gave rise to the blue collar intellectuals’ efforts in the first place, and despite the fact that the Durants, Hoffer, and Adler were explicitly of the left, nearly all of their work would now be deemed, at best, old-fashioned, and at worst, conservative or even reactionary. And this is not even a recent development: Flynn documents the absurd criticism raised at the time of the Great Books’ unveiling that there were no Asian works included in the supposedly comprehensive set. This critique, of course, spectacularly missed the point that the full name of Adler’s series was Great Books of The Western World. 60 years later, I’m still waiting for the corresponding outrage over the fact that European authors have been left out of the Chinese Classics.
The larger point here is that the Great Books in particular, and the efforts of the blue collar intellectuals in general, came under fire from the reigning intelligentsia for being out of step with the times. The authors of the Great Books, after all, had the singular misfortune of being dead, white, and almost exclusively male. What could they possibly have to say to a changing world in which the old oppressive hierarchies were being upended? Eric Hoffer, in many respects a very modern writer sympathetic to the liberal impulse, committed the cardinal sin of suggesting that rapid change might not be a particularly healthy development vis a vis the long-term stability of a society. Will Durant–that fetishist of the past–had the temerity to esteem classical philosophy and literature above modern works, and paraphrased Burke by stating that, in history, “the brake is more important than the gas.” Friedman, the oblivious iconoclast, advocated the rollback of both wage controls and the welfare state at the very height of Great Society fervor. And Bradbury, particularly in his dystopian novel Farenheit 451, trained his gunsights on political correctness and its stifling effect on discourse. In retrospect, he got off the lightest, but not without seeing his own anti-censorship novel edited and re-released by its publisher in a special “school-appropriate” edition. This truncated version of Farenheit persisted in classrooms for more than a decade over the vehement objections of its author.
We know who ultimately won the battle between the left-leaning academics and the Western Civilization aficionados: no one. Now, neither the Great Books nor the Chinese Classics are widely read. The canon has been replaced with…nothing. The Left’s demand that English Departments emphasize multiculturalism for multiculturalism’s sake has resulted in a watered-down reading list that may satisfy racial and gender quotas but does little to edify the mind. What’s more, the monster is eating itself. African-American author Richard Wright’s hard-won place on high school and college reading lists is already eroding as skittish instructors increasingly balk at the prospect of teaching his challenging, brutal, sometimes profane books to students who have had all of their Mark Twain scrubbed out of them. Wright–an author who, like Twain, made the fatal mistake of putting the N-word in the mouths of racist characters–is out of step.
The blue collar intellectuals represented, in many ways, the parting shots from the old guard. They were responsible for a tantalizing moment in our cultural history when construction workers and housewives sat around folding tables discussing Plato during weekly Great Books meetings and mud Marines gobbled up the latest Durant tome. They counted among their number a longshoreman who made a significant contribution to philosophical discourse. Nowadays we settle for Joe the Plumber.
“I hope the book inspires readers to learn that people from ordinary backgrounds are capable of extraordinary achievements,” Flynn says. “I think Ray Bradbury got education right and we get it wrong. We are obsessed with higher education as a credential. All that matters is the piece of paper we get after four years. Ray Bradbury could have cared less about what a guy in a funny Medieval get-up handed him at the commencement ceremony. What mattered to him was the education part. What you learned, not where you learned it, is a better indicator of one’s contributions to culture.”
Kudos to Daniel Flynn for his commendable efforts to bring these righteous iconoclasts back into the spotlight. Long may they endure.
-Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church