Whether one is playing football, campaigning for President, fighting a battle or commenting on the week’s events, the best ideas tend to be the ones that occur to one on the spur of the moment. My subjects today—which marks the beginning of a new era on History Unfolding, since last week’s post will be the last in a book that will be available within one or two weeks—come from today’s New York Times, where articles in the Week in Review on the one hand and the Book Review on the other provide a fascinating perspective on the last fifty years or so. We are now entering the fourth great crisis of American national life, parallel to those of 1774-1794, 1857-68, and 1929-45, and I suspect that analogies to those periods will become more frequent here in the weeks and years to come, but as we await the advent of the new Administration I shall take a moment to look once again at a different range of issues.
The period 1946-64, in which the 1950s fall squarely in the middle, represented the outcome, the achievement, of the last crisis: two decades of national consensus, steady economic growth, and social conservatism. Economic and social policy focused on the common man, whose taxes and mortgage rates were relatively low and who established new suburban communities all over the country. The Great Depression, even more than the Second World War, was the critical event in the lives of everyone over 35, and public policy put a premium on preventing another one. Fiscal and monetary policy and programs like unemployment insurance and help for depressed areas were designed to keep unemployment relatively low, and government took various steps when (as in 1957-8) a recession took place. Those institutions survived the High and lasted through the Awakening (1965-84), even as the attention of younger Americans turned in new directions. They helped get through a fairly severe recession in the mid-1970s and a very bad one in the early 1980s. But as today’s Week in Review points out, beginning with the Reagan Administration, federal protection against hardship began to erode. Unemployment insurance is much less generous than it used to be, and Bill Clinton drastically cut back welfare. Thanks to our extraordinarily profligate tax and foreign policy over the last eight years, we now face skyrocketing unemployment without much of a safety net, and with an existing deficit that is likely to get close to $1 trillion annually over the next few years—a challenge that is absolutely unprecedented. And the large new Millennial generation, like their GI grandparents, has the worst job prospects since the 1930s. I recently learned that of this year’s Harvard graduates who pursued careers in investment banking, consulting, and related fields, only about 20% got any job interviews. Not jobs—interviews. Things will get worse before they get better because no one under 70 has any real memories of a time when things were this bad.
That was one of the strengths of the 1950s—the thrift, caution, and provision for the common man and the common future that had grown out of the trauma of the Depression. The provision for the common man was being extended to black Americans as the civil rights movement increased in strength, and the climax of that process—the passage of the great laws of 1964-5—marked the end of the High. It did not however extend (except indirectly) to the common woman, who did not begin to assert herself until the Awakening, much less to those with different sexual proclivities. Meanwhile, however, the age suffered from another huge problem—a certain emotional and intellectual sterility, reflected, as the other item in today’s Times suggests, in the 1950s concept of what constituted an educated person.
That item is a review of a new book by Alex Beam, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, about one of the great publishing products of the 1950s, the Great Books of the Western World, jointly sponsored by Robert Hutchins, the President of the University of Chicago, and the Philosopher Mortimer Adler. Comprising 54 volumes of hundreds to thousands of pages, it purported to put together the best that had been thought and said since ancient Greece. Mass-produced and standardized, printed in double columns, it looks today a bit like a fleet of 1957 Plymouths, more impressive in monstrosity than seductive in beauty—and the double columns and small type made reading any of it a far too intimidating process. My own father knew Adler well, having been a participant in Aspen institute seminars in 1953 and 1954, experiences which gave me my first exposure to the American West. We acquired a set almost at once and I recall my father promising me a new car if I could read it all by the end of high school (I was the bookworm in the family.) I didn’t ever contemplate taking him up on the offer, but I did dip in and out of some of the books for a while. I probably spent more time with the Euclid volume than any of the others and was impressed by its inexorable logic, but I also remember dipping into the Marx and the Freud. Looking back at the list of 51 volumes today, however, I can see why I was not inspired. (The actual collection included 54 volumes but three of those were commentary and index.)
The idea of a canon of great books still appeals to me, and I have discussed many of my own candidates here from time to time, but such a list, to have real impact, must be living, not dead. Adler and Hutchins seem to have regarded our intellectual heritage rather like the Louvre; their selection was extraordinarily biased towards the distant past. They arranged the 51 volumes chronologically, and the first 17 came from the ancient world and from the middle ages. The next 29 came from the Renaissance the Early Modern period, with only 12 coming from the period after the French Revolution, and only two—William James and Freud—touching directly on their own twentieth century. This was surely a collection devoted to the foundations of western civilization, but without much regard for those who had elaborated upon those foundations.
The selection of subject matter was also interesting. Fiction, drama, and poetry accounted for 17 of the volumes, beginning with Homer and concluding with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Second in popularity was philosophy, with 13, followed by science with 7, history with 6, political theory with 4, and economics and psychology 2 each (Adam Smith and Marx/Engels for the former, Williams James and Freud for the latter.) Cultural bias was apparent in a number of ways. The overwhelming majority of the book included were originally written in either Greek, Latin, or English—and yes, there was not a single woman or nonwhite in the list.
The men who put this collection together had gone to college early in the twentieth century, and their teachers had done so late in the nineteenth. That accounts, undoubtedly, for the almost unbelievable prejudice they showed against the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—the aspect of their selection which makes it seem, frankly, so extraordinarily dead. The youngest writers of English fiction that they chose to include were Henry Fielding and Herman Melville—no Dickens, no Jane Austen or George Eliot, no Shaw or Wordsworth or Keats or Lawrence or Yeats. Their neglect of modern French was even more amazing, since they omitted Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal, Zola and Proust. Educated, folk, evidently, had no need to be acquainted with the modern realist tradition in literature. My own field of history was represented by Herodutus and Thucydides, Plutarch and Tacitus, and Gibbon; even Ranke, Burckhardt, Mommsen, Parkman, Macaulay, Henry Adams and Michelet , among many others, were too young to include. The most astonishing omissions of all, to me, are those two contemporaries from the first half of the nineteenth century, Tocqueville and Clausewitz, whose analyses of the key problems of our age—democracy and war—have never been surpassed.
I can see now that I entered college in 1965 at a particularly promising moment, because American undergraduate education was beginning to fill some of these gaps. I was thoroughly introduced to Tocqueville and to modern French literature during my college years, as well as to twentieth-century poetry, and had some exposure to Clausewitz as a graduate student. Unfortunately, at that very moment, the Vietnam War and the feminist revolution turned the academics of the Silent and Boom generations against the whole enterprise of western civilization and a different kind of decline of the humanities began. One example is Frederick Jameson, from whom I took an extraordinary course on French writers of the left and right between the wars in the spring of 1967. Jameson at that time was expanding the western tradition of eclectic scholarship, drawing on insights from films, for instance, as well as from the French classics, to illuminate people like Céline, Nizan, and Louis Aragon. After being let go by Harvard (as I later was myself) he has achieved greater eminence at Duke, but has lapsed into an essentially sterile combination of Marxism and postmodernism. That in a nutshell is the story of American academia over the last 40 years.
During the last twenty years the Library of America has done an extraordinary job of publishing the great works, fictional and non-fictional, of American civilization. An intrepid reader of that entire collection would, I think, be far better prepared to understand the challenges of the modern world than anyone who took up my father’s challenge, or, for that matter, than a graduate of St. John’s College, which still bases its curriculum on the traditional great books. A college whose humanities departments focused on the truly great achievements of the last three centuries of western civilization would, I think, become the most popular in the United States within five years. (The historian /Alan Kors, who was educated about five years before I was, recently made a similar point.) Alas, the will—and now, the money—for such a project are lacking. I shall be too old to participate when its time comes, but those who undertake it will be fortunate indeed.