Tim LacyThe Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and Great Books Idea

Palgrave Macmillan, 2013

by Lilian Calles Barger on February 24, 2015

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[Cross-posted from New Books in HistoryTim Lacy is an assistant professor and academic advisor at Loyola University Chicago. His specialties are intellectual history, cultural history, and the history of education. He is co-founder of both the U.S. Intellectual History blog and the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. In The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and Great Books Idea (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013)., Lacy provides a history of the post-war ascendancy and decline of the “Great Books” idea in popular education. By following the career of the philosopher, educator, and visionary Mortimer J. Adler, and his community of Chicago intellectuals, we gain a picture of how the idea of great books took hold in mid-century. Adler’s vision was to provide ordinary Americans with access to the greatest works of Western civilization from Homer to Freud in an intellectual movement toward what Lacy describes as a “democratic culture” of enlightened individuals. Adler’s How to Read a Book published in 1940 and the founding of the Great Books Foundation in 1947, sponsoring reading groups, propelled him as a public intellectual, popular promoter, and institution builder for the wide dissemination of “Great Ideas.” In 1952, Adler collaborated with the Encyclopedia Britannica Corporation to market an initial 54-volume set of Great Books of the Western World to status anxious middle-class Americans.  Lacy demonstrates the conflict fraught success between the desire to reinforce enduring and necessary ideas believed to be at the foundation of modern liberal society and capitalist markets demand for the commodification of all knowledge. The popularity of the book set elided the difference between consumption and enlightenment.  At the end of the century, Adler’s participation as a cultural war combatant and a new multicultural environment overshadowed his political  “common sense realism” that supported his vision of a “Great Conversation.”  By end of the century the idea of great books was increasingly viewed by critics as a conservative project championed by the New Right. Lacy has provided his readers with an illuminating history of an idea and its reception that marked the end of modernity in America.

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