Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Blue Collar Intellectuals by Daniel Flynn: A Book Review

Daniel Flynn’s “Blue Collar Intellectuals” tells the story of several prominent thinkers and writers of the mid-twentieth century who either came from working-class roots or who worked to make the life of the mind accessible to ordinary middle-class Americans.

He begins the book by offering a diagnosis of our current intellectual and cultural malaise, pointing out the prevalence of a vapid and vulgar pop-culture, a decreasing attention to reading and reflection among the general populace, an intellectual class that is more concerned with distinguishing itself from the world of ordinary people than speaking to them, and a shallow fascination with technological gimmickry even at erstwhile educational institutions. In short, the general populace is becoming dumber while the intellectual class is becoming more irrelevant to the life ordinary people live, and that is a bad thing for society. The people highlighted in this book did not see the intellectual life as a fashion accessory, but took pleasure in reading, learning, and thinking, and sought to share the joy they found in these pursuits with other ordinary people.

After the introduction, the book moves through chapters highlighting six public intellectuals including Will and Ariel Durant, Mortimer Adler, Milton Friedman, Eric Hoffer, and Ray Bradbury. The chapters contain a mixture of biography, highlights from the thought or writing of the subject, and Flynn’s own commentary. I was particularly excited to read the chapter on Ray Bradbury and it did not disappoint. I think the chapter I enjoyed and resonated with the most, however, was the one on Eric Hoffer. What’s great about a story like Hoffer’s and, for that matter, any of the characters in this book, is that it reminds you that anyone can develop a serious intellectual life just through taking the time to read and think. It inspired me to commit myself to more reading and writing.

Flynn’s writing style is straightforward without being boring, making the book an easy, enjoyable read. I appreciate the fact that he doesn’t engage in hagiography, but clearly shows his subjects as real people, both flawed and complex. If I had any complaint to make, it would be that occasionally Flynn throws a barb at intellectuals that comes across as unnecessarily defensive, even though I think much of the general criticism he directs at them is warranted. The book makes a good case for the importance of intellectuals who live outside the ivory tower and who seek to bring the life of the mind to ordinary people. I come from a blue collar background, and my own intellectual life was started by another blue collar intellectual of sorts, the late Francis Schaeffer, who played the same roll for many ordinary evangelical Christians that the individuals in this book played for mid-twentieth century middle-class Americans.

This book is important because at a time when our culture seems to be more and more inundated with mass media stupidity, and more and more people seem to devote less and less time to reading or thinking about things that matter, it serves as a reminder that the life of mind is not just some rarified club that only highly educated professionals can enter into. Anyone willing to devote the time and effort can participate in the great intellectual conversations of the ages.