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. 


BarelyKnitTogether said...

I think one of the most important words you used in this review is "reflection." We fill ourselves with bits and pieces of information, too much information, really, but move quickly on to the next thing, the next link, the next event the media tells us to focus on, without taking time to process the ideas and arguments we have so briefly skimmed.

We no longer have the depth and breadth of thought we once did, when life was lived at a more leisurely pace. The efficiency of technology has left us, amazingly, less time to reflect.

Gordon Hackman said...

Thanks for commenting! I completely agree with your observations. We are over saturated with information, but we lack any framework by which we can make sense of the information we receive or by which we can discern what is important from what is worthless. As a result we have become trivial and shallow people whose minds are filled with endless strings of disconnected facts but who lack knowledge or wisdom about the things that are most important. And yet, ironically, we are continually congratulating ourselves on how much smarter we are than almost everyone who came before us.

thekid said...

I loved this post, or rather reading about the book you reviewed. Sounds like something to strive for again - blue collar intellectuals. Your appreciation of Hoffer was so intriguing I looked him up on Wikipedia right away and what a life story! I wish I had time to read it myself but I just got The Great Lie in the mail last week along with some other great agrarian titles by Wirzba and other collections. Thanks for reading such interesting books and then sharing about them with the rest of us.

Gordon Hackman said...

Thanks sister! I agree Hoffer's life story is fascinating. I'm so drawn to the freedom he had to roam and experience different things and places. I wish I had the same freedom, though I suspect that it is ultimately for the good that I don't.

I also feel that blue collar intellectuals is something to strive for again, though I confess I am pessimistic about the likelihood of such a phenomenon becoming widespread. It seems our society is in a state of decline where such things are concerned, with the general populace become less inclined to engage in serious reading and reflection and more inclined to waste time on increasingly vulgar and stupid mass media entertainment, excessive busyness, and pointless consumption, at least if my experience of life in the Chicago suburbs in any indication of things.

I am excited to hear you received your copy of "the Great Lie" along with some other interesting titles. I have not really started seriously reading my copy yet. Maybe that is something we could jointly venture into at some point. Peace.

thekid said...

Hey, that's a great idea to read and reflect together! I know what you mean about doubting the potential to return to a place where the middle class is an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Achievable or not in the foreseeable future, we can at least begin with ourselves! Love ya bro!