Tim Lacy’s New Book at "Inside Higher Ed"

Last month we called your attention to Tim Lacy’s new book The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea.  It now seems the book has caught the attention of Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed who has devoted his weekly column to an interview with Lacy.  Here is a taste:

Q: Did you meet any resistance to working on Adler and the Great Books? They aren’t exactly held in the highest academic esteem.
A: The first resistance came late in graduate school, and after, when I began sending papers, based on my work, out to journals for potential publication. There I ran into some surprising resistance, in two ways. First, I noticed a strong reluctance toward acknowledging Adler’s contributions to American intellectual life. As is evident in my work and in the writings of others (notably Joan Shelley Rubin and Lawrence Levine, but more recently in Alex Beam), Adler had made a number of enemies in the academy, especially in philosophy. But I had expected some resistance there. I know Adler was brusque, and had written negatively about the increasing specialization of the academy (especially in philosophy but also in the social sciences) over the course of the 20th century.
The second line of resistance, which was somewhat more surprising, came because I took a revisionist, positive outlook on the real and potential contributions of the great books idea. Of course this resistance linked back to Adler, who late in his life — in concert with conservative culture warriors — declared that the canon was set and not revisable. Some of the biggest promoters of the great books idea had, ironically, made it unpalatable to a great number of intellectuals. I hadn’t anticipated the fact that Adler and the Great Books were so tightly intertwined, synonymous even, in the minds of many academics.

4 thoughts on “Tim Lacy’s New Book at "Inside Higher Ed"

  1. Thx for the clarification, Tim— although we're aware of several of your peers in the Chicago area who are [politely] not in your league. But I'll leave you out of my screeds henceforth: I'm not the sort of fellow whose endorsements are ever likely to be helpful in academy.

    As for the fate of the Great Books project itself, I maintain that even if it rejects them–and at least Searle agrees it does–modernity should justify itself before them in the Great Conversation of the ages. History, intellectual or otherwise, does not start with the morning paper, or with the 19th century.

    And as for Shannon, yeah, there's that. Like the Great Books, the refusal to engage him is painfully conspicuous. But we all soldier on the best we can. ;-P


  2. TVD: I appreciate your sympathy for my position, but I am gainfully employed in higher education and have held faculty appointments (p-t and f-t). I could probably have a f-t/t-t position if I weren't geographically (self) limited. Even though I met some surprising resistance when it came to publishing *early* in my career, that's not what has limited my career. I've published in well-respected peer-reviewed journals and this book got published in specialized series by a highly respected trade press. So it's not my work on the great books idea, Adler, or Britannica that has limited my prospects. The academy does have a supply problem in terms of f-t/t-t jobs. That's been a hassle. But that situation is the result of historical development, not necessarily “corruption.” It's context and family/personal circumstances that have kept me from obtaining a f-t/t-t position. – TL


  3. I notice several worthy scholars such as Lacy and Chris Shannon seem to have had trouble winning faculty appointments while mediocrities have no trouble atall–if they play along with the academy's intellectual corruption.

    Indeed, even though Tim's “revisionism” and political sympathies are largely with “the club,” he is included out, for he poses a danger: The Great Books contain truths that are subversive of the modern project.

    JOHN SEARLE: Notwithstanding its opaque prose, Giroux's message should be clear: the aim of a liberal education is to create political radicals, and the main point of reading the “canon” is to demythologize it by showing how it is used as a tool by the existing system of oppression. The traditional argument that the humanities are the core of a liberal education because of the intrinsic intellectual and aesthetic merits and importance of the works of Plato, Shakespeare, or Dante is regarded with scorn. Giroux again:

    “The liberal arts cannot be defended either as a self-contained discourse legitimating the humanistic goal of broadly improving the so-called “life of the mind” or as a rigorous science that can lead students to indubitable truths.”

    So the frustrating feature of the recent debate is that the underlying issues seldom come out into the open. Unless you accept two assumptions, that the Western tradition is oppressive, and that the main purpose of teaching the humanities is political transformation, the explicit arguments given against the canon will seem weak: that the canon is unrepresentative, inherently elitist, and, in a disguised form, political.


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