Over at the textured 'Against the Grain' blog Chis Blosser quotes Daniel Flynn. It is fascinating, especially for the people now engaging students who notice the decline in book reading. Is there a corresponding decline in reading in general, and what and how does it matter? Does the internet makes us stupid? Those and other questions are now being raising with frequency, even if few are paying attention to the answers.
Here is Flynn:
There was a massive demand for blue-collar intellectuals throughout much of the twentieth century because there was a massive demand for intellectual betterment. There isn't a massive supply of blue-collar intellectuals today because the enlightened do not feel a vocational pull to reach out to the everyman and the everyman expresses little demand for intellectual betterment. There is not even a consensus that reading means intellectual betterment, let alone what we should be reading.
A society in which it is maladaptive to discuss The Nicomachean Ethics, Othello, and The Federalist Papers is a maladaptive society. The cultural common denominators of the past aren't so common anymore. Once can reference The Simpsons or Anchorman or an Eminem lyric with the understanding that an educated audience will know what one is talking about. Try doing that with The Odyssey or Moby Dick even. What it means to be an educated person has changed for the worse.
The intellectual and the everyman suffer when the life of the mind is deemed the exclusive domain of intellectuals. Segregated from society by academic jargon, minute specialization, and outright snobbery, intellectuals descend into a ghetto of unintelligible babble remote from mass society. Similarly, today's middlebrow becomes yesterday's lowbrow when Tool Academy, Grand Theft Auto IV cage fighting and Internet pornography crowd out the pursuit of higher things within mass culture. Comfortable in the sensate cesspool demanding of neither the intellect nor the soul, the everyman makes no effort to ascend from the muck. Grateful for the status separation, the intellectual does nothing to raise the mass and everything to extenuate his privileged apartness.
"We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed," lamented W.A. Pannapacker, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "If we are determined to get on in life, we believe it will not have anything to do with our ability to reference Machiavelli or Adam Smith at the office Christmas party. The rejection of The Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment." [Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America]
Then there is also this partially dissenting comment in the combox -- from Lotus -- expressing an increasingly common multicultural contention:
"While I agree and bemoan the fact a lot of what general society thinks entertaining is lowbrow, part of the rejection of "The Great Books" even among intellectuals is the increasing awareness that only one story is told by those "great books": the story of heterosexual, cisgender, European men. Some segments of society, particularly people of color and women, reject the notion that those are the only stories worth telling. So the rejection of "The Great Books" isn't necessarily a sign society no longer believes in the soft arts. It is also a sign segments of society want a more inclusive intellectualism."
I wonder, sincerely, what are the books outside the longstanding Great Books Tradition that might be included in an expanded worthwhile reading list, especially for Christians.
Meanwhile, I will plug a book that suddenly comes to my own mind. Find and dust off a faded copy of John C. Wu's Beyond East and West, and follow along as a former agnostic/Confucian wrestles with his heritage and his newfound [Catholic] Christianity. Wu is rather colonialist in flavor, and also mildly self-aggrandizing, but he's still provocative. And for balance, there are also the trail markers in the opposite that can take you along path towards the spiritual breakdown that marked Thomas Merton's late life period. For those willing do do the web browsing. Anthony Clark provides the map: