How did we, as a culture, bridge the gap between a world full of “proletarian cognoscenti” and the feminized, privileged “egghead”? Lecklider points to the media coverage of the Manhattan Project, and, in particular, the postwar revelation of the secret planned community of scientific workers in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to argue that this was a watershed event in the intellectuals' retreat behind closed doors. After Hiroshima, that feeling of separation between everyday people and the intellectuals employed to think up the bomb got bigger, amplified by the terrifying consequences of all that brainwork. The press exacerbated the situation by pointing up the contrast between the Oak Ridge scientists and the rural Tennesseeans who lived nearby.
Lecklider’s story largely ends in the 1960s, leaving me to wonder how today’s popular culture might compare with his recovered pre-war “organic intellectual tradition.” It’s certainly not difficult to find the kind of widely available educational popular culture that Lecklider looks back upon with some nostalgia. Are MOOCs the new Chautauquas? What about a resource like Open Culture, a Web repository of freely available textbooks, lectures, movies, and language lessons? People really like the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. Is their brand of “educational fun,” with its flashy packaging and dubious content, the latter-day version of the Luna Park Institute of Science?
The growth of an increasingly powerful and specialized military-industrial complex built on eggheady science might be Lecklider’s most concrete historical explanation for intellectuals’ increasingly precarious position in mainstream culture. In a more speculative connection, he argues that intellectualism fell out of favor because it suited those who held power. If eggheads could be painted as a little bit Communist, maybe a little bit homosexual, that image would scare working-class people away from potentially empowering intellectual pursuits.
For all their wide availability, MOOCs rarely address open-ended, speculative topics. They’re overwhelmingly focused on technical and practical subjects—a few high-profile classes in modern poetry aside. They offer deliverables. A project like Open Culture is a firehose of accumulated resources, offered without a political agenda beyond general enrichment. Its very digital nature means that a certain segment of the population won’t have access to its riches.
As for popular “educational” TV, it’s full of Vikings, Nazis, and baby whisperers.
We still have programs that bring poetry into prisons, or give low-income adults free classes in the humanities. These labor-intensive, tiny, grass-roots programs might come the closest to providing a space for the kind of working-class intellectual empowerment Lecklider calls for in his conclusion.
Finally: Via ovicapitum dura est, but a majority of the electorate picked the notably eggheady Barack Obama—twice. This book shows that respect for intellectuals—especially ones that came from relatively humble roots, like the president—is an American tradition, too.
Inventing the Egghead by Aaron Lecklider. University of Pennsylvania Press.
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