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Max Lerner’s America

America as a Civilization,
by Max Lerner.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957, 1,011 pp.

Russell Kirk

By attempting to discuss everything in America, Professor Lerner succeeds in analyzing nothing well. Pretentious and shallow, America as a Civilization offers little insight into the culture of the United States. As a textbook, whether in college or high school, it is lamentably inadequate and prejudiced. What a book with such a title ought to be, one may find in Dr. John U. Nef’s The United States and Civilization (1942 [1967]), a work now unfortunately out of print—although Professor Nef concerns himself principally with America’s debt to European culture.

Mr. Lerner, on the contrary, is a 100 per cent American of a peculiar sort: he looks upon the United States as having a culture all its own, distinct from that of the Old World. But his is not the view of the old-fashioned patriotic historian. No, the America which Mr. Lerner eulogizes is a centralized, secularized, more or less collectivized society, a Brave New World in process of development. His book is curiously smug, and his tone is very like that of Cyrus P. Whittle, in Santayana’s novel The Last Puritan. Whittle, the iconoclastic Yankee schoolmaster, delights in demolishing the reputations of all men commonly accounted good and great. “Not that Mr. Cyrus P. Whittle was without enthusiasm and a secret religious zeal,” Santayana writes.

Formerly a leading American radical, a disciple of Marx and Veblen, Mr. Lerner was editor of The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, editor of the Nation, and editorial director of the fellow-traveling newspapers PM and the Star. Nowadays he has settled down into a comfortable income, a professorship at Brandeis University, and a daily column in the New York Post—in which last capacity he dedicates himself, in considerable part, to what he considers the cause of sexual enlightenment. Having decided that the Soviets, after all, have gone too far and too fast, he issues some perfunctory warnings against Communist power in the pages of America as a Civilization; but what he really things a menace is American Fascism, as in this passage (p. 943):

The greatest civil danger is that of the growth of an adventurist nationalist movement which would create a police state under the guise of saving the country from totalitarianism and would ally itself with the military elite. But if this were ever to happen it would be only as a consequence of a world atomic war or as prelude to it: America has shown the capacity to survive this kind of crisis short of a nuclear war.

America as a Civilization, nevertheless, is a far cry from the radical pronunciamentos of yesteryear. Complacent generally in tone, and endeavoring to create the impression of a middle-of-the-road approach, Mr. Lerner nowadays seems, rather, what the late Gordon Keith Chalmers of Kenyon College called a “disintegrated liberal.” Disavowing nearly all standards, and setting no real goals for human existence except a vague democratic togetherness, with material prosperity, the book is oddly amorphous and purposeless, as well as verbose. Mr. Dwight Macdonald, writing in Partisan Review, remarks that Dr. Lerner endeavors to displease nobody. The tremendous list of acknowledgements which Mr. Lerner appends to his second volume suggests that he endeavored to thank everyone likely to review this immense manual. (This is also an overwhelming bibliography; but some references therein suggest that Mr. Lerner has no more than glanced at some of the works he recommends—if that.)

Yet despite his patent desire to please, Mr. Lerner’s enormous book met with a harshly critical press, promptly upon publication. The reviews in Virginia Quarterly Review, Commentary, Encounter, and other serious magazines were written in vitriol, and by people of various persuasions; while the attitude of such popular media as Time was no kinder. In general, the reviewers declared, roundly and justly, that America as a Civilization is superficial, unimaginative, and almost formless, as well as grossly unfair in various particulars.

Despite this critical failure, the book has been widely adopted as a text in colleges, and even in some high schools. That teachers should admire it suggests some of the fundamental faults of American education today. That the book is more like a popular encyclopedia or a mail-order catalogue than like a genuine work of scholarly criticism, seemed actually to gain it favor in the eyes of many college instructors; for their own education, even in graduate school, has been similarly hasty, summary, and lacking in depth. That the work mentions thousands of names, of everyone from philosophers to professional athletes, without any adequate description of almost any leading American, living or dead, seems to suit the mediocre teacher handsomely. In fine, the work is pedantic: it makes a show of broad learning, without much substance.

Also the book is bookish, in the bad sense of that term. Lerner does not examine American life, but only books about American life; everything is at second or third hand. What we get is not a survey of American civilization, but rather a survey of what some Liberals have written about American civilization, as understood and summarized by a gentleman whose life is spent in Manhattan or on an Eastern campus. Thus somehow the book seems unreal, despite Mr. Lerner’s pose of remorseless realist. He accepts almost without question the conclusion of behavioristic sociologists and political scientists; and the writings of Mr. David Riesman seem to have influenced him considerably. Of political historians, Professor Louis Hartz—himself perhaps the most pedantic and abstract of professors of politics—has strongly affected the tone of America as a Civilization.

In colleges, this book’s omnium-gatherum approach is sure to be confusing, and to give the average student an impression that he has learned all about America, when in fact, all he has obtained is a blur of names and a collection of Mr. Lerner’s personal likes and dislikes. In high schools, the influence of this book would be chaotic; indeed, it is hard to see how it could be taught at all. For Mr. Lerner’s method is deliberately and affectedly allusive: that is, Professor Lerner, in part to impress the reader with the vastness of his learning, refers in almost every other sentence to books, persons, and events with which the reader is presumed to be familiar. Since almost no high-school student has one-quarter of the historical and political and literary and scientific background necessary for any decent understanding of these allusions, a high-school class must be left wholly at sea—except so far as the teacher provides a gloss. But how many high-school teachers really are competent to judge of this mass of allusions? How competent, indeed, is Mr. Lerner himself?

For blunders in fact or interpretation may be found scattered throughout the text—often errors that very few teachers or students are prepared to detect. Take, for instance, Mr. Lerner’s remarks on a well-known case of the violation of academic freedom—the discharge of Professor Frank Richardson at the University of Nevada in 1953 (name and date, however, not given by Mr. Lerner, in his account on p. 746). He says that “a professor critical of the educational policies of the president was ousted after a public hearing; he found it hard to explain to the substantial citizens why the running of a college should be different from that of a business organization by the ‘boss’ or a football team by the coach.” In fact, Professor Richardson’s hearing was not public; and it was not the “substantial citizens” of Nevada who failed to support him, for professional people of Reno were active in his cause, and both the state legislature and the supreme court of Nevada sustained him. The people who failed him were his own colleagues on the university’s faculty. (See this reviewer’s book Academic Freedom, pp. 57–72.)

Or for another instance of this inaccuracy, take Mr. Lerner’s remarks (p. 735) on teachers:

The continuing local control of the schools has given the big taxpayer groups a stake in holding school expenses down, and a strategic position that helps them keep the winds of dangerous doctrine out of the schoolroom. It accounts for much of the constriction of opinion, the seediness, and provincialism to be found in the school systems of many smaller American communities. It accounts for the exodus of male teachers from the profession, since an ill-paid teacher is not a free man—hemmed in by narrow community mores and a vigilant censorship of his every move—and has little standing either with his pupils or the community.

Here error is compounded. In actuality, the proportion of male teachers in our schools has been increasing steadily in recent years. Teachers’ salaries, also, have been rising rapidly since the Second World War, more rapidly than those of any other professional group except physicians, so that nowadays, in most communities, teaching is one of the better-rewarded occupations—especially in view of steady employment over many years, without risk. And the identification of freedom with prosperity is quite false.

To list all Mr. Lerner’s sophistical misinterpretations and misrepresentations would require a book at least as long and as turgid as his own. It may be said in his defense that in so sweeping a survey of America as a Civilization, some slips are bound to occur. True: but if so many errors can be detected by any well-informed reader, should not Professor Lerner have taken a less omniscient stand, and have confined his book to subjects with which he is better acquainted?

In the preceding passage about local control of schools, by the way, Mr. Lerner involves himself in a fundamental difficulty that arises repeatedly in his book, and never is resolutely faced. He is all in favor of centralization of educational policy, for instance, being a hater of local school boards. But this alteration of the American pattern would require the direction of schooling by an administrative elite, presumably in Washington. Professor Lerner, however, is all against elites—indeed, he scorns all authority. One can’t have it both ways. In theory, Mr. Lerner is in love with democracy. Well, in our system of education, does he desire democratic control, which now exists; or does he desire direction by an elite? This confusion is part and parcel of Mr. Lerner’s “disintegrated liberalism.”

Professor Lerner’s contempt for prescriptive authority is evident frequently. Apparently he approves of the average American’s lack of reverence for the courts (p. 436) and of popularly trying accused criminals on “who dunit” assumptions: he dislikes “authoritarian tribunals.” He denounces any class or body that stands for order and continuity—American lawyers, for instance, of whom he writes (p. 437), “The lawyer became a hired man—the ‘Great Mouthpiece’ for the corporations or for the marginal bosses, and racketeers.”

But central direction of everything by the officials of a welfare state—indeed, of the welfare corporation—is heartily approved by Mr. Lerner. Will the bureaucrats of the New Order, then, not constitute an elite or aristocracy? Could any system be less democratic than the consolidated power which Mr. Lerner views, despite his repeated protestations of devotion to democracy, so cheerfully? Perhaps Mr. Lerner expects this new elite to be made up of his own disciples.

Frequently though he evokes “freedom” and “democracy,” Mr. Lerner really has few fears for them in the dawning age, except from the threat of businessmen, isolationists, generals, and the like. He does worry here and there (p. 262, for instance) about “conformism.” Never, however, does he recognize that the “conformism,” the increasing standardization of life, the decay of strong character, the uniformity of manners, actually may be produced by certain of the developments in America that he praises: the triumph of mass culture, the consolidation of power, the decay of the man of property, the decline of Christian teachings, and the mediocrity of our educational system. (In fairness, it ought to be said that Mr. Lerner does include brief and glancing criticisms of some of these tendencies; but in general he thinks everything is hunky-dory.)

The gradual reduction of political and economic freedom in our time, at the expense of the omnicompetent state, Mr. Lerner accepts as inevitable, or sometimes applauds. In only one realm does he favor greater freedom: that of sexual adventure. (As Mr. T. S. Eliot has pointed out, the modern Liberal becomes less and less concerned with political liberties, and more and more desirous of sexual license; or as Santayana wrote once, the latter-day Liberal relaxes no bond except the marriage-knot.) He advocates (p. 686) “sexual revolt . . . for a healthily expressive life.” His general attitude is expressed in a paragraph on p. 677:

The blinkered critics of American life see only the corruption and the sensuality, the chasing for fun, the moral breakdown: they fail to see the elements of strength behind the continuing moral revolution. American morality is not summed up by its emotional frustrations and its tongue-in-cheek code evasions. The quest for new standards is itself a sign of cultural strength. The revolutions in morals come not out of weakness or resentment but out of a ferment which pervades the society and especially the groups moving up the social ladder and getting new increments of experience. Obviously this new experience is at first disintegrating in its effect, when the individual on his new level of living gropes for a freedom of action he never had. But out of this groping there may emerge challenger codes which will distill, as all successful codes must, the ambivalent sense of social discipline and of individual striving for emotional expression.

To hope vaguely for “challenger codes” is scarcely a heartening guide to moral principle in a textbook. Mr. Lerner substantially rejects any religious source of moral principles; he is all against (p. 748) “turning the schools back to a religious or moralistic emphasis.” Religious faith, he thinks (p. 710), is produced by “social failure and catastrophe,” and he holds that no such “sense of failure is likely to thrive long in the American cultural setting.” Although he is angry that (p. 124) there are ten million Americans said to be mentally ill, “with as many filled beds in mental hospitals as in all others combined,” he nowhere suggests that the decay of a knowledge of moral norms, and the boredom of the materialistic and welfare-state society which he likes, may be major causes of mental sickness.

Only once or twice does Mr. Lerner seem near to conceding that there may be something amiss with the relativism and lack of standards of which, ordinarily, he is a principal champion. But there is this passage on p. 729:

The “open mind” sometimes became a drafty cave of the winds, the questioning spirit became merely ironic, the revolt against past codes became an extreme relativism which left no standards by which to measure values. Eric Goldman has pointed out how this relativism, a scourge with which to lash the conservatives of the 1890s, turned into an engine of disillusionment in the 1920s. “The trouble with us reformers,” said J. Allen Smith, “Is that we made reform a crusade against standards. Well, we smashed them all, and how neither we nor anybody else have anything left.”

Just so. One wonders what the American college or high-school student will have left if he takes seriously so chaotic and ill-reasoned a book as America as a Civilization. About all Mr. Lerner himself seems to have left, even out of his former radical enthusiasms, is a trust that labor unions never can go very far wrong (p. 328–334); a doctrinaire detestation of businessmen and conservatives (whom he defines inconsistently in various pages); a conviction that federal subsidies can solve our problems in medical care, education, and the like; a fondness for sexual experimentation and divorce; and a determination to be Liberal in all things, even if one no longer knows what “Liberalism” means, or where it leads. The “open world society” which he retains as an amorphous aspiration really is a closed socialist society, a life-in-death, in which (to quote George Saintsbury) people are “as equal, and really as free, as pigs in a sty.”

If the student will derive from this work no valid standards of morals or politics or taste, neither will he find in it much information that could not be better got from some other book. And he will find reams of misinformation. Two more examples, if the reader will indulge me: the first on p. 153, the second on p. 125. In the first howler, Dr. Lerner declares that nowadays great writing has “moved away from the small town and its life to the city and its suburbs and the outside world.” This is an era when William Faulkner. and J. P. Marquand, writing from small towns in Mississippi and Massachusetts, have been the most influential novelists! (Mr. Lerner does know about them, for he refers to them at some length; but his favorite recent writer seems to be Nelson Algren, the Chicago nihilist.)

The final blunder or distortion to be mentioned here (though their number is legion) is Dr. Lerner’s assertion, in support of federal compulsory health insurance, that we do not have enough medical schools “with enough funds to meet the need for doctors”—and therefore want federal scholarships for medical students, and the like.

If he had bothered to consult the authorities at existing medical schools, he would have found that the real trouble is not shortage of physical facilities, but rather a lack of qualified applicants for entrance into medical schools. (The reason for this is principally the fact that high wages in business or industry, without any need for a strict intellectual and technical discipline, more and more attract young people into immediate employment upon graduation from college, rather than into any exacting professional schools, where the pecuniary rewards are long deferred.) Upon such treacherous ground as this, Professor Lerner rests his case for an increased collectivizing of American life.

At the very end of his omnium-gatherum of facts and prejudices about modern America, Mr. Lerner admits to one faint doubt (which, nevertheless, he dismisses curtly in the next paragraph). American optimism, he says (p. 949), is

. . . far removed from the tragic pessimism which the great European thinkers from Nietzsche to Malraux have summoned in the twilight of the European experience. Because America has this sense of tragedy only in partial degree, its capacity to face national failure and disaster may well be questioned. It is limited by the unwillingness of the American as an individual to confront the Medusa head of a life experience which includes penalties as well as gains, failure as well as success, tragedy as well as happiness.

To national failure and disaster, I think, the murky and disorderly and disintegrated “Liberalism” of gentlemen like Professor Lerner would lead us soon enough, should their textbooks exert sufficient influence. In their attempt to obtain from the state a life without penalties or failure, they would indeed leave us too cowardly to look into the face of the Gorgon.  

Russell Kirk was founder of the University Bookman and author of books including The Conservative Mind and The American Cause.

Posted: May 29, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

A “conservative character [is] suspicious of doctrinaire alteration, respectful toward history, preferring variety over uniformity, acknowledging a moral order composed of human persons, not of mere political and economic atoms subservient to the state.”

Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 1954

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