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  • Culture Wars: The Prequel
  • Patrick Allitt (bio)
David A. Hollinger. Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid- Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. xi +178 pp. Notes and index. $24.95.

The essays collected in David Hollinger’s Science, Jews, and Secular Culture develop several ideas first outlined in his biography of Morris Cohen and his collection In the American Province. They were written over the past fifteen years for different audiences but work well together despite different emphases. Their two central themes are the success of Jews in American academic and intellectual life, and the way they helped to promote science and the scientific spirit as secular, cosmopolitan values. They did not want science to be “Jewish”; many of them were in rebellion against their families’ religious and ethnic culture. What the Jewish intellectuals sought, on the contrary, was an ideal before which all aspirants stood equal, whatever their ancestry. They were so successful that between 1930 and 1960 they rose from a condition of severe under-representation at major universities to an equally striking eminence out of proportion to their size in the population.

The Jewish intellectual achievement is no secret and yet few historians have studied it systematically, other than to celebrate or denigrate one bit of it—the “family” of New York Intellectuals. The current academic protocol makes historians wary of giving Jews either too much credit or too little: what Hollinger calls the “booster-bigot trap.” But historians interested in American diversity will want to find out about every group’s contributions to the nation and to celebrate the particular cultural foundations on which its members built. As he says, it would be odd to neglect such a success story. His artful development of themes in Jewish and intellectual history keeps him clear of the obvious pitfalls and he emphasizes that there is no essence of Jewishness. This history lies in the particulars.

Among the factors contributing to Jewish intellectual success in America was their concentration in the culture capital of New York, the expansion of American higher education that opened up thousands of faculty positions after World War II, and the discrediting of anti-Semitism after Hitler. Jews contributed to the de-Christianization of public culture, especially in universities, [End Page 706] and “helped to construct . . . the particular, liberal vision of American culture that became a common possession of the American intelligentsia during the middle decades of the twentieth century” (p. 51). Their achievement is all the more striking in that they managed it in the least secularized of western democracies, where Protestantism retained plenty of vitality. George Marsden recently traced the secularization of American universities by men and women who paid lip service to Christianity but yielded to the pressure of academic professionalism. Hollinger adds that Jewish scholars like Franz Boas gladly “reinforced the most de-Christianized of the perspectives already current among the Anglo-Protestants” (p. 24).

Both the difficulties Jewish intellectuals confronted and the avenues of opportunity open to them are well illustrated in Hollinger’s essay “Two NYUs,” which describes a conference with a split personality that was held for New York University’s centenary in 1932. Half of the speakers, among them Walter Lippmann—a highly assimilated Jewish success—praised technocratic progressivism and scientific rationality. The other half, including the Catholic convert and poet Alfred Noyes, spoke up for endangered spiritual values and deplored godless materialism. Despite this disagreement most members of both groups looked on the university as a haven from New York City and regarded the Jewish immigrant students then pressing for admission as an alien horde. NYU sociologist and conference participant Henry Pratt Fairchild, in fact, was a highbrow nativist who had been a prominent advocate of immigration restriction in the 1920s. But despite the conference’s anti-urban rhetoric, NYU’s future lay with the immigrant New Yorkers, rather than in reaction against them, especially in the university’s Washington Square College—which welcomed urban Jews, under the leadership of a philosemitic Dean, James Buell Munn.

Munn appears in Hollinger’s essay as a surprising and sympathetic figure. Other essays offer more surprises. One of them asks why...