- Expanding the American Mind: Books and the Popularization of Knowledge
In 1987 Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind chastised the United States for succumbing to television and for forgetting the Bible. It became the country's number-one best seller. Beth Luey's Expanding the American Mind responds to his bleak portrayal of American culture by showing that a great many Americans have been eager to learn well beyond college, that Americans have always bought large numbers of religious books, and that a large number of writers have met the appetite for new knowledge by writing books aimed at conveying that knowledge clearly and concisely. On the low end is a steady supply of X or Y for Dummies and similar shortcuts, and on the high end are books written by literate scientists who explain new lines of research and why they matter. There is much in between—Allan Bloom, for one.
The core of Luey's book is a
kind of luxury nonfiction . . . written by academic authors for general readers. . . . scientists such as Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, and Edward O. Wilson; social and behavioral scientists such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Coles, Lester Thurow, and Robert Bellah; and humanities scholars such as Daniel Boorstin, Elaine Pagels, Henry Louis Gates, and Richard Rorty. These authors have opened the American mind to current research and thinking directly, without intermediaries and without condescension.(16)
She cites as conspicuous examples John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society (1958), Carl Sagan's Cosmos (1980), Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A [End Page 268] Midwife's Tale (1990), Henry Petroski's The Pencil (1990), Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello (2008), and many more, adding that the boom in such works occurred after World War II.
Luey devotes her introduction and much of the first three chapters to quick descriptions of the rise of science and the development of printing in Europe, and to the increase of literacy and expansion of public education in the United States. Readers wishing to engage her announced topic, 'books that explain complicated subjects and ideas to nonexpert readers' (7), should skip to chapter 4. There Luey describes the continuing controversy launched by C.P. Snow's 'Two Cultures' lecture (1959), which berated the learned for failing to speak plainly to the unlearned and for splitting into specialties unable to understand one another. Luey then recounts familiar complaints about academic publishing: there's too much of it, it's too fragmented, and most of it is opaque to the uninitiated, some deliberately so. Philosophy and literary criticism take their usual lumps. Though there is little new in chapter 4, it is useful, itemizing the habits, protocols, anxieties, and rewards that discourage academic authors from writing for the public.
In chapter 5 Luey arrives at the heart of her book: academics who do try to explain their subjects to the public. Beginning with the examples of Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, Luey shows that efforts to popularize have been condemned as venal and vainglorious; if the efforts succeed, academic jealousy shows its claws. Chapter 6 investigates the writing techniques scholars have used to make their books more appealing to the public. This is the chapter most likely to be recommended to professors who desire to popularize their work.
Then comes the poison pill: desire, expertise, and writing skill are not enough. 'Because writing for nonspecialists is so challenging, it requires a mastery of the subject matter that is difficult to acquire without substantial scholarly achievement.' Further, such success is limited to 'graduates of highly selective graduate programs' with 'jobs at the same kinds of institutions' (91). If only a few well-placed people are positioned to popularize successfully, isn't it futile to encourage more of it?
Clarity and comprehensibility are Luey's Excalibur and Holy Grail. I'm dubious that...