Best Of The Web
“Works of intellectual history come in a few varieties. There’s the Salon Book, the story of a like-minded clique coming together to develop a new philosophy or sensibility, or at least to take down old ones. Louis Menand’s “The Metaphysical Club,” on the rise of pragmatism, is the ideal of the form. Then there’s the Book Book, arguing that one particular title remade the world, shaped the century, upended the cosmos. Think of Randall Fuller’s “The Book That Changed America,” about the impact of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” upon a nation verging on civil war. And there’s the Big Idea Book, painting a single, vital stroke across a vast canvas. Try Ibram X. Kendi’s relentless “Stamped From the Beginning,” on the arc of America’s racist designs from pre-colonial times to the new millennium.
These books are usually lengthy; intellectual historians have read a lot, after all, and they want us to read a lot, too. But “The Ideas That Made America” by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is an anomaly in the genre. Its brevity is a point of pride, yet it aspires to do a little of everything. It covers various schools in America’s life of the mind, from transcendentalists to progressives, from the Harlem Renaissance to mid-20th-century conservatives. It dwells on the struggles of a young nation to affirm its own literary and academic traditions — to end, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s complaint, America’s “long apprenticeship to the learnings of other lands.” It highlights essential works and scholars, putting them in conversation across time, and it surfaces the recurring strains in American intellectual life. “There is no period in American history when thinkers have not wrestled with the appropriate balance of power between self-interest and social obligation,” Ratner-Rosenhagen writes, identifying a central theme not just of her book but of the republic.
It is a fraught enterprise, she acknowledges, to try to determine the intellectual motivations of history’s actors, to peek inside their heads. “Making the claim for the causal force of ideas is always a little risky,” Ratner-Rosenhagen admits. But it is a risk she is eager to take, and that willingness is infectious. “The Ideas That Made America” urges us to see intellectual trends as intrinsic to America’s story, not just equal to our political and social currents but, often, shifting the tides.”
JJ Editor's Daily Picks
"The results were surprising. The center-right coalition, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, remained in power against the opposition Labor party, which had led in every poll for years."
"Anger seldom works against Trump; he owns the currency and can always issue more of it. In addressing the rogue President directly, or speaking about him in the third person, Pelosi usually adopts a tone that is more sorrowful than angry..."
"I am Mizrahi, as are the majority of Jews in Israel today. We are of Middle Eastern and North African descent. Only about 30% of Israeli Jews are Ashkenazi, or the descendants of European Jews."
"Kids are exposed to plenty of controversial social issues on a daily basis. And if parents don’t want their kids to watch “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” they can turn off the TV."
"Are public-school teachers really underpaid? It’s a claim often made during teacher pay disputes, but the same data and statistical methods that produce the “teacher salary gap” lead to some ridiculous conclusions..."
"Tech companies are getting into the business of making cities. We need to stop Silicon Valley social engineering before things get even worse."
"Having a Library or Cafe Down the Block Could Change Your Life: Living close to public amenities—from parks to grocery stores—increases trust, decreases loneliness, and restores faith in local government."
"“What name . . . shall we give to the darkness of hell...?” The question of how we can name a place such as this is at the center of scholar Scott G. Bruce’s new anthology The Penguin Book of Hell."
"She had all six of her kids — ages 5, 4, 2 (twins) and 10 months (also twins!) in her 10-seater van. To get the kids a quick snack, Curry parked in front of the Cobbler’s Café."
"Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they grew up typically eating dinner at a kitchen table, but a little less than half said they do so now when eating at home."
"If you tied a rope tight around the Earth’s equator and then added a single yard of slack, would the extra material make any noticeable difference to someone standing on the ground?"
"While American Jewish women face attacks on our freedom and rising anti-Semitism, abortion opponents are appropriating Jewish history in order to push an agenda that hurts women."