Finding Meaning in History

"If Quigley’s approach seems dated, his work nonetheless reveals much about his own day’s mindset and the intellectual trends that lingered beyond it. A middlebrow readership more sophisticated than that term implies provided an audience that sought a framework to make sense of present-day challenges. High school education and reading as a cheap hobby among the aspirational had spread from the 1920s. Books gave servicemen in World War II a welcome distraction that authorities encouraged. Cultural engagement raised expectations among readers who wanted more knowledge or understanding than they had before—in much the same way as they desired new technology they encountered or a wider range of consumer goods. It was also part of moving up the social ladder by showing intellectual aspiration or a desire for self-improvement. Being well read demonstrated sophistication and adult seriousness.

The postwar expansion of higher education tapped a market for more than just economic opportunity as Mortimer Adler’s influence popularizing of the great books program reflected. The aspirational middlebrow culture increasingly disparaged by the late 1960s marked a noteworthy counterpoint in the United States to midcentury modern design that typified the era."