The Chronicle Review

The Latest Intellectuals

November 29, 2015

To revisit a book I published almost three decades ago means navigating between the pleasure that the book still elicits response and the pleasure of "I told you so." I might lack the skill. One point of honor: For what it is worth — and it has been worth about two lattes at Starbucks — the now ubiquitous term "public intellectual" derives from The Last Intellectuals. As a phrase, it pops up a few times before my book, and appeared in passing in C. Wright Mills, but nowhere is it foregrounded. Google’s Ngram Viewer charts the frequency of "public intellectual" as a stand-alone term as near zero for centuries until the middle 1980s, when The Last Intellectuals is published, and the term’s usage takes off. The success of the phrase, of course, does not confirm my argument. It suggests, however, that the book touched a nerve, a disquiet about the fate of intellectuals and cultural life.

After ‘The Last Intellectuals’

Almost 30 years after Russell Jacoby wrote his influential book, he and three other essayists look back at the status of public intellectuals in a new academic climate. View the essays.

For some critics the phrase is redundant, if not pompous. As Christopher Hitchens remarked, "public intellectual" is something like "organic food." Is there inorganic food? Yet Hitchens found it useful — in the same way, perhaps, that "organic food," if not precise, accents certain ingredients or their absence. When the term "intellectuals" began appearing in English, the phrase "public intellectuals" would have been superfluous. Borrowed from the French, "intellectuals" already encompassed "public." The term referred to those novelists and writers who publicly came to the defense of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer framed for treason in France. "Manifesto of the Intellectuals" ran the 1898 title of the petition of those supporting Dreyfus. For French critics, public interventions defined intellectuals. The definition stuck and became a badge. The Last Intellectuals was motivated by the concern that younger American intellectuals were trading in their badges.

My argument is historical, even generational, but not moral. The classic intellectuals existed in the United States, but the post-World War II situation altered their social and economic environment. The old urban bohemias of San Francisco, Chicago, and New York were disappearing. As the cities became more expensive and freelance work less remunerative, higher education expanded. Intellectuals, old and young, flowed into colleges and universities. What I called the transitional generation, those born around 1920, entered the universities, often late in their careers and without Ph.D.s. The Irving Howes and Daniel Bells became professors but retained their allegiance to a world of readable essays and small periodicals. The next generation — my generation — came of age in the universities and never left them. The world became specialized journals, monographs, and grant applications. This generation wrote for colleagues. If they were intellectuals, they no longer were "public" intellectuals; rather, they were academic or professional intellectuals oriented toward one another and microfields. In the 1880s, political science could claim one journal; now more than 40 populate the discipline. The American Political Science Association recognizes more than 30 subfields. The larger culture, I believe, suffers when intellectuals turn inward.

'The danger is that we have entered the era of one-stop thinking and instant commenting.'
With some exceptions, the professoriate did not appreciate my book. Leo Ribuffo, of George Washington University, called it "glib, superficial and oracular," a "symptom of the intellectual slump" it purported to explain. Thomas Bender, of New York University, denounced it as "careless, ill-conceived, and perhaps even irresponsible." For many I was guilty of the primal sin called out by all forward-thinking people: nostalgia. I was romanticizing old white guys — the Lewis Mumfords and Edmund Wilsons. I failed to realize that things had changed and improved. Other critics rediscovered the oldest wisdom: Nothing changes. In this scenario, intellectuals were always disappearing and always existed — or never existed. Case closed.

In point of fact, I did not romanticize earlier intellectuals. (Nor did I exclude women: Jane Jacobs, Susan Sontag, and Rachel Carson surfaced in my text.) "If the intellectuals from the 1950s tower over the cultural landscape right into the 1980s," I wrote, "this is not because the towers are so high but because the landscape is so flat." The issue was not the brilliance of earlier intellectuals but the whereabouts of their successors.

It turns out they are everywhere. All my critics produced lists of public intellectuals, usually friends and acquaintances, whom I had slighted or overlooked. "Where are all the public intellectuals?" asked the historian Rick Perlstein. "A well-stroked three-wood aimed out my Brooklyn window could easily hit half a dozen." Ribuffo offered as examples Pat Aufderheide, David Garrow, Robert Reich, and Jeremy Rifkin. The Barnard College dance professor Lynn Garafola nominated her husband, Eric Foner, as well as Rosalind Krauss, whom I was informed was "an art critic so well-known that a New Yorker profile (on someone else) opened with a description of her living room." I cherished this information but remained uncertain whether it was the living room ("Its beauty has a dark, forceful, willful character") or the New Yorker notice that mattered.

In any event, a book like mine depends on generalizations. These must be grounded in specifics, but the lists offered do not by themselves rebut my argument. Some individuals — and perhaps this includes Foner, Perlstein, and his Brooklyn neighbors — manage to swim against the current, but does this alter larger realities?

Some of my critics embraced these realities. Younger academics who challenged dominant disciplinary paradigms, I was told, replaced old-style intellectuals who catered to the phantom common reader. The general audience was gone and so were the intellectuals who addressed it. "I specialize in generalizations," Daniel Bell once remarked. That belonged to the past. Good riddance to the "romantic left narratives about the ‘decline of the public intellectual,’ " wrote the NYU professor Andrew Ross. Now we have "professional intellectuals" schooled in Foucault and post-structuralism, who "examine their institutional affiliations" and "transform the codes of power which are historically specific to their disciplinary discourses." Such arguments — and they showed up throughout the university — opened the sluice gates to mighty rivers of bad prose and bad theory that flow unabated to this day.

In an updated preface to the 2000 edition of The Last Intellectuals, I considered some criticism and offered some revisions. I did not anticipate the emergence of a generation of black intellectuals — Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, Randall Kennedy, and others. In one respect at least, I do not see this promising development as invalidating my argument. If addressed with passion and lucidity, the general audience has not vanished, which many of my critics supposed.

I also missed the existence of what might be called the new and not-so-new science writers; Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg, Oliver Sacks, and numerous others. Their success, again, suggests that the common reader still exists, but it also raises a host of other issues. Where are the corresponding humanists? As the English professors championed clotted prose and rococo theory, the scientists stepped up to the plate with limpid books.

Nowadays controversy over public intellectuals underscores the impact of the Internet, which barely existed when I was writing The Last Intellectuals. The new arguments against my book reinforce the earlier ones and posit that classic public intellectuals vanished as iPads replaced manual typewriters; the old essayists became opinionated bloggers. With Internet-driven venues and opportunities, new intellectuals pop up everywhere, according to the Tufts University professor Daniel W. Drezner, who offers an ebullient account. "The growth of online publication venues," he argues, has "stimulated rather than retarded the quality and diversity of public intellectuals." The Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson has recently offered a version of this scenario. He announced that a new "black digital intelligentsia," adept with blogs, Twitter, Facebook — people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Marc Lamont Hill, and Melissa Harris-Perry — is supplanting his own generation of Ivy League-educated black public intellectuals. The future looks bright.

Does it? Perhaps not. The danger is that we have entered the era of one-stop thinking and instant commenting. Some critics of The Last Intellectuals charged that I was promoting "publicity" intellectuals, not public intellectuals. I disagree but take the point. As the essay makes way for the blog or tweet, something might be lost, the slow work of reflection. When the blog pioneer Andrew Sullivan surrendered his post, he wrote, "I yearn for other, older forms. I want to read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book." No one suggests that it is an either/or proposition: either monographs or tweets. But a middle ground of serious writing directed at the common reader might be disappearing, and with them their authors, the last intellectuals.

Russell Jacoby is a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles.