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After ‘The Last Intellectuals’

After ‘The Last Intellectuals’ 3

In The Last Intellectuals (1987) Russell Jacoby argued that the iconic crop of midcentury public intellectuals — Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, Edmund Wilson — had given way to a younger generation of scholars devoted to highly specialized knowledge, the obscure jargon of narrow disciplines, and the bureaucratic demands of university careers. They were, in effect, a “missing generation” — and led to a diminished public discourse and a diminished culture at large.

Now almost 30 years later, in a new academic climate — one marked by the rise of the Internet, demands for greater diversity on campus, and harsh economic realities — the question persists: What role does the university play in helping or hindering a culture of public intellectuals? Russell Jacoby, Jonathan Holloway, Claire Bond Potter, and Leo P. Ribuffo revisited that question at the annual meeting of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, in Washington in October. These essays are adapted from their remarks.