Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

In search of `public intellectuals'. A growing number of writers and critics looking at the American scholarly landscape see few signs of a new generation of `nonacademic' thinkers

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 14, 1987


DURING the preparation for Harvard's 350th anniversary celebration last year, a search went on for a keynote speaker - a ``public intellectual'' with a ringing voice who could speak across the disciplines, offer some vision. It was not an easy search. And the eventual selection of Prince Charles was a tribute more to symbol than substance.

Skip to next paragraph

According to Alan Heimert, a Harvard professor of American literature, the climate in America today doesn't support the development of such thinkers.

``I told Derek [Bok, Harvard's president] there have only been two people in the last 20 years who could make that speech - Walter Lippmann and Reinhold Niebuhr. They are both gone.''

Today, a growing number of writers and critics are looking anxiously at the American intellectual landscape. They hope to find a new generation of ``nonacademic'' thinkers to take the place of such figures as Daniel Bell, C.Wright Mills, William F. Buckley Jr., David Riesman, William Whyte, Jane Jacobs, and others who emerged in the 1950s, and who were able to interpret the social and political dynamic of their time in a language the public could understand.

``In the '50s we had people who were taken seriously in universities, as well as among the general public,'' says sociologist Robert Bellah. ``They are harder to find today.''

``Friends from France come over here and tell me, `You don't have political intellectuals in the way we do,''' says Jean Elshtain, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The best recent analysis of the issue is Russell Jacoby's book, ``The Last Intellectuals,'' many say. Mr. Jacoby claims there's a ``missing generation'' of public thinkers in America.

``Today it would be difficult to name even a few important intellectuals who came of age in the 1960s,'' he writes.

Many books in the 1970s that did attempt to manage a ``public prose'' - such as Charles Reich's ``The Greening of America'' and Theodore Roszak's ``The Making of the Counter Culture'' - cannot match in candlepower or style the comparable work of the previous generation: for example, Bell's ``The End of Ideology,'' Whyte's ``The Organization Man.''

Why? In Jacoby's view, the cultural support systems for intellectual ferment and freedom have atrophied. High rents have closed down the Greenwich Villages of America. Little magazines - once the seedbed of new ideas - have dried up. The making of sprawling suburbias became the unmaking of bohemia, as well as the end of a civic culture in the city.

But Jacoby saves his severest critique for the politics and practices of the academy, and the negative influences they can have on young talent - the need to tie one's career to intellectual fashions, to think and write in an inaccessible, specialized language. Academic freedom now means the freedom to be academic, he says.

``The habitat, manners, and idiom of intellectuals have been transformed.... Younger intellectuals no longer need or want a larger public; they are almost exclusively professors.''

This marks a significant change, says Dr. Elshtain. In the 1930s, she says, a young person could go to New York with a dream to one day develop a public voice:

``You could live in the city and sustain your dream for several years. Today you go to graduate school and are stripped of the dream. You come in with verve and excitement - but right away you must define yourself as a professional; publish in this and that obscure journal. After a while you don't realize what you've lost - the excitement, the search that brought you there in the first place.''

One Jacoby example is the new computerized ``citation indexing'' services available - where the number of footnotes to one's work in any of the hundreds of scholarly journals (142 for sociology alone) can be instantly tabulated. The more footnotes, the greater the academic stature, hence the unspoken rule to footnote your friends, and see that they footnote you. Quantity, not quality, becomes the yardstick.