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
Boston — 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.
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.
Socrates and Isaac Newton would never survive a modern American university, one critic noted - the former never published, the latter not until age 45.
Addressing the public can be a risk for a ``serious'' scholar. Witness the fate of sociologist Paul Starr - denied tenure at Harvard though he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for ``The Social Transformation of American Medicine.'' There are few rewards in academia for ``free-lance journalism,'' his department chairman said.
Many scholars say the soil for public thinking has been eroded by the very problems the '50s generation warned of: an ethic of consumption, specialization, the problem of scale - as well as a younger generation turned prematurely cynical by the Vietnam war.
Several scholars interviewed feel that Jacoby and others have far too limited a definition of ``intellectual.'' It's mainly a lament that the successors of the old New Left have been tangled in the barbed wire of neo-Marxist theories, they say.
Little is said about neo-conservatives such as Michael Novak or Irving Kristol. Nor is there an accounting of the radical agrarian tradition to which Wendell Berry today gives voice.
Socio-religious sensibilities often found in the work of Robert Bellah or Robert Coles are not taken seriously in an academic laity that worships at the altar of statistical and empirical methods.
Church historian Martin Marty feels religion adds a dimension to the discussion that has not yet had a full accounting.
Yet, as Elshtain adds, ``It's far easier to be a Marxist than a serious [Roman] Catholic in a major public college today. Say something about religion and your subject and everyone giggles knowingly.''
Michael Nagler, a Berkeley professor of classics, echoes the concern. He feels the lack of a public voice today is directly due to an unaddressed spiritual confusion in society.
The discussion about the AIDS crisis offers an example, he says. It's a problem traditional science - and social science - is not equipped to handle. Yet ``nobody is asking whether the disease might be connected to a larger breakdown in basic questions about the purpose of life and a desire to live. You talk about wasting energy in a profligate way such that there's no immune system left - and academics write you off. But it's an approach more `intellectuals' need to think about. In the meantime, we need to rescue the public idea of `the spiritual' from Shirley MacLaine.''
Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, shifts the debate by asking if there is even a public audience. ``People have become so media-ized by the trivial discourse on TV, I'm not sure anyone is listening carefully anymore.''
But others say the recent sales of Allan Bloom's ``The Closing of the American Mind'' - some 550,000 copies in eight months - indicate a healthy public interest in ideas.
Excerpt from `The Last Intellectuals,' by Russell Jacoby
For some years I have asked journalists, academics, and writers to name new American intellectuals of wide significance, not specialists. Professor X, celebrated for unreadable excursions into postmodernism, does not count; nor does Professor Y, touted for computerizing Marx's economic theories....
I have received few compelling responses, and usually no responses at all. Friends who pride themselves on their intellectual savvy and wit often rapidly reply: Foucault, Habermas, Derrida. The conversation goes this way: No, I re-emphasize, I'm looking for home-grown corn-fed real live Americans (or Canadians). I then hear: Kenneth Burke, Marshall McLuhan, Norman O. Brown, Sidney Hook. No, no, I restate, new younger, fresh intellectuals of general importance. ``Oh, younger American intellectuals?... in the last ten to fifteen years?... Yes, of course.... There is ... Hmmmmmmm ... Did you say, ten to fifteen years, not twenty-five?... Hmmm ... Yes ... Well ... There is ... no ... ahhh ... well ...'' The conversation trails off, and my friends wander off, puzzling over the absence both startling and unnoticed.