The Latest Intellectuals

In “The Latest Intellectuals,” Professor Russell Jacoby provides an update on the status of the divide between “public intellectuals” and “academic or professional intellectuals” in the years since first publishing his book on the topic, The Last Intellectuals.

Writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Russell Jacoby, Professor in Residence of History at UCLA, defends the distinction he originally noted between public and academic intellectuals in his 1997 book, The Last Intellectuals, and provides an updated assessment of current conditions in academia.

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.

Read the full article here.