The Last Intellectuals: American Culture In The Age Of Academe

Russell Jacoby writes in 2000:

* A specter haunts American universities or, at least, its faculties: boredom. A generation of professors entered the universities in the middle and wake of the sixties, when campuses crackled with energy; today these teachers are visibly bored, if not demoralized. One report found college and university faculties “deeply troubled” with almost 40 percent ready and willing to leave the academy.’

* Intellectuals have not disappeared, but something has altered in their composition. They have become more professional and insular; at the same time they have lost command of the vernacular, which thinkers from Galileo to Freud had mastered. Where the Lewis Mumfords or Walter Lippmanns wrote for a public, their successors “theorize” about it at academic conferences.

* It was easy to list the conservative tracts decrying educational misdeeds (Illiberal Education, Tenured Radicals, The Closing of the American Mind), but where were the rejoinders? The liberal professors growled and scowled, but had trouble answering in limpid English; instead they collected conference papers. When their books finally appeared, they lacked bite. In the liberal view, education proceeded swimmingly; it had become more diverse, multicultural, and exciting, a fact only crabby conservatives failed to fathom. A strange inversion had taken place; liberals and leftists, once critics of the establishment, had become its defenders.

* “There’s plenty of intellectual activity going on in America now,” grumbled Walter Kendrick in one of the first reviews, which appeared in the Voice Literary Supplement. For instance, “The very existence of the Voice Literary Supplement (a public intellectual journal) proves that the situation isn’t quite so bleak as Jacoby maintains.” This turned out to be a stock response. Reviewers championed themselves, their journals, and their friends as refuting my argument. “The reason Jacoby can’t find young radical intellectuals is that he looks for them in the wrong places,” claimed Lynn Garafola, a historian of dance. What are the right places? Periodicals like Cineaste, Performing Arts journal, and The Drama Review; she finds many public intellectuals, some very close to home, actually one in her home (her husband, Eric Foner, author of “widely read volumes”), as well as people down the block such as “October editor Rosalind Krauss, an art critic so well known that a New Yorker profile (on someone else) opened with a descrip tion of her living room.” The last is particularly touching. A description of one’s living room in a New Yorker profile (of someone else) ratifies status as a public intellectual. How could I miss that?

* Beyond slighting their friends and acquaintances, my critics charged me with the primal crime for all progressives: nostalgia. For many of my reviewers history only advances, as if twentieth-century death camps improved upon nineteenth-century prisons. To suggest otherwise brands one a hopeless romantic. These reviewers operate with ossified categories: Either toot your horn for the contemporary intellectuals or cry in your soup for the past.

* This book is about a vacancy in culture, the absence of younger voices, perhaps the absence of a generation. The fewextremely few-significant American intellectuals under the age of thirty-five, even forty-five, have seldom elicited comment. They are easy to miss, especially because their absence is longstanding. An intellectual generation has not suddenly vanished; it simply never appeared. And it is already too late-the generation is too old-to show up.

* A public that once snapped up pamphlets by Thomas Paine or stood for hours listening to Abraham Lincoln debate Stephen Douglas hardly exists; its span of attention shrinks as its fondness for television increases. A reading public may be no more. If younger intellectuals are absent, a missing audience may explain why.

Russell Jacoby wrote in the original 1987 edition:

* …the habitat, manners, and idiom of intellectuals have been transformed within the past fifty years. Younger intellectuals no longer need or want a larger public; they are almost exclusively professors. Campuses are their homes; colleagues their audience; monographs and specialized journals their media. Unlike past intellectuals they situate themselves within fields and disciplines-for good reason. Their jobs, advancement, and salaries depend on the evaluation of specialists, and this dependence affects the issues broached and the language employed.

* Today nonacademic intellectuals are an endangered species; industrial development and urban blight have devastated their environment. They continue to loom large in the cultural world because they mastered a public idiom. The new academics far outnumber the independent intellectuals, but since they do not employ the vernacular, outsiders rarely know of them.
Academics write for professional journals that, unlike the little magazines, create insular societies. The point is not the respective circulation-professional periodicals automatically sent to members may list circulation far higher than small literary reviews-but the different relationship to the lay public. The professors share an idiom and a discipline. Gathering in annual conferences to compare notes, they constitute their own universe. A “famous” sociologist or art historian means famous to other sociologists or art historians, not to anyone else. As intellectuals became academics, they had no need to write in a public prose; they did not, and finally they could not.

* intellectuals. In 1970 the ten leading intellectuals were: Daniel Bell, Noam Chomsky, John Kenneth Galbraith, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, Robert Silvers, Susan Sontag, and “tying” at tenth place, Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson.’ None could be considered young, with the possible exception of Susan Sontag (thirty-seven in 1970). The absence of the young even on the extended list of the “top” seventy intellectuals troubled Kadushin… “The elite American intellectuals as we saw them in 1970,” Kadushin noted, “were basically the same ones who came to power in the late 1940s and early 1950s.”

* When universities occupied a quadrant of cultural life, their ills (and virtues) meant one thing. When they staked out the whole turf, their rules became the rules.

* Academic writing developed into unreadable communiques sweetened by thanks to colleagues and superiors.

* Daniel Bell recalls that when he was about to be granted tenure at Columbia University, an awkward question came up. They asked ” ‘Do you have a Ph.D.?’ I said `No.’ They asked, `Why?’ I said, `I never submitted a thesis.’ ” This was happily resolved by awarding him a Ph.D. for past work, his book The End of Ideology.

Such informality reflects a past era; it is next to impossible to obtain university posts without a Ph.D., as did Irving Howe or Alfred Kazin, or to be awarded degrees on the basis of past work, as were Daniel Bell or Nathan Glazer. A younger intellectual could no more show up for a dissertation “defense” with a collection of essays written for several magazines, which constituted The End of Ideology, than he or she could show up without taking the requisite number of credits and seminars-and without paying the proper fees.

* To live from selling book reviews and articles ceased to be difficult; it became impossible. The number of serious magazines and newspapers steadily declined (and the pay scale of those remaining hardly increased), leaving few avenues; the signs all pointed toward the colleges. If the western frontier closed in the 1890s, the cultural frontier closed in the 1950s. After this decade intellectuals joined established institutions or retrained.

* The cadence of his prose and his measured liberalism distinguished Trilling, but not the brilliance, originality, or force of his thought. His reach, in fact, was limited, no further than AngloAmerican literature; his social theory, thin; his philosophy, weak. His essays which often originated as lectures to admiring audiences, suffer on the cold page. What Trilling wrote of V. L. Parrington, in the opening essay of The Liberal Imagination, could almost be said of himself. He was not “a great mind … or an impressive one … what is left is simple intelligence, notable for its generosity and enthusiasm.”24 Even a sympathetic study of Trilling suggests his essays suffered from vagueness or “weightlessness.”

* Thinking and dreaming require unregulated time; intellectuals perpetually lingering over coffee and drink threaten solid citizens by the effort-or the appearance-of escaping the bondage of money and drudgery. Guardians of order have denigrated, almost for centuries, critics and rebels as mere “coffee house intellectuals.”‘ In the catalog of bourgeois sins bohemian intellectuals earn a double entry, thinking too much and doing too little. Crown aristocrats have been no less disdainful. When the count who lurched Austria into World War I was warned that war might ignite a Russian revolution, he retorted, “Who is supposed to make that revolution? Herr Trotsky in the Cafe Central?”‘ (For several years Trotsky lived in Vienna, frequenting its cafes.)

* Yet a thick-skinned approach that dismisses the quotidian as irrelevant is hardly superior. The rhythm of the lives of intellectuals permeates their writings. This is not surprising. If telephoning supplants letters and cafes yield to conferences, thinking itself-its density and parameters-may echo the shifts. The decline of bohemia may entail not simply the decline of urban intellectuals and their audience, but of urban intelligence as well. To vary an old proposition, cafe society gives rise to the aphorism and essay; the college campus yields the monograph and lecture-and the grant application.

* Founded in 1872, the Bohemian Club was associated with numerous West Coast writers and poets, including Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, and Mark Twain. Within a few years, however, it ran up against the common fate of bohemians: lack of money. Many could not afford to chip in for the rent; others took action. “It was soon apparent,” recalled one well-heeled member, “that the possession of talent, without money, would not support the club.” The logic was simple: “It was decided that we should invite an element to join the club which the majority of the members held in contempt, namely men who had money as well as brains, but who were not, strictly speaking, Bohemians.” With this decision “the problem of our permanent success was solved.”

* …gentrification undercuts urban bohemias; the dependence of writers and artists’ communities on cheap housing cannot be overemphasized.

* Intellectuals of the 1950s, when they reflected on the “death of bohemia,” regularly indicted the refurbished housing and onerous rents. “The past always lingers on,” wrote William Phillips in 1952, but the cold-water flat is gone, taking with it the wandering, jobless writers and artists.72 Higher rents obviously do not spell the end of artistic life; but they do require more income, more commissions, more connections. For the young or unestablished the rents simply are not possible.

* Ten years earlier, at the war’s end, Partisan Review had already raised an alarm: professionals and academics were replacing unaffiliated intellectuals. A new “American academic type,” a by-product of the “Managerial Revolution,” was “everywhere ascendant,” announced Newton Arvin in 1945. This new breed discarded “wide-ranging, curious, adventurous, and humane study” for “results” and office management. With fields and subfields, committees and organizations, the new academics were preparing to put “our literary heritage on a firm fiduciary basis.”6 Another critic concurred; college teachers who lived conventional lives and thought conventional thoughts were phasing out free-lance, bohemian, and avant-garde intellectuals. “The academic hierarchy … enforces caution on the imaginative or adventurous thinkers”; even in their personal lives, professors could not afford to be “conspicuously out of line.”‘

* For intellectuals coming of age in the sixties and after, life outside universities was not even a memory. However, intellectuals like Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Howe became professors only after years as free-lance writers and editors.
Others, such as Lewis Mumford, Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, or Dwight Macdonald, never made the transition. All, however, were aware of the migration and its consequences. In the early part of the century, recalled Malcolm Cowley, teaching and writing had been “separate worlds”; but today, no longer “independent craftsmen,” writers assume roles as professors or as well-paid employees in government or magazine bureaus.
The evidence of change seemed everywhere; universities and national magazines eagerly hired intellectuals; either Luce publications or The New Yorker sent checks to Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, John Kenneth Galbraith, Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Bell, and many others. Major publishing houses launched “little” magazines for young and avant-garde writers. Pocket Books founded discovery; Avon offered New Voices, Doubleday put out New Writers, and New American Library, the paperback publisher of Mickey Spillane, established the most successful series, New World Writing. One issue ran “Jazz of the Beat Generation” by a “Jean-Louis,” an excerpt from Kerouac’s unpublished On the Road.”
To Isaac Rosenfeld (1918-56), a Chicago essayist, these developments signified that an intellectual life of poverty and protest belonged to the past. “The writer very seldom stands over against the world as he used to, and when he does, the danger is that he may be attitudinizing.” Even the bohemia that sheltered poor writers and artists showed signs of renovation. “The garret still exists, but the rent has gone up.”

* IN PLOTTING cultural life often the less original thinkers register most faithfully the zeitgeist. In his evolution and politics, Norman Podhoretz exemplifies the trajectory of New York Jewish intellectuals. Like the others, he was first of all a publicist-a journalist, a book reviewer, and an essayist who wrote well and easily.

* If Jewish intellectuals gravitated toward radicalism in large numbers, they also hastily beat a retreat. By the 1950s not simply Glazer, Hook, Feuer, and Lipset but Irving Kristol, Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell, Leslie Fieldler, and scores of others traded in their red pasts for blue chip careers. In contrast non-Jewish (and usually non-New York) intellectuals seemed more willing or able to retain radicalism throughout their careers.

* The long view suggests not how many, but, compared to the non-Jews, how few Jewish intellectuals remained radicals and dissenters. This could almost be seen in pairs of kindred Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals: Lionel Trilling (1905-75) and Dwight Macdonald (1906-82); Daniel Bell (1919- and C. Wright Mills (1916-62); Norman Podhoretz (1930- and Michael Harrington (1928). Other non-Jews could be added: Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, Paul Sweezy, John Kenneth Galbraith, Christopher Lasch. But the list of Jewish public intellectuals who remained devoted to a radical vision seems shorter.

* Estrangement from a Christian civilization, runs the usual argument, edged Jews into reformism or revolution. Yet this argument can be reversed, or at least recast: personal alienation does not engender a hardy radicalism. The angst that expresses the pain of separation also craves union-or its substitute, recognition and acceptance. The social critique founded solely on alienation also founders on it.

* Moreover, for Jewish intellectuals to complete college or secure academic posts was especially sweet; compared to the Christians, it often marked firsts for their families.56
No dense Freudian theory is necessary to explain that economic deprivation and cultural estrangement often led to an identification, and overidentification, with the dominant cul- ture.57 Jewish intellectuals from Yiddish-speaking families Trilling, Fiedler, Howe, Kazin-often fell in love with American and English literature. The phenomenon is familiar, but its relevance for American intellectuals has not been noticed. The “foreigner”-the Jewish intellectual-embraced his new cultural home, sometimes dispatching critical acumen for recognition and approval. The native son, lacking a similar estrangement, kept a distance, often turning to foreign sources. While Trilling drenched himself in American and English literature, Wilson studied Russian. Sidney Hook stuck to John Dewey, while C. Wright Mills wandered into the thicket of German neoMarxism.
Is it possible that solid American backgrounds allowed-obviously did not compel-a distancing that sustained radicalism for the long haul? That the anxiety of illegitimacy, or persecution, did not haunt the all-American intellectuals? That their sometimes more monied or aristocratic background gave them better footing? Did more principles and less angst infuse the radicalism of non-Jewish intellectuals? Did the radicalism steeped in anxiety slide into conservatism, while the Texan, Puritan, or Scottish identities of Mills or Wilson or Vidal or Galbraith gave rise to a bony radicalism more resistant to economic and social blandishments?
Trilling and Mills exemplify the contrasts between Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals. Trilling typifies the successful and moderate Jewish professor with a radical past; Mills, the American rebel suspicious of compromise and adjustment. Trilling’s Yiddish-speaking parents (his father was a tailor and an unsuccessful furrier) encouraged his studies; it was assumed that he would attend college, and like other Jewish intellectuals, he commenced a lifelong commitment to English literature. His talent and devotion paid off: Trilling, who entered Columbia University as an undergraduate, was the first Jew tenured in its English department.
Everything about Trilling, from his name to his demeanor, implied a successful adjustment to Anglo-American culture. As his wife later wrote, “in appearance and name” Trilling made a “good gamble” for an English department looking for its first Jew. “Had his name been that of his maternal grandfather, Israel Cohen, it is highly questionable whether the offer would have been made.”” As a polished and judicious commentator on humanism and literature, Trilling earned an endowed chair, showers of awards, honorary titles, national recognition. For intellectuals caught between a leftist, often ethnic, past and cold-war prosperity, Trilling struck the right tone; he contributed to “reconciling a depoliticized intelligentsia to itself and the social status quo.”

* For an immigrant family, a university career-status, salary, and security-signified unalloyed advance. Herein lies a critical difference between an American and an immigrant experience. Mills recalled a family past-his grandparents-of independent ranchers. Whether this was fact or fiction hardly matters, for it shaped a vision of self and world: life as an employee in an office-university, government, or publishing-did not measure up no matter the title, money, or respect. The same could be said of other venerable intellectual radicals, such as Wilson or Vidal or Galbraith; they looked back to families of independent farmers, statesmen, or rebels that seemed to provide a secure base for a radical life.

* Jews became intellectuals for the same reasons they became shopkeepers: they were not automatically excluded, and they commanded the prerequisities, wits and gumption.

* By quality alone, it is simply not possible to sharply distinguish the oeuvre of New York intellectuals from that of non-New Yorkers. Essay by essay, book by book, the collective work of New York intellectuals is neither so brilliant nor so scintillating that all else pales. It is almost more feasible to reverse the common opinion: the significant books of the fifties were authored by non-New Yorkers. The books by C. Wright Mills or Jane Jacobs or Rachel Carson possessed an energy and originality that the New Yorkers’ books rarely matched.SB
If this is true, then New York intellectuals receive the lion’s share of attention less by reason of genius than by sociological luck: their New York location and their personal and physical proximity to the publishing industry. In addition, their tireless monitoring of themselves lays the groundwork for further studies (and myths). For those padding cultural histories with reports on what writer X said to editor Y at Z’s party, the New York scene is a motherlode. It would be more difficult to fluff up a study of Norman 0. Brown or Kenneth Burke, around whom there were no circles and little gossip.
Cultural attention and intrinsic merit rarely tally, but even within the rarified universe of Freud studies, New Yorkers tend to edge out non-New Yorkers; for instance, the writings of Lionel Trilling and Norman 0. Brown on Freud belong to approximately the same period. For concentrated intellectual probing Brown’s Life Against Death may have no match in American studies of psychoanalysis; compared to this book Trilling’s Freud writings are casual and familiar.

* A cool appraisal of New York intellectuals reverses Bell’s judgment: they are best-most convincing, articulate, observant-when they are discussing their own lives, but the compelling theoretical works by New York intellectuals are in very short supply. Bell got it exactly wrong: precisely because of their immigrant past and fragile situation, New York intellectuals specialize in the self; theirs is the home of psychoanalysis, the personal essay, the memoir, the letter to the editor. In style and subject matter their writings are generally highly subjective. Of course, this is not a failing. An intensely personal voice permeates their most brilliant writings, for instance Kazin’s work including, obviously, his autobiography.

* In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Murray calls in his colleague, Jack, for advice. Murray bursts with praise and admiration. Jack invented Hitler Studies, which has become a small industry in the academic world. Everyone honors, defers, and toadies to Jack; he is invited to numerous conferences. “You’ve evolved an entire system around this figure [Hitler], a structure with countless substructures…. I marvel at the effort. It was masterful, shrewd and stunningly preemptive. It’s what I want to do with Elvis [Presley].”
A reviewer of a recent satiric academic novel summed up the situation:
“Once upon a time, if you wanted to get people to laugh at professors, you would portray them as goggle-eyed intellectuals so disoriented from the practical world that they wore unmatched shoes and spoke in Sid Caesarian German about incomprehensible nonsense. Today … the figure of the absent-minded professor has been replaced by a pack of smoothies…. Instead of retiring from the world of events, the new comic professor has the world too much with him. He craves big money, drives sporty cars, covets endowed chairs, and hops from conference to conference in pursuit of love, luxury and fame.”

* As they obtained university slots, New Left intellectuals acquired the benefits: regular salaries, long vacations, and the freedom to write, and sometimes teach, what they wanted. Of course, it was not this simple. Vast insecurities beset the academic enterprise. One’s future depended on a complex set of judgments made by colleagues and administrators. Academic freedom itself was fragile, its principles often ignored. Nor were these violations confined to meddling trustees and outside investigators. The threat emerged, perhaps increasingly, from within; academic careers undermined academic freedom. This may be a paradox, but it recalls an inner contradiction of academic freedom-the institution neutralizes the freedom it guarantees. For many professors in many universities academic freedom meant nothing more than the freedom to be academic.

* What is often obscure in the history of academic freedom is its almost inverse relationship to professionalization. Not classroom teaching but public statements or political affiliations have provoked hostility to professors. When threatened they have withdrawn, naturally, into their speciality. Professionalization has served as a refuge; it has also entailed a privatization that eviscerates academic freedom.

* Conservative periodicals, such as Commentary or American Scholar or Modem Age, print articles almost monthly lamenting that left academics have seized the universities. “Those of us who received graduate degrees in the humanities from American universities in the 1960s,” begins a typical piece, “know that a major change took place in the academy about that time.” This change is what the author calls “an invasion and conquest” by left professors espousing “dialectical methodologies.

* This conservative nightmare lifts with any daytime inspection of universities. What happened to the swarms of academic leftists? The answer is surprising: Nothing surprising. The ordinary realities of bureaucratization and employment took over. The New Left that stayed on the campus proved industrious and well behaved. Often without missing a beat, they moved from being undergraduates and graduate students to junior faculty positions and tenured appointments.
The ordinary realities comprise the usual pressures and threats; the final danger in a liberal society is unemployment: denial of tenure or unrenewed contract. In a tight market this might spell the end of an academic career. The years of academic plenty were long enough to attract droves of would-be professors; they were brief enough to ensure that all saw the “No Vacancy” sign. Professionalization proceeded under the threat of unemployment. The lessons of the near and far past, from McCarthyism to the first stone thrown at the first outsider, were clear to anyone: blend in; use the time allotted to establish scholarly credentials; hide in the mainstream.
Nor does it take much to intimidate professors; news travels fast and well. All know cases of teachers forced out, not because they were imperfect professionals but because they were something more: public intellectuals and radicals. Inevitably the cases reported in the news are those that take place in the elite and Ivy League schools; and simply by virtue of the publicity they are often “happily” resolved.

* Sociologists and more sober conservatives concede that leftwing professors are less left-wing than they are professors.

* Radicals in the University, a study published by the Hoover Institution, the conservative think tank, allows that since radicals captured the Modern Language Association (MLA) in 1968, nothing has changed. “In retrospect, the spectacular 1968 successes of the radicals have proven to be ephemeral. MLA is little different from what it was before 1968.” A conservative who wandered into the American Philosophical Association convention was pleasantly surprised: radicals had made hardly any impression.

* By establishing a credible body of radical, feminist, Marxist, or neo-Marxist scholarship, they assailed the venerable, sometimes almost official, interpretations dominant in their fields. The extent of this literature, the outpouring of left academics, is extraordinary, without precedent in American letters. In several areas the accomplishments of New Left intellectuals are irrevocable.
Yet it is also extraordinary for another reason; it is largely technical, unreadable and-except by specialists-unread. While New Left intellectuals obtain secure positions in central institutions, the deepest irony marks their achievement. Their scholarship looks more and more like the work it sought to subvert. A great surprise of the last twenty-five years is both the appearance of New Left professors and their virtual disappearance. In the end it was not the New Left intellectuals who invaded the universities but the reverse: the academic idiom, concepts, and concerns occupied, and finally preoccupied, young left intellectuals.

* Max Weber, very much a successful professor, once suggested that all prospective academics should answer the following question: “Do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you, without becoming embittered and without coming to grief?” He added, “I have found that only a few men could endure this situation.”

* One survey of American professors dryly states that initially “it is much more the prestige of one’s terminal degree and one’s graduate sponsor than one’s scholarly productivity which will lead to a good academic appointment.” Later professional achievement, however, does not correct but reinforces this imbalance; early success ensures future success. “Once having secured the right initial appointment, which is more a function of prestige than demonstrated competence … subsequent appointments are determined by the prestige of that first appointment.” University success, Martin Finkelstein concludes, summarizing studies of academic careers, depends more on “the prestige and visibility afforded by institutional affiliation” or “the prominence and power of contacts” or “the prestige of one’s doctoral institution” than on “either the quality or the number of one’s scholarly publications.”

* professionalization leads to privatization or depoliticization, a withdrawal of intellectual energy from a larger domain to a narrower discipline.

* Who are the important political scientists? Ricci asks. There seem to be none. He suggests that “the declining number of great thinkers and the growing prominence of universities” are related. Moreover, the eclipse of general intellectuals means that American citizens now rely on the professionals for information. Yet the work of these specialists reflects their own university situations, not the needs of the public.

* That it is difficult for an educated adult American to name a single political scientist or sociologist or philosopher is not wholly his or her fault; the professionals have abandoned the public arena. The influx of left scholars has not changed the picture; reluctantly or enthusiastically they gain respectability at the cost of identity. The slogan that was borrowed from the German left to justify a professional career-“the long march through the institutions”-has had an unexpected outcome: at least so far, the institutions are winning.

* Exposes and denunciations of academic sophistry and careerism can often be found in conservative journals, such as The New Criterion, Commentary, American Scholar, but rarely in left and liberal ones. Conservatives honor men of letters, regularly attacking professors and academic hustlers. Why?
In principle, conservatives have been less tempted by institutional or government solutions to social ills. At least since Edmund Burke, they have objected to experts, lawyers, or professors meddling in government or society; this is the crux of the conservative critique of the Enlightenment. They have prized the man of letters devoted to letters, not politics.

* This commitment to the aristocratic man of letters fires a critique of the university that has no left counterpart. The titles alone of books by conservatives index their concerns: The Degradation of the Academic Dogma by Robert Nisbet, The Fall of the American University by Adam Ulam, Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning by Russell Kirk, The Decline of the Intellectual by Thomas S. Molnar. These works all indict the endemic careerism and corruption of bloated universities. The authors’ loyalty to the obsolete man of letters enables them to condemn academics swarming for grants and advancements. Russell Kirk, a central figure of post-World War II conservatism, resigned from his university post in the early fifties, already protesting automatic growth and academic bureaucratization.
The intensity of the conservative attack on the university al most transcends political labels. Nisbet, in The Degradation of the Academic Dogma, occasionally sounds like a wide-eyed radical unmasking colleagues as capitalist tools. He deplores the conquest of the university by capitalism: “The first million dollars given to a university” was a million too much. “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of the university, bethought himself of saying, `This is my institute’ and found members of the faculty simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of the university’s higher capitalism.” 14
Entrepreneurs and hucksters have replaced disinterested scholars and researchers. An “academic bourgeoisie” complete with shoddy goods and conspicuous research has sprung up. “Scratch a faculty member today,” Nisbet reports, “and you almost always find a businessman.” “The entrepreneurial spirit” spreads throughout the university, corrupting everything and everyone.

* Unlike left academics, more easily seduced by professional journals, jargon, and life, the conservatives are committed to lucid prose; for this reason they are readable and are read. While several periodicals of the left devoted to the general reader have appeared in recent years, for instance Salmagundi or Grand Street, the proliferating radical journals are geared to sympathizers in various disciplines; the uninitiated could hardly plow through Enclitic or Social Text. The conservative journals, however, adopt a public idiom; an outsider can pick up and read The New Criterion.
Moreover, the conservative journals seem willing not only to challenge new academic wisdom but to highlight its function, shoring up insecure professors. A typical essay in Commentary questions the mania for theory by literature departments. “The terms that now cause pulses to race-deconstruction, disseminations, epistemes, the mirror stage, and the like-are so undescriptive of literary detail that they tend not so much to explain literature as to replace it.” Geoffrey H. Hartman, a Yale literary critic whom Frederick Crews quotes, states that he and his colleagues resist the attitude that “condemns the writer of criticism or commentary to nonliterary status and a service function.” The literary critics respond by the cult of high Theory, including the cult of the high Theorists-themselves. 16 Another Commentary piece judges, “this eagerness for a whole new set of terms that can be maneuvered around and behind and beyond literature has the look of a program of system-wide retooling in an industry that has discovered it is antiquated. 1117
The conservative critique comes alive, sniffing academic wheeling and dealing and its debased prose, where the left often slumbers. However, the vigorous right-wing attack soon flags. Conservatives’ opposition to professionals founders on their suspicion of all intellectuals, at least of all those who do not know their place.’s They inch toward anti-intellectualism, praising the experts they sometimes challenge. Their man of letters stays out of trouble by staying in a specialty.
From the Dreyfus affair to the Vietnam War, conservatives howled that intellectuals meddled in matters outside their training.

* Ironically, the conservative critique of professions turns into its opposite, a defense of special interests and fields. They object to the poets or plumbers speaking about foreign policy, instead of poems and sinks, as if the divisions of labor were cast in heaven. Herein lies a critical difference with the sometimes overlapping anarchist critique of professions.

* Hilton Kramer’s The New Criterion and Joseph Epstein’s American Scholar persistently accuse the left of injecting politics into culture. “The intrusion of politics into culture,” states Epstein, is “one of the major motifs” of the last twenty-five years.21 Not only do they imagine that at some point culture was uncontaminated by politics; but for them politics can only mean left-wing politics. Their own politics is not politics. Yet rarely have general periodicals devoted to the arts and schol arship been as emphatically political as The New Criterion and American Scholar. Alfred Kazin remarks that American Scholar, the journal of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, was never associated with any particular politics-until a neoconservative began saving it from politics.” The same might be said of Commentary. It may have once been liberal and tolerant of radicals, but it was never so relentlessly political until it became conservative.

* Certain topics are taboo; it is difficult to discuss the possibility that “some group differences in performance on IQ tests might have a genetic component”…

* From vague allusions we are to conclude that Marxists “dominate” departments and fields, but nothing is said of the conservatives who control most departments of economics or philosophy or political science or psychology. Radicals, we are told, try to hire radicals-as if conservatives for years, decades, or centuries have not staffed universities with conservatives. We are to presume that conservative ideas have difficulty getting a hearing-as if the entire structure of government, from the American president to most college presidents, does not emphatically lean to the right.

* The conservatives’ critique of big universities and big bucks is also more than a bit compromised by their embrace of big universities and big bucks. Few have resigned like Russell Kirk. They attack the noxious impact of the dollar from cool corporate offices. If left-wing academics appear sweaty, clamoring for positions and appointments, perhaps it is because they have traditionally been blacklisted, locked out in the street. It looks rather un seemly-from the top floors where the conservatives lament the decline of scholarship. No academic left can tap funds of the magnitude available to conservative intellectuals. No slick and expensive left journal has ever appeared like The New Criterion, handsomely funded by a conservative foundation, an arm of the Olin Corporation, which originally provided Park Avenue office space for Kramer’s periodical.35 Nor does the left include individuals like Richard Mellon Scaife, a great-grandson of the founder of the Mellon bank fortune, with millions available to fund conservative projects and journals.36
American corporations increasingly spread their political views by supporting or paying conservative intellectuals.

* The transformation of the traditional intellectual habitat is not instantaneous; it parallels the decay of the cities, the growth of the suburbs, and the expansion of the universities. There is no need to announce the collapse of civilization when fast food outlets nudge out greasy spoons, vending machines replace newspaper stands, or green campuses supplant vandalized city parks; but there is little reason to ignore its impact on the rhythm of cultural life. It matters whether people grow up on city streets or in suburban malls; whether intellectuals obsess about a single editor who judges their work or three “referees,” ten colleagues, several committees, and various deans.
Universities encourage a definite intellectual form. They do not shoot, they simply do not hire those who are unable or unwilling to fit in. Even Henry Luce of the Time magazine empire, often denounced as a master propagandist, employed and even liked mavericks and dissenters. Universities, on the other hand, hire by committees: one needs degrees, references, the proper deference, a pleasant demeanor. To win over a committee that recommends to a department which counsels a chairman who advises a dean who suggests to a college president takes a talent very different from gaining the assent of a single individual. It is almost ludicrous to imagine “Professor Edmund Wilson” or “Professor H. L. Mencken.”
It is even possible to chart a cultural shift in the unlikely quarter of book acknowledgments and dedications. Early Elizabethan books were usually graced by flowery prefaces dedicated to a patron who supported the writer and who, it was hoped, would be instructed and edified by the work.

* There is no doubt that the demise of public intellectuals reflects the recomposition of the public itself; it coincides with the wild success of television, the expansion of the suburbs, the corrosion of the cities, the fattening of the universities. The eclipse of the big general magazines, such as Look and Life, itself registers a parcellation of a once more homogeneous public; they have been replaced by “special interest” magazines-tennis, computer, travel, sports. In view of these developments, the disappearance of general intellectuals into professions seems completely understandable, inevitable, and perhaps desirable.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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