The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe

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That I see as a crucial part of the intellectual project. Michael Duffy : And you were saying there was a decline in this. Who were some of the last intellectuals you were thinking of? Russell Jacoby : I was using an American reference point and doing a generational study and looking at people born in , people like Edmund Wilson or Lewis Mumford, and then moving on to people like Kenneth Galbraith or Irving Howe or Jane Jacobs, intellectuals who wrote important books in a language which was accessible.

Lynn Garafola, The Last Intellectuals, NLR I/, May–June

I see that tradition as weakening, and that is the problem. Michael Duffy : They had dominated the public intellectual landscape for a long time, even in , hadn't they. Russell Jacoby : That was exactly the starting point of my book.

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Looking at , '88, and looking at Again, it was Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Gore Vidal, and that the new generation were not as visible and didn't seem to be reaching people in the same way as earlier people. Russell Jacoby : Part of the story is paradoxically professionalisation or academisation because many of the earlier intellectuals were either completely outside the university, people like Edmund Wilson or Lewis Mumford, or they entered the university late in their lives, people like Irving Howe and Daniel Bell.

But the next generation and that is in some sense my generation essentially were students and went to graduate school and then went into becoming professors and never had a life outside the university. As a result, paradoxically because it's in some ways a 60s generation, they were theoretically perhaps more radical then the previous generation but didn't reach people in the same way, didn't have the same kind of prose, didn't write the essays and books which people could read. Michael Duffy : I wonder why that was? You would think, without knowing a lot of the detail, that being paid to think and write and having the time to do both would actually help you become a public intellectual.

Russell Jacoby

Russell Jacoby : Well, absolutely, and this shows you something about the power of the institutions or the power of the profession. I mention in my book, and I think it's still true, that virtually any field you're in, when you're evaluating people for hiring or for promotion, one of the most damning things you can say about someone is that their work is journalistic, and that becomes a shorthand for saying it's not deep, but it also means it's readable. And if it's readable it's considered superficial, and if it's unreadable it's considered profound.

No one spells this out but it's the assumption. I think that yes, paradoxically we have many more left and left-leaning intellectuals than certainly 25, 30, 50 years ago in the university but they don't make the same kind of presence because they have willy-nilly succumbed to some of these academic imperatives of writing scholarly books for small audiences as opposed to writing books for the educated public. Michael Duffy : Why do you think it is that the sort of people who once would have become public intellectuals haven't realised what you've been talking about and stayed out of the academy?

Or to put it another way and it's a bit hypothetical, I know , had Edmund Wilson been a young man in , do you think he would have stayed out, or is there something attractive about the academy that would have sucked him in? Russell Jacoby : There was something attractive, and again, I say in my book, Daniel Bell was a classic case, he was a journalist writing for Fortune , and at a certain point he turned to Luce who ran the whole show and said he was leaving for the university.

He was asked why, and he said he had four good reasons; June, July, August and September. In other words, he had four months off as a professor. The point is, in short, that the freelance life became increasingly difficult and the universities were expanding at the same time and offered salaries and secure positions. So I think it would be hard to say of course what Edmund Wilson would do, but it's clear that people were tempted to join these institutions, and they joined them at their peril, the golden chains or something.

But it has become increasingly difficult to become a freelancer, which people like Edmund Wilson were their whole lives. Michael Duffy : Why is it difficult? Are there fewer outlets? Is there less money sloshing around for that sort of writing? Russell Jacoby : I think all of the above. Again, I haven't done the exact economic analysis but I think I mention somewhere that if you look at the rates that small magazines or not so small magazines pay for book reviews, something which Edmund Wilson did in the s Those kinds of rates haven't increased at the same time as inflation and the cost of living.

So I think the brutal facts of being a freelancer, particularly of a kind of intellectual journalism, has become increasingly difficult. So people join institutions which can give you a salary and medical care as opposed to trying to fight the system, and that is understandable because in some sense I've done that myself, but I'm aware of the costs and I think the costs are high.

I'd like to be notified of new arrivals in the following categories.

Michael Duffy : Do you think as a result of this that the quality of public intellectual debate has lowered, where it still exists? Taking the New York Review of Books , for example, would you see it as the contents has been diminished since it started?

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  5. Blogs may be more like private journals with megaphones than reasoned contributions to public life. The Internet provides instant communication and quick access to vast resources, but has it altered the quality or content of intellectual discussions? Too many voices may cancel each other out. We face a revolt of the writers. Today everyone is a blogger, but where are the readers? Rapidly produced, they are just as rapidly forgotten. Unless, of course, bloggers like myself do not have pretensions to posterity…or even punditry. Some of us are just trying to start some conversations, even small conversations that while somewhat rapidly produced do take a little more effort than your average cocktail party banter.

    The blog of Academe magazine

    I could not imagine the project going forward. To my great surprise it did go forward. It turned out they were serious.

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    I still don't get it. I'm in no position to judge it. I find it embarrassing to watch. Hardly a fair assessment. All to the good, either way. It is at very least in need of an update. Arguing that the pursuit of tenure distorts the development and ethos of young intellectuals has begun to sound like someone complaining that the visual quality of a film is ruined when put on VHS. At the same time, Jacoby has little to say about the situation of the public intellectual now, with the means of communication between thinker and public in flux.

    It would be worth having another documentary in which Russell Jacoby follows up the arguments left undeveloped in his cinematic debut.

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