Big Brains, Small Impact

By Dr. James Emery White

Twenty years ago, Russell Jacoby published The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. If you have heard the phrase “public intellectual,” you can thank his work.

“I offered a generational explanation for what I saw as the eclipse of younger intellectuals,” writes Jacoby on the recent anniversary. “Why in 1987 had the same intellectuals dominated for more than 20 years, with few new faces among them? Why was it that the Daniel Bells or Gore Vidals or Kenneth Galbraiths seemed to lack successors?”

Answer? “Professionalization and academization appeared to be the reason.”

Unlike earlier intellectuals who tended to write for the educated public, Jacoby observed that thinkers in his day flocked to the universities, where “the politics of tenure loom larger than the politics of culture.” Jacoby contended that younger intellectuals became professors who geared their work toward their colleagues and specialized journals. Reflecting on the heart of his original thesis, Jacoby writes that “The new thinkers became academic – not public – intellectuals, with little purchase outside professional circles.” Or as he wrote in his original work, “Campuses are their homes; colleagues their audience; monographs and specialized journals their media.”

Conclusion? “Big brains, small impact.”

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