Russell Jacoby

The Last Intellectuals

VTR Date: February 20, 1988

Guest: Jacoby, Russell


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Russell Jacoby
Title: “The last Intellectuals”
VTR: 2/20/88

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Things were better: today, a lot of people have very few doubts about that proposition…particularly when quite so many people get quite so old as I am, and have quite so much more to remember than to anticipate. So why not do so fondly? Nostalgia prevails, god knows…the good old days and all that…both on the left and the right, as when Allan bloom sat here decrying the closing of the American mind, suggesting that it was so much more open before it became so open that its brains fell out. And on and on, about so many parts of our lives.

In the nostalgia of our times, things were so much better then than now…even in a new book that has attracted considerable attention, as it puts a slightly different spin on our penchant for pointing with pride to the past, while viewing with alarm the present and anticipating the future the same way.

When you read Russell Jacoby, a Ph.D. in History, it’s clear that he’s an intellectual by anyone’s definition. But in his new Basic Books volume, “The Last Intellectuals, American Culture in the Age of Academe,” he writes about his own kind as a disappearing breed, presumably much to our detriment. As The New York Times summarizes if: “Mr. Jacoby’s central thesis is that the life of the American Republic has been impoverished because there are so few intellectuals these days trying to help explain the world to the general public. The university, he argues, exercises a monopoly over the life of the mind, such that the younger generation of thinkers, in sharp contrast to their elders, lives in a straitjacket of professionalized academic jargon incomprehensible to non-specialists. Thus, these intellectuals have given up talking to the general public, and engage only other professionals in a language only they can understand.”

Now, we all know that you can’t go too far wrong in this country by attacking its educational establishment for one sin or another. But this is a strange indictment, indeed: providing sustenance for the intellectual. And I want to ask my guest today, if the academy is really to be berated for providing perhaps the only safe harbor there is in America for the life of the mind, however inaccessible it may be to the rest of us. How about it?

Jacoby: No. which is to say…

Heffner: No indictment?

Jacoby: Yes, there is an indictment. But the indictment, I believe, can only be considered in relationship to the absence of an alternative. Which is to say, it only makes sense to critically appraise the university in comparison to the decline of the alternative, which I call urban bohemia. That is, the alternative to the university has relatively disappeared over the last several decades so that the intellectuals, they have very few choices and the university is certainly the major choice. So it’s not simply indicting the university as much as talking about almost a geographical, cultural reality, which has eliminated the extra university space.

Heffner: You know, it’s interesting that you put it that way. I was thinking about opening the program saying that it was an indictment of my friend Lew Rudin, the real estate magnate, in terms of this very nice point that you make – that there aren’t those inexpensive, bohemian places where intellectuals can gather any longer, and they have to make their living on the campus.

Jacoby: Well, I don’t know about your friend, but I think the question of the imperatives of gentrification, of the transformation of the city, has to be considered in the light of what it has done to intellectual activity. So it is not simply indicting the universities because it is true that they offer a refuge for intellectuals who have no place to go. The point is, there is also a cost, and it tends to be a high cost, what it exacts, so at the same time that it is giving salaries and security, intellectuals, particularly the younger intellectuals, who are the ones that I am looking at, that tended to become professionals in a way that earlier intellectuals never were.

Heffner: The book, which is so interesting – “The Last Intellectuals” – and maybe because when you touch upon the past, you touch upon all of my teachers –Hofstadter and Trilling, and so many of them. You seem to be saying that the messenger ought to be killed – that’s the problem I have with your message – the messenger in this instance being that preserving instance of the academy itself. What would have happened to the intellectuals, given the absence of Bohemia, if there weren’t…

Jacoby: What is happening may be the question. But the people you mention, who figure certainly in my book – the Hofstadters, the Trillings, the Irving Howes – these are people who come out of urban bohemias, or at least straddled a world which was both extra-university and intra-university. And this has become the problem – that the younger generation is exclusively professional and you could certainly say, well, it has given them the space to write professionally, but again it is at a high cost, because the thing that I look to is the replacement for that generation of intellectuals.

Heffner: Let’s talk about this high cost – have they been seduced? If so, from what?

Jacoby: Well, they’ve been seduced…I quote in my book, for example, Daniel Bell. Daniel Bell works as a freelance journalist and yet is insecure with his existence. So I think I cite in there…he tells Luce at one point, because he is working for Fortune, that he has an offer for a university job and he says that he has four reasons – June, July, August and September – he has four months off, something which you don’t get as a freelance journalist, or as a staff journalist. Well, there is no doubt that the summer is off, relative security, so I’m not indicting people for accepting that. Those were good alternatives, given what was happening in the cities, what was happening to freelance writers. Nevertheless, over time, and particularly for younger intellectuals that were almost born into that world, they never learned how to write the kind of lucid prose which older intellectuals prized.

Heffner: Well, that’s what you say is the great loss – there is no longer that connection, that you describe so lovingly, between the intellectual and the rest of us. Could it be because there is not quite so much to say? Not quite so much to write?

Jacoby: Well, there is certainly no absence of writing. I mean, there is no absence of people trying to say things.

Heffner: No, I mean things are important to connect with that greater public you write about.

Jacoby: I can’t say I would put it…I mean, some reviewers and critics have said, “Well, these professors are lost in the university, have lost their public voice. They have nothing to say. They’re bankrupt intellectually. They are invisible because they have nothing to say.” I don’t’ quite believe it. Though there is certainly a truth to that, but I see it more as accepting a professional role, which means that they no longer have any reason to address a larger public. So that you have many literary critics, but you don’t’ have Lionel Trilling or Edmund Wilson. They write, they publish, but it tends to be for colleagues. Some of it is interesting, it’s not all interesting, but it has lost that public dimension. It no longer even tries to be read by others.

Heffner: You see, Mr. Jacoby, the thing that puzzled me as I read “The Last Intellectuals” was whether you were talking about cause or effect, whether, again, this lessened connection had more to do with the diminution of the scholar and then the community and of the message, than with the fact that there was less adversity. You made it sound, in part here, and perhaps you believe this and perhaps it’s true, that adversity – the ability to meet together in Bohemia – and the adversity – the poverty that was associate with those years in ‘20s and the 30s, sometimes even into the ‘40s, were productive. Do you feel that way?

Jacoby: Again, it’s easy to romanticize what was Bohemia, what were the freelance intellectuals. And I try not to do that. The simple point is that the social environment of intellectuals is crucial, and if their environment is cafes, small magazines and cities, this takes an imprint – this imprints their writing. So I joke in the book something to the effect that café society and bohemias give rise to the aphorism and the essay, while colleges and colleagues give rise to the monograph and grant application. And I almost…I do see it in those terms – that is, the social environment of intellectuals does affect how they write and think. So I am trying not to romanticize what these urban bohemias were all about, but it clearly has a certain effect on how people saw themselves and how, when they wrote, they saw themselves as participating in the larger public, as opposed to seeing themselves a sociologists or literary critics or art historians, which are the definitions which people adopt as they enter the university.

Heffner: It is so hard for me to imagine the Trillings and the Hofstadters and the people like that, writing in any other way than they did, writing with any other than the large audience that they addressed themselves to, even if today they were tied to the rigors of communicating with their colleagues rather than with the outside world.

Jacoby: This almost confirms my argument. Yes, this was a generation which emerged almost when the university was marginal. They saw themselves as intellectuals in the larger community,. The question of their specialization was secondary. They didn’t see themselves, and Trilling himself talks about that, and Hofstadter as well. They saw themselves as participating in intellectual life. They didn’t’ see themselves as ‘literary critics’. But this is the point, this is a generational dynamic, so that the next generation, and in a sense it is my generation, doesn’t really see themselves in that sense. They see themselves first as specialists and that takes a toll then on how they think and write.

Heffner: Is there a part of American intellectual life that retains that larger connection that you miss?

Jacoby: That’s a difficult question and I’m not sure. I’m not making absolute judgments on American cultural life. I’m looking at certain areas – economics, sociology, literary criticism – there are certainly novelists who have a public…there are poets who strive for a public. I don’t see these as ironclad laws of history, and in this sense I’m simply highlighting what I see as the major forces and developments which have affected mainly these certain types of intellectuals – the critics, the sociologists, mainly the economists. But I would be a little leery of saying that there is nothing out there.

Heffner: Well, you know, you speak and you write in a sense about language, about a patois. A thought goes through my mind – what is the agenda, what is the content that you would have spoken or written? What is it that you miss in terms not of this more traditional voice connection between the intellectual and the larger community? What is it that you want said these days that’s not being said? Or is that a question that has no real basis in terms of your own thinking?

Jacoby: It certainly has a basis, but I’m couching my argument in its broadest terms as I see an absence almost of a younger generation of intellectuals, particularly, I might add, of left intellectuals.

Heffner: Aha, that’s what I was asking about.

Jacoby: Okay…that seem to be the least visible and in part, for the reasons I outlined, so that you might have an Allan Bloom, a conservative. You don’t have many responses. You have sophisiticated, critical bursts, educational bursts, without speaking the language of the public. Which is not to say that they have nothing to say, but they’re professors, they’re specialists.

Heffner: But aren’t you…what you just said, isn’t it perhaps, and this was my suspicion as I read, that this ‘Ay, de me’, the lost and the last intellectuals, that you are really saying the left is no longer in evidence. Those you admired, those you quote, are all from the left. That was the tradition. And you look around now and you don’t find them – maybe because we don’t…we do have Allan Bloom.

Jacoby: Right, we do have Allan Bloom.

Heffner: An intellectual.

Jacoby: Yes.

Heffner: Who has spoken to the public at large.

Jacoby: Yes.

Heffner: We do have Norman Podhoretz who speaks to the public at large.

Jacoby: Right, right. And those are both from an older generation.

Heffner: Not so much Bloom.

Jacoby: Right, not so much. I don’t know exactly how old he is, but…in a certain sense, yes. That is my discussion. It is not totally symmetrical in the sense that I’m tracing almost the left intellectuals more than the conservative intellectuals. Because if, in fact, you look at American cultural history over thirty years, on one hand the expansion of a cultural intellectual left is the noticeable fact. There are many left wing intellectuals in universities. In the ‘50s there were very few, probably six, or probably a dozen. There were not many. Now there are hundreds, perhaps thousands. But they have not made themselves present in the larger public. Now, I think that’s less true of the conservatives for a few reasons. On one hand, many conservatives sort of prize writing well, being stylists, and they almost prize the man of letters tradition – someone who stands outside of institutions. So the conservatives, I think – and this is true of some younger conservatives, have been more visible in part because the notion of the public intellectual somehow remains greater by power among conservatives.

Heffner: And maybe because they are more interested in human beings rather than simply in ideas, whether the ideas are read or heard or not.

Jacoby: Well, that’s interesting. I don’t think they are more interested in human beings, but I would put it in the tradition…in the way I said that they honor writing well. They honor the man of letters who speaks to the public, and they are more suspicious of institutions – of becoming the specialists. So there is a very emphatic, conservative criticism of the university which overlaps with mine, in fact.

Heffner: Of course, the thought occurs to me to ask you what in your estimation has happened to the university as it has co opted, if it has, or preempted, as it has given a home to the intellectuals – how has it changed?

Jacoby: Well, the main way it’s changed is that it’s grown. And in that sense it’s become a home in the sense that it never was. But I’m not so sure, and this is probably where I would differ from someone like bloom, that there has been a sharp decline or transition within the universities themselves which you can trace to relativism or German philosophy or whatnot. I’m not so sure, if you look at the universities in the last thirty or fifty years, the expansion is the notable factor. I don’t see a decline so much in education which can be attributed to the universities.

Heffner: Where do you think the impact will be of what you see as the decline of the public intellectual – of a kind of communication on the higher level that did prevail certainly in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and even ‘50s?

Jacoby: Well, I think the implications are troubling. That is, you face the prospect of an impoverished public discourse, of impoverished public discussion. That is, fewer and fewer voices who are speaking out in the ways that once were. I mean, one of the articles, in fact, mentioned that Harvard had a difficult time coming up with a commencement speaker, a younger one. The younger public intellectuals who spoke in broad terms were not around. And I think that’s the troubling consequence, that is the public culture can grow older and greyer and ultimately get more impoverished because you don’t have the replenishment in the same way as once.

Heffner: Well, of course you are talking about the voice and I was thinking about not the expression but the hearing of the expression and the audience for the expression, and I wondered whether we don’t have to let…just as much for the cause of this impoverished exchange,, the fact that there aren’t’ those who are that interested who will listen.

Jacoby: Right. Well, I think that’s true. That is certainly part of the story…half the story maybe is the transformation of the audience. And this can be seen not only in television, but sort of the decline of the big magazines and the special interest magazines. People get tennis magazines or computer magazines – there is a specialization and fragmentation in the audience itself, which leads one to believe that the kind of general intellectual is less needed and wanted. And I think this is part of the story.

Heffner: Maybe…well, there is supply and demand and you are suggesting there is no supply or there is much less of a supply, and I’m asking you what the connection might not be to the demand. Where do we go then? What happens? What happens to the level of American thought? What happens to American culture in the age, not just of academe, but in the age of the lack, the diminution, the non-presence of this great tradition that you extol?

Jacoby: Well, what happens? I don’t have a prescription. I don’t see it as an inevitable process in that there is no demand for it. I think that there is probably a weakening of the demand, nevertheless the older intellectuals, who I mention and discuss, are alive and well. I mean, the people who read the Daniel Bells, the Kenneth Galbraiths, the William Buckleys, the Gore Vidals. They write the books, which are read. So it’s not as though the audience has completely disappeared. I think there is an audience – it may be shrinking – but at the same time the younger intellectuals have abandoned it almost more rapidly than the audiences are abandoning younger intellectuals. So I think there is a space and a possibility to reclaim the vernacular, to reclaim the public idiom. Now, how one does that, I don’t know. I mean, there is no ten steps – how to reclaim the public intellectuals, reclaim that role. I’m not certain.

Heffner: Do you have some thoughts, perhaps, of the role that the university itself might play to foster this re-invigoration of the exchange between the intellectual and the public?

Jacoby: Well, that’s complicated. I mean, I think that there is a role and there has been much discussion of exactly that. If the university has become the monopoly of intellectuals, then its face towards the public – its public service – has to be more than just words. That is, it has the duty to support intellectuals who are more than specialists. And is there an institutional way of doing that? Is there a way of supporting it? All I can say is that that seems to be on the agenda now.

Heffner: What do you mean? What do you mean on the agenda?

Jacoby: There is more and more discussion among higher…officials and administrators of higher education, exactly that issue – that is, how can the universities sustain public intellectuals? Is it simply a one way street towards increasing professionalization? That is, is there a possibility that universities can give support…financial support, intellectual support…for a different kind of writer than the ones which seem to be emerging now – metatheoreticians, more and more specialists. I think it is on the agenda, but no one has come up with a prescription of what to do.

Heffner: How about building some garrets instead of nice faculty housing?

Jacoby: This may be it. In fact…a joke…it would be like institutes of public intellectuals. A new tower would go up, grants would be given…but they would become specialized as everyone else. You would have the professor of public intellectual discourse. Not much progress probably there, but maybe cold water flats would make more sense.

Heffner: So you do, you really do believe in this adversity. You know, I’m older than you are and I’ve lived at a time when I could watch these men whom you admire so experience some of the rigors of adversity. They did very well or you wouldn’t have picked on them to write about them, if they hadn’t. But my curiosity was piqued as to whether this is what Jacoby really wanted.

Jacoby: Well, again, I can’t say that poverty makes for good intellectuals…I mean, that somehow we should disband the universities and set everyone back fifty years. It is a social environment which is crucial. It is not simply the poverty of urban bohemias and it’s not simply the salaries. But it is the framework, it is the context which does mold intellectual life and I think it is molding it in a peculiar way in the last thirty years. Again, especially of the younger.

Heffner: You know, we just have a few minutes left, but I wanted to get back to this question of left, right. Where is the left today? Some kind of agenda we discussed here a moment ago – where is the intellectual left? What is it in fact?

Jacoby: What is it? It is a series of professions at this point, essentially. Or parts of a profession. There is a presence of left intellectuals in economics and sociology and so on. And I mention in my book – in the 195-s you have C. Wright Mills and in the 1980s you have several hundreds, perhaps thousands, of radical sociologists, but who are they? No one knows. But I think this is illustrative – that there is a presence in disciplines – some of the work is good, I would certainly say that a lot of it is not good, but it doesn’t have a public face to it. And I think too much of the left is insulated in universities.

Heffner: It is interesting, I don’t know…you may know about Mills, whether Mills is still widely read. Certainly Hofstadter is still widely read.

Jacoby: I think Mills is widely read, but he’s honored in the reach. I mean, here was someone who saw himself as a sociologist as well as a citizen of the world. Let’s not make that mistake – we are sociologists. We got confused about his role, and Mills was in fact very emphatic with intellectuals – like playing roles in politics and the international scene. So I mention in this book – I mean, half of the books written are dedicated to C. Wright Mills – at least in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. and yet his tradition was not carried on. The followers became more specialized.

Heffner: Well, there is no question but that “The Last Intellectuals” is a provocative book and for me, certainly, an enjoyable one because it, again, in the name of nostalgia, took me back to these greats whom you admire and whom I admired and studied with and I wanted to thank you so much, Russell Jacoby, for joining me today on The Open Mind.

Jacoby: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next week. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, and it’s a controversial one, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wein; and the New York Times Company Foundation.