Public Intellectuals

Recently, The Chronicle Review, the magazine insert of The Chronicle of Higher Education, devoted some attention to the nature and status of public intellectuals. The December 4, 2015 issue hosted a forum on “After the Last Intellectuals,” pp. B6-B11, based on a session held at the Society for Intellectual History in October. The title derives from Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe published in 1987. Jacoby’s book was a lament about the decline of public intellectuals in the university as higher education turned its attention to more specialized knowledge, the narrowing of disciplines, and new demands on academics to produce specialized and highly technical knowledge and writing for other specialists, in order to generate citation counts and to gain research grants. Jacoby’s book led to many others writing about this topic, generally in the guise of critiques about higher education (one thinks of the many books about the “corporate” university, for instance).


In this forum, Jacoby leads off by revisiting his book, how it was received, and whether the issues he identified in it still persist. He acknowledges that some of his critics were correct about what he missed or misinterpreted, but Jacoby still argues that something has been lost. He reflects on new assessments of his book, that there are public intellectuals who are using the Internet and blogging instead of publishing in traditional print venues aimed at the general reader. He still believes that a “middle ground of serious writing directed at the common reader might be disappearing and with them their authors” (p. B7).

This forum includes a number of other perspectives about public intellectuals. Historian Claire Bond Potter considers the new opportunities for networking on the Internet, ones that extend beyond traditional forms of publishing and rigid academic models. Jonathan Holloway considers how Black public intellectuals relate to what Jacoby and others have been discussing. And Leo P. Ribuffo claims that Jacoby’s definition of the public intellectual is too narrow and too concentrated in one time period and region (1890s-1950s and New York City).

More recently, Corey Robin published “How Intellectuals Create a Public” in the February 29, 2016 issue of The Chronicle Review, pp. B10-B14. He argues that public intellectuals are not just interested in wide readership but in writing that transforms and influences. Robin, a political scientist admitting the influence of Jacoby’s book, takes a very different tack, worrying about whether there are publics even to address. He sees that the “prospects today for public intellectuals seem even better. After all, one of the material factors Jacoby claimed was driving intellectuals away from the public was the ease and comfort of university life. That life is gone.“ (p. B14). Of course, this is painting in broad strokes. In some sectors of the academy there is comfort in researching and writing for other similarly-minded academics; even in professional schools, there is a drift away from addressing practitioners and an emphasis on publishing in the right journals and compiling the right levels of citation counts.

That there continues to be discussion about public intellectuals is encouraging. That the possibilities of influencing and informing the public are there, with digital scholarship and blogging in addition to publishing in a growing array of independent journals, also is reassuring. And, of course, there do continue to be outstanding examples of public intellectuals we can draw inspiration from, such as Jill Lepore, Alberto Manquel, Thomas Mallon, Henri Petroski, and Witold Rybzyzinski, just to name a small number. Some fields, such as history and literary studies, have done better than others, such as the information sciences, which, except for pundits critiquing the implications of technology, have stayed grounded in their own technical journals and conference papers. I explored this a bit some years ago in my “Accountability, Public Scholarship, and Library, Information, and Archival Science Educators,” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science Vol. 41, No. 2 (Spring, 2000), pp. 94-105, discovering a decided lack of public scholarship; perhaps it is time to revisit this matter again.


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