Where Have All the Thinkers Gone?

Despite an abundance of ‘talking heads,’ a nation in need of wisdom finds the public intellectual missing from action.

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

Schmuhl Summer02 Illustration by Ryoichi Yotsumoto/SIS

Editor's Note: The cover story of our Winter 2019-20 issue examines America’s distrust of experts. That’s a recurring theme in American history, but once upon a time, there was such a thing as a “public intellectual,” a figure who could help distill for a general audience the major political and cultural issues of the day. Robert Schmuhl ’70 wrote this Magazine Classic in 2002 lamenting that talking heads had replaced great minds in the public discourse.

After a decade when “the egghead” was constantly ridiculed for contributing little more than hot air to Cold War America, the historian Richard Hofstadter identified “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind” as a deeply rooted national trait in his 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. This sobering study of cultural querulousness won a Pulitzer Prize, and it remains a literary landmark in pointing out a pervasive characteristic of a predominately pragmatic country.

Native wariness of the vaporously theoretical or unduly abstract made the down-to-earth, cracker-barrel philosophizing of Ben Franklin, Mark Twain or Will Rogers indigenously more acceptable in the New World. Masking rumination with folksy wit and common sense, these “wise fools” prompted people to think — but reinforced suspicions about sophisticated cogitation.

Today, however, a contradictory concern now creates a brow-furrowing conundrum among more and more idea watchers: Who are the contemporary intellectuals best able to help the public at large think through the essential issues and problems of our time?
The recent publication of Richard A. Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline – and the robust debate it initiated – posed the question anew in high-decibel fashion, drowning out anything resembling a cogent (or even tentatively satisfactory) answer. One newsmagazine report about the book inquired in stark, boldface type: “All Thought Out?”

Perturbed by the punditry intellectuals offer via the media about matters of national consequence, Posner — a federal appellate judge, law school lecturer and prolific writer — attempted a systematic analysis of such work, complete with tables, figures and formulas. As a scholarly study intent on delivering definitive results in a rigorously scientific way, Public Intellectuals is something of a guidebook for what not to do. The book, however, is useful in explaining why the current state of reflective, thought-provoking commentary and criticism for a general audience prompts questions — and criticism of its own.

Echoing Russell Jacoby’s argument in The Last Intellectuals, which appeared in 1987 and lamented “the eclipse of public intellectuals,” Posner places much of the blame on the mania for specialization that’s become de rigueur throughout the modern university in recent decades. (For example, while political science claimed five subdisciplines in 1960, the number mushroomed to 104 by 2000 — with more, inevitably, on the way.)

Narrowing any academic field deepens its work, as the plumbing of abstruse subjects clarifies their meaning with microscopic specificity. But this process can make resulting research and scholarship more insular, more the province of professionals communicating only among peers. Enlightening a wider public can be about the furthest consideration on a specialist’s mind.

Up until the 1950s or so, independent intellectuals — men and women of ideas and letters — wrote essays and books for the intelligent yet common reader, and that work was their life and livelihood. Lewis Mumford, Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, Hannah Arendt and others fearlessly tackled culture, politics and matters of the mind in accessible prose from a generalist’s (rather than specialist’s) point of view. They took complicated subjects — everything from the threats to civilization posed by modern technology to the Dead Sea Scrolls — and explained them in an idiom the public could comprehend.

The post-World War II growth in American higher education and the emphasis on a prosperous standard of living in the 1950s prompted formerly independent intellectuals (notably such figures as Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe and Daniel Bell) to accept faculty positions at colleges and universities. A teaching job meant steady income, health care and retirement benefits — and, as Bell quipped, “June, July, August and September.”

Over time, though, as specialization and professionalization circumscribed academe, the broadly gauged thinker who concentrated on communicating ideas and interpretations to a general audience became about as common as a raccoon coat on the American campus. As Jacoby perceptively points out in The Last Intellectuals: “If the western frontier closed in the 1890s, the cultural frontier closed in the 1950s. After this decade intellectuals joined established institutions or retrained.”

What happened in the intellectual realm also occurred, in parallel fashion and time-frame, with literary writing. While Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck — all American recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature during the 20th century — steadfastly focused on their writing throughout their careers, more recent Nobel laureates (Saul Bellow in 1976 and Toni Morrison in 1993) are academics as well as authors. Even more tellingly, the expansion of creative writing programs at U.S. universities led to a continuing migration of serious novelists, poets and dramatists to campuses.

Unlike the case of a Hemingway or Steinbeck, the security of an academic appointment means an author need not worry about the next book royalty or magazine fee to pay monthly bills. It also means a teacher-writer can publish more experimental, avant-garde work that might not appeal to the public at large. So-called “little magazines” and small presses thrive in this university-dependent climate.

Cast a cold eye at a best-seller list today, and you see mass-market novels composed by writers with definite genres — romance, mystery, thriller, espionage and the like. It’s difficult to imagine their creations being taught in future literature classes.

The reality of contemporary popular fiction offers other lessons that bear on the current state of the public intellectual. Mainstream publishers seek (and promote) novels that have a chance of blockbuster success through chain bookstore sales. Those same publishers have similar, if not quite as grand, expectations for others books, including those dealing with more cerebral concerns.

More significantly, the publishing industry is an integral part of a more encompassing entertainment and communications environment, with specific values, motivations and ways of operating. At the same time when there’s woe-is-us worry about the demise of discussion-setting public intellectuals, the media more frequently rely on their contemporary embodiment. A big story — terrorist attacks on America, a disputed national election, the impeachment investigation of a president — demands perspective and context from putatively knowledgeable sources.

In a twinkling, “experts” arrive to provide commentary and analysis on television or radio as well as throughout newspapers or magazines. Illuminating as this work can be, Posner is justified in noting that academics can, indeed, “make fools of themselves in public by writing [and talking] precipitately about matters outside their area of professional specialization.” Like power and money, celebrity can corrupt — and turn a promising thinker into a dial-a-quote “publicity” intellectual.

Be that as it may, it’s important to describe the situation more fully — and not just rail at the fates for work that, in Posner’s view, “is becoming less distinctive, less interesting, and less important.” With institutions of higher education and agenda-oriented think tanks the places intellectuals call home nowadays, obligations beyond writing and speaking for public understanding take precedence. In academe, tenure and promotion come, in large measure, from stellar teaching and specialized scholarship.

Academics who comment to the media or publish journalistic articles are, in other words, engaging in unnatural acts. And at think tanks, resident fellows or scholars tend to push particular ideological or political positions in agreement with policies espoused by the sponsoring institute or center.

In either case, the affiliated nature of the intellectual can raise questions and inhibit independence. Faculty colleagues, for example, might deem such moonlighting in the limelight detrimental to a serious scholar’s career. The public, by contrast, could consider such work a form of slumming, largely for ego enhancement rather than intellectual enlightenment or elevation.

Whether fair or not, these concerns conspire to make Posner, Jacoby and other observers long for those past thinkers who saw their job as the accessible communication of ideas and their consequences to a general audience. In much the same way that the historian Daniel J. Boorstin in his 1961 book, The Image, identified the evolution of the mass media as a prime reason for the devolution from genuine hero to well-known celebrity, we see a similar phenomenon with intellectuals of yesterday and today. Modes of presentation play a principal role in how we assess the substance being communicated.

For much of the 20th century, longer formats — the extended essay, the series of articles, the book — provided public thinkers with the appropriate space and context for reflective writing. Today many more potential outlets exist — in broadcasting, cable, print, the Internet — but, in most cases, they possess either conventions or requirements that aren’t necessarily conducive to arguments and analysis of earlier vintage.

Some television and radio programs allow amplified, thorough airing of a subject, yet in most cases the strictures of the sound bite dictate brevity. Newspapers carry either a quotation of a couple of sentences or a 750-word opinion column, and that’s pretty much it. Although magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and The New Yorker still run thoughtful disquisitions on matters that matter, the overwhelming trend in weekly or monthly publications is to less text and to specific “niche” audiences. The book business, as noted earlier, is very much a bottom-line enterprise, fixated on potential sales of several thousand copies for any title. In short, how media operate on a day-to-day basis determines who gets attention and what form the message might take.

Moreover, the dramatic expansion in sources of communication during recent years allows everyone greater choice and more selection. This boon, however, comes at a public price — a continuing fragmentation of audiences and a marked decline in a commonly shared culture.

These days, it’s less possible for public intellectuals to exert their previous influence because the methods of communications are vastly different from before, and agreement over which thinker deserves more consideration than another is more debatable because the number increases as media grow. Greater quantity doesn’t insure quality, as dismissive remarks about “celebrity intellectuals” or, worse, “talking heads” imply.

In this environment of rapid change and constant exposure, there’s bound to be nostalgia for an earlier time when identifying intellectuals who counted among a broader public was relatively easy. Lewis Mumford, for instance, wrote with learned authority and muscular felicity about literature, art, architecture, urban planning, technology and numerous other subjects — with readers from his first book in 1922 until his final one six decades later expecting thoughtful guidance through thorny topics. Although he focused more exclusively on literary concerns, Edmund Wilson also enjoyed a similar reputation until his death in 1972.

Today, given the circumstances of academic or think tank affiliation along with the exigencies of popular communications, it’s more difficult to single out a few unquestionably significant public intellectuals. To illustrate how crowded Posner views the field, he lists 607 names in his research. His perception of decline might derive from an absence of discrimination; however, the large number is itself a revealing fact in trying to arrive at any contemporary judgment of individual achievement.

Someone such as Garry Wills, who’s held academic appointments at Johns Hopkins, Northwestern and Notre Dame over the years, certainly qualifies as one of this country’s most commanding thinkers and writers. A long-time newspaper columnist and magazine contributor, Wills has published some 25 books about an array of topics — political history, the Catholic Church, contemporary America, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the city of Venice, John Wayne, Saint Augustine and G.K. Chesterton. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Lincoln at Gettysburg, Wills has completed six studies of individual American presidents.

Though less prolific than Wills, Susan Sontag maintains a considerable following for her essays and books that probe cultural matters and contemporary thought. Unlike other public intellectuals today, Sontag is an independent writer, quite willing to challenge conventional wisdom. Shortly after the terrorist attacks in 2001, she received a hail of criticism for observing in The New Yorker that “voices licensed to follow the event [of September 11] seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? . . . And if the word ‘cowardly’ is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others.”

An abundance of astute and accessible public work is currently being done by African-American academics and scholars. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Shelby Steele, bell hooks, Cornel West, Thomas Sowell and Stephen Carter (to name a few) address racial questions as well as other issues with a general audience in mind. They are willing to look beyond the concerns of ivy-covered academe to explain the past and present in innovative ways. Gates, for instance, has made television documentaries, while West recently created a spoken-word CD, “Sketches of My Culture.”

Mentioning a few public intellectuals from a long list — even if Posner’s accounting of more than 600 seems hopelessly inflated — might seem an injustice. But, considering all the possibilities, it’s easier to make the point that compelling work for an intelligent audience now involves more creators than ever before. Competition and choice discourage dominance. While the past featured easily nameable public thinkers, the field is currently so crowded it’s more difficult to distinguish the heroic mind from the mere talking head.

In addition, the multitude proliferates when you gaze beyond campuses and think tanks to the practitioners of what could be called “mindful journalism.” More than ever before, writers affiliated with newspapers and magazines (many having earned graduate degrees) seem willing to take on larger, public concerns in reflective, analytical ways that extend and advance their reportage. The work of Barbara Ehrenreich or David Brooks represents a journalism of social and cultural commentary that stretches the usual limits of traditional news coverage or opinion pieces. Such work also serves a purpose of combining shoe-leather reporting and serious reading of pertinent studies to produce informed, readable inquiry.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of social and political ethics in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School and highly regarded author of academically grounded trade books, once cracked: “The problem with being a public intellectual is you get more and more public and less and less intellectual.” Especially with the ravenous, round-the-clock media and the opportunity to speak to this conference one day and conduct a seminar for another group the next, invitations to participate publicly can themselves becomes obstacles to more serious and lasting projects.

In his memoir New York Jew, Alfred Kazin reports how Edmund Wilson used the U.S. Mail to protect himself and his time: “To ward off the many people who want something from a ‘name,’ he had a postcard printed up on which it was noted (with a check against the appropriate box) that Edmund Wilson does not read manuscripts for strangers; does not write articles or books to order; does not write forewords or introductions; does not make statements for publicity purposes; does not do any kind of editorial work, judge literary contests, give interviews, broadcast or appear on television; does not answer questionnaires, contribute to or take part in symposiums. And so on!”

Such self-absorption seems admirably anachronistic, a throwback to a time when (in the title of another Kazin memoir) Writing Was Everything. Today academic and journalistic demands on someone who engages in public work make it more difficult, if not impossible, to say “no” as a general rule to every outside request. In addition, saying “yes” can help differentiate someone from the crowd, enhancing status and recognition — to become (in a way) more like Wilson.

Although the facts of public life for an intellectual have changed in recent decades, the role such a thinker-writer plays for the nation itself remains essentially the same. Through whatever means of communication most effectively delivers perspective and insight, we look to such a figure for ideas that invigorate a democracy’s discourse and decision-making.

“I’m not a donkey, and I don’t have a field,” a respected sociologist retorted after a colleague questioned his straying from the straight-and-narrow of his defined area of scholarship. Such bold open-mindedness strikes at the heart of what serious, and successful, public intellectuals strive to do.

By abandoning the confines of a specialized discipline to seek more encompassing connections among related subjects and by presenting those findings in vigorously immediate language, public intellectuals help others see culture and society steadily and whole. For legitimate reasons, we might find fault with what some of them do, but their total eclipse — like anti-intellectualism itself — leads to nowhere but darkness.

Robert Schmuhl is now Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce chair emeritus in American studies and journalism. His most recent book is The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump.