20 years ago, Russell Jacoby published The Last Intellectuals, on the rise and fall of the public intellectual in 20th-century America. He has an op-ed piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that reviews the book, public (or at least academic) reaction to it, and how the argument has stood up.

The piece is worth reading, if only because it nicely lays out his argument:

I offered a generational explanation for what I saw as the eclipse of younger intellectuals. 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? Professionalization and academization appeared to be the reason. Younger intellectuals were retreating into specialized and cloistered environments.

Earlier 20th-century thinkers like Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson kept the university and its apparatus at arm’s length. Indeed, they often disdained it. They oriented themselves toward an educated public, and, as a result, they developed a straightforward prose and gained a nonprofessional audience. As his reputation grew, Wilson printed up a postcard that he sent to those who requested his services. On it he checked the appropriate box: Edmund Wilson does not write articles or books on order; he does not write forewords or introductions, does not give interviews or appear on television, and does not participate in symposia.

Later intellectual generations, including, paradoxically, the rebellious 60s cohort, do give interviews; do write articles on demand; and most evidently do participate in symposia. They grew up in a much-expanded campus universe and never left its safety. Younger intellectuals became professors who geared their work toward their colleagues and specialized journals. If this generation — my generation! — advanced into postmodernism, post-Marxism, and postcolonialism, where the Daniel Bells and Lewis Mumfords never trod, it did so by surrendering a public profile.

The book is still well worth reading, I think.

[To the tune of Bill Evans Trio, “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” from the album “Portrait in Jazz“.]