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Two views of intellectuals in America

Posted by Christopher Shea  May 7, 2010 01:10 PM

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In 1952, Partisan Review held a symposium, entitled "Our Country and Our Culture," in which intellectuals discussed their relationship with the United States and, more generally, the role of the cultural critic. The premise of the discussions was that "American intellectuals now regard America and its institutions in a new way"--no longer as obstacles to the socialist dream but as a potential last-stand bulwark against totalitarianism. Quite a lot had changed since the 1930s.

Dissent is now publishing a similar series of essays [subscribers only] by intellectuals not associated with that leftist magazine. In the current issue, Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, and Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book review and author of a biography of Whittaker Chambers, offer strikingly different criticisms of university-based intellectuals. Elshtain seems to accept the idea, prevalent on the right, that the academy is a bastion of leftist groupthink:

I refer to Harold Rosenberg, who in 1948 characterized the contemporary academy as "the herd of independent minds." Too often the academy pushes a dominant point of view; it lopsidedly consists of professors who embrace identical political opinions and identifications; and it discourages authentic and deep disagreements within its own ranks....Certainly the academy does too little to stifle the reproduction of the same ideas over and over again, and so it promotes and intellectualism that incessantly insists on its own originality when it could scarcely be more conformist.

In contrast, Tanenhaus worries that, far from cocooning themselves in a cozy, self-reinforcing bubble, today's intellectuals are too comfortable consorting with "the real world," or at least its wealthy elites:

Our intellectuals constitute a much larger class than in 1952. And many of its members, by no means estranged from power, move easily--all too easily--within its inner sanctums. These are our new elite--policy intellectuals, economists, physicists, and mathematicians. They include the scholars and professors interviewed by John Cassidy in a recent issue of the New Yorker--denizens of the Chicago School, several of them Nobel laureates, the high priests of "the efficient markets hypothesis" and "rational-expectations theory" that laid the groundwork of our current economic ruin.

To be sure, it is possible that both are right, and that they have simply targeted different slices of the university in their respective remarks. In which case, the state of academe sounds pretty grim, whatever your own political valence.
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