Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline book by Richard Posner

The first task facing Richard Posner in Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline is to find a way to define the rather nebulous cultural niche he wishes to study. He ultimately interprets a “public intellectual” as an individual who uses public forums to make known his or her thoughts on a subject that has broad interest or is outside of that intellectual’s specialty. So, Harvard English Professor Elaine Scarry is acting as a public intellectual when she writes for the New York Review of Books on electromagnetic interference and its relation to plane crashes, but when Yale Film Studies Professor Charles Musser publishes an article on the merits of late nineteenth century cinema in an academic film history journal, he is not.

Posner goes on to identify the individuals whom he believes embody the term “public intellectual,” explains reasons for what he sees as a decline in the quality and relevance of public intellectual work, and puts forward suggestions aimed at arresting this degeneration.

Much controversy has been generated by the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” list he created based upon these individuals’ number of media mentions, Web search engine hits, and scholarly citations. Posner is quick to point out that “‘prominent’ is not a synonym for ‘best,’ or even for ‘good.’” He also employs complicated tables filled with coefficients, constants, and t-statistics to demonstrate the deterioration of the public intellectual sphere.

Once the data and magic formulas have been inserted, Posner pulls the lever to reveal a top 100 list crowned by Henry Kissinger. Kurt Vonnegut edges out Milton Friedman 21 to 34, and Toni Morrison handily tops Jean-Paul Sartre 12 to 69. Posner ranks himself in at number 75, a bit ahead of W.E.B Du Bois at 83. Since the list is founded upon media mentions, his own presence is not surprising, as he has published 33 books and hundreds of articles and lectures at the University of Chicago, all while serving on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Although Posner’s quantitative studies of public intellectuals may be overwhelming, his arguments for their qualitative decline are largely easy to understand and convincing.

The crux of Posner’s case is that there exists an inverse relationship between the growing strength of the American university system and the quality of the independent public intellectual. As universities have attracted more intellectuals into doctoral programs, and as the specialization of academic disciplines has intensified, fewer scholars are able to comment broadly on general public issues. Being exceptionally educated in one field does not prevent one from looking pretty dumb in many others. Posner presents Albert Einstein’s naïve post-WWII essays in favor of the establishment of a one-world government as a paradigmatic example.

Posner implies that today’s “Ph.D. mill” public intellectuals lack “street smarts,” skills necessary to fulfill the public intellectual role. He calls the current crop of public academics “unworldly,” since “they are, most of them anyway, the people who have never left school.” “Because they are tenured and work mostly by themselves rather than with others,” he explains, “they don’t have to get along with colleagues; some of them don’t get along well with anybody.” Posner writes that many popular public intellectuals of the past, such as George Orwell, had racked up life experiences like today’s public intellectuals rack up university degrees. Orwell had fought in Spain, served on the Imperial police force in India, suffered through severe tuberculosis, and lived among the beggars and homeless long before this method of journalism had become stylish. Andrew Sullivan’s infamous chat room escapades aside, one just doesn’t expect high personal drama from any of today’s regular contributors to Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly.

Posner believes contemporary public intellectuals’ self-confidence has become bloated by complacency, and that they fail to understand how resistant the world often is to attempts at changing it. The charismatic public intellectual able to sympathize with the general educated public is dying, being replaced with the professional academic who operates best when speaking in inaccessible jargon with other professional academics in her own field. We can compare, for example, a classic public intellectual like George Orwell to a writer closer to our own day like Allan Bloom, the late conservative culture critic. An essential aspect of Orwell’s popularity was his ability to speak at the same level of the common British citizen, bolstered by his own experiences in Hospital X, in the mine, and ‘down and out’ while in Paris and London. Contrarily, although Allan Bloom’s book The Closing Of The American Mind became widely popular and turned him into a minor media celebrity, much of its language was highly academic. Posner believes it is unlikely that many of its buyers could get through the whole thing, despite the fact Bloom’s editor worked intensely at making the language readable for the average educated person.

What we must take into account before announcing a public intellectual decline is that the academic disciplines are much more complex today then they were in the earlier part of the century. Where it may have once been possible for a federal judge to comment on the historical significance of women’s role in World War II-era industry, in today’s world of university gender studies departments, such an undertaking would be best attempted by a tenured professor adept at gender theory.

Posner finds fault, with the academic who feels secure enough in his tenured university position to believe that when doing public intellectual work “He is on holiday from the academic grind,” and therefore, “all too often displays the irresponsibility of the holiday goer.”

While being careful not to become prey to the traps of nostalgia, Posner succeeds in his point that the general quality of the public intellectual has declined. Like any good critic, he presents suggestions for improvement. Posner proposes that each university construct a Web database to contain the yearly non-academic public intellectual work of all faculty members. Following this good idea with a bad one, he next recommends that public intellectuals disclose all income from their public intellectual work to give the public a better evaluation of their work incentives, and to deter “improper and irresponsible moonlighting.”

Though such a full income disclosure idea may work for the NCAA, which prevents college athletes on scholarship from “moonlighting” their own developed skills for extra cash, impeding social commentators from signing petitions and speaking on trashy talk shows is not the same thing. Public intellectuals are professional commentators. So Noam Chomsky should not be discouraged from signing on to every anti-United States, anti-globalization, and anti-capitalism tract out there, regardless of whether he is being paid.

The most amusing and pragmatic of Posner’s propositions is the launching of a “Journal of Retractions” in which public intellectuals would report their ideas and predictions which turn out to be false. Since nearly everyone can find enjoyment hearing about once-serious prophecies that the passage of time has rendered ridiculous, this would be a fun intellectual publication with genuine mass appeal. We could become reacquainted with Paul Kennedy’s cold war predictions for America’s decline, and remind ourselves of Paul Ehrlich’s promise that the United States will be forced to institute food rationing by the late 1970s. Perhaps we would then learn the deepest lesson Posner’s book has to teach: to approach the pronouncements of our intellectual anointed with a critical and questioning spirit.