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21 February 2013

Where Have All the Thinkers Gone, Long Time Passing?

I finished up the backlog of New Books in Sociology podcasts yesterday. Their first post was a cross-post from the New Books in History series, the topic being the Frankfurt School. The host and his guest spent some time near the end of the interview lamenting that fact that public intelectuals today are not of the same intellectual rigor as they were in the 1950s, 1960s, and early-1970s, that there wasn't the same kind of market for those kinds of ideas. In their opinions, people who pass for public intellectuals today, like Dan Brown, Dr. Phil, and Andrew Sullivan, were not of the same caliber as folks like C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse.

How to make sense of this? Here is my hypothesis. In the early- and mid-20th century, people were more tolerant of and even sought out public intellectuals because fewer in the public were products of higher education. The average level of education was lower which elevated the relative status of public intellectuals to expert. Ironically, increases in the rates of higher education have lowered the public's tolerance of such expert voices since people are more likely to see themselves as quasi-intellectual. Moreover, the nature of higher education has changed dramatically from the mid-20th century to the early-21st century: professionally-oriented education is in ascendancy as liberal arts education is in relative decline. People today are much more likely to seek out what they deem as practical advice (e.g. Dr. Phil) than more abstract and structural understanding (e.g. Mills).

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