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The plight of young American intellectuals

The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, by Russell Jacoby. New York: Basic Books. 304 pp. $18.95. Is the nonacademic American intellectual an endangered species?

Russell Jacoby's provocative new book suggests this is so: While the intellectuals who came of age in the 1960s, '50s, '40s, and earlier (Daniel Bell, Gore Vidal, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, et al.) still hold the stage, almost no voices under the age of 45 are audible.

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What has become of the younger generation of intellectuals? Many, especially the purportedly radical generation of the late 1960s, have taken up positions in the academic hierarchy they once so loudly denounced. Marxists in particular, Jacoby notes, delight in the pseudoscientific jargon so popular in social science and even humanities departments these days.

Young academics in general are discouraged from writing for a larger public by fear of being judged ``unprofessional'' by colleagues on whom their advancement depends. Instead of addressing vital public issues, they have become full-fledged academic entrepreneurs, building academic empires and writing for a very limited audience of like-minded professionals. Intimidated by fear of losing their jobs, intoxicated by the security, vacation time, money, and prestige of academic life, they easily become invisible and inaudible to the general public.

Jacoby deplores the situation but understands it all too well. Prospects for young intellectuals outside the academy are exceedingly bleak. Print journalism, traditionally a forum for young writers and intellectuals, faces a shrinking marketplace. The few remaining outlets often turn out to be closed shops, virtually impregnable to aspiring unknowns. Jacoby focuses in particular on The New York Review of Books, where the vast majority of contributors these days are Ivy League and Oxbridge professors with endowed chairs.

Still another factor is the disappearance of bohemia. The intellectual life long associated with cities - with coffeehouses, cheap restaurants, bookstores, and low rents - has all but vanished in the wake of skyrocketing real estate values and so-called urban development. ``Intellectuals who write with vigor and clarity,'' he remarks, ``may be as scarce as low rents in New York or San Francisco.''

Jacoby uses the term ``intellectual'' in a deliberately circumscribed sense. He does not count physical scientists or creative artists, unless they also happen to be active social or cultural critics. Thus, an ``intellectual'' is not merely someone who works with his intelligence, but someone who uses his intelligence to stand back and cast a critical eye on the world around him. Although he considers the ``New York Intellectuals'' to be overrated (they appear as mountains, he suggests, only because the scene around them is so woefully flat), Jacoby finds them a landmark of sorts: They wrote polemically, with verve and panache; and they had a firm sense of engagement with vital issues.

Conservative intellectuals, he observes, have been faring better than their (largely missing) leftist counterparts, in part because they stand a better chance of being funded by conservative private foundations. (Critics to the right of Jacoby complain that certain university departments are run by ``radicals'' who hire only like-minded colleagues.) What is worrying, in either case, is the fate of the ``independent'' intellectual. Can he afford to be ``independent''?

Jacoby's argument is vulnerable to the charge that he tends to class ``intellectual'' with ``radical'' or ``anti-establishment.'' The intellectual is a critic. But the word critic does not merely mean a faultfinder: It means a judge. A critic can criticize (or commend) rebels as well as authority figures, antinomians as well as institutions. Yet - and this is at the core of Jacoby's argument - if he or she is not to be an apparatchik (as in the East bloc) or a ``consultant'' or manipulator of public opinion (as in the West), the intellectual must stand independently, as a critic - often as a dissenter.

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Most of all, the intellectual whose demise Jacoby laments is a dogged individualist, and the ability of American culture to nourish intellectuals (or at least allow them some ``cultural space'') is a barometer for the freedom of the individual up against the more massive power of the group, be it corporate, governmental, or institutional. Written in the lively, pungent style that characterizes the best work of intellectuals intent on addressing a public audience, ``The Last Intellectuals'' is a spirited, curiously invigorating investigation of a dispiriting phenomenon, a reminder of the critical spirit that is not only missing but also very much missed.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.