The decline of the public intellectual

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:


If you were a certain sort of ideas-oriented young person coming of age in the 20th century, it was very likely you would give yourself a label and join some movement. You’d call yourself a Marxist, a neoconservative, a Freudian, an existentialist or a New Deal liberal.

There would be certain sacred writers who would explain the world to you — from Jung to Camus, Dewey or Chesterton. There’d probably be a small magazine where the doctrines of your sect would be hammered out.

People today seem less likely to give themselves intellectual labels or join self-conscious philosophical movements. Young people today seem more likely to have their worldviews shaped by trips they have taken, or causes they have been involved in, or the racial or ethnic or gender identity group they identify with.

That’s changed the nature of the American intellectual scene, the way people approach the world and the lives they live.

In his book, “The Ideas Industry,” Daniel W. Drezner says we’ve shifted from a landscape dominated by public intellectuals to a world dominated by thought leaders. A public intellectual is someone like Isaiah Berlin, who is trained to comment on a wide array of public concerns from a specific moral stance. A thought leader champions one big idea to improve the world — think Al Gore’s work on global warming.

As Drezner puts it, intellectuals are critical, skeptical and tend to be pessimistic. Thought leaders are evangelists for their idea and tend to be optimistic. The world of Davos-like conferences, TED talks and PopTech rewards thought leaders, not intellectuals, Drezner argues.