“To be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.”

These words were written by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof last February in an op-ed that caused a mini-storm on social media. The piece, titled “Professors, We Need You!” was Kristof’s polemic against what is by now an easy target - the insular and esoteric nature of academia, including my own field, political science. For Kristof, some of the sharpest minds in America have marginalized themselves in academia by speaking in jargon, by publishing in gated journals instead of mass-oriented venues, by neglecting diversity (meaning any discipline too dominated by the academic left to be taken seriously in national debates), and by socializing aspiring graduate students into a culture of conformity.

The message behind this lament? Professional academics should be more intelligible, more empirical and rigorous (more policy, law, business, and economics), more open to disseminating ideas through blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. In other words, they should be less like medieval monks (Kristof’s designation) and more like public intellectuals. Just public intellectuals who, one can surmise, are also master stylists (intelligibility!), proficient in cutting-edge methods, and up to date on the latest academic literature.

Maybe the irony was lost on Kristof that, as one of the leading columnists of the Times, which in turn is one of the leading venues for the ideology of technocratic progressivism in the US, he was calling for academics to fill the void left by the passing of the intellectual. Per Kristof, it’s not that we need less professionalization, as evidenced by his praise of quantitative disciplines that require a great deal of training. Rather, it is that these academics, as professionalized products of the university system, should also concern themselves with speaking to the broader segments of the population in the way that public-oriented intellectuals once could.

What is the relationship between the professional academic and the intellectual? Kristof’s attack struck a nerve because, although closely linked, the mutual history of these figures over the course of the twentieth century has been the site of a tension. At stake was the nature of knowledge (specialized or public) and its place in the social order (placating or critical). Today, living with the outcomes of this historical development, we are forced to rethink the current relationship of professionalized knowledge to the public sphere, and whether a new form of social critique is possible in these current conditions.

Today, the intellectual—that vague, amorphous, now faintly dirty designation—has also now almost entirely been transformed into a professionalized scholar. Once upon a time, as the mythos goes, he (and it was almost always a white he) was something like a moral compass for society—independent of existing institutions and specialized communities of knowledge, which he scrutinized from a distance. Occasionally, an intellectual could be in the academy, like Sartre or C. Wright Mills, but never of the academy. He may have had a doctorate degree, but academia never consumed and defined him; at best, it was tangential to his life when more pressing issues—writing, mobilizing, debating—were on the table. The intellectual’s efforts and focus were dictated by the political moment and the demands of the concrete situation rather than by the routinized life of the university campus.

The independent scholar, inspired by a world that needed his input is a highly idealized picture. For every autonomous intellectual of the prominence of Sartre and Camus there was someone like Orwell who, while a literary giant in his own right, did not become internationally renowned until the last years of his life, living hand to mouth and supporting himself by an unending stream of writing. Yet despite the pervasive myth of the mid-century European intellectual, it is hard to deny that a structural shift took place during the postwar years, reducing the number of individuals capable of supporting themselves strictly through their writing, and thereby turning academia into the last refuge of intellectual life. For decades, as the increased opportunities for higher education in the postwar American welfare state led to the rapid growth of the university system and the proliferation of disciplinary knowledge, academia became the mirage of an intellectual haven—a space for the free exchange of ideas—as well as a near-guaranteed path to the security of middle-class life.

Factoring most into this transformation of the intellectual into the academic has been the professionalization and growth of scientific knowledge. As fields of study have evolved into complex disciplines, each with its own research paradigm, scientific terminology, and set of internal debates, academic specialization has made it impossible to gain expertise in more than a very narrow sliver of knowledge. Even within a fairly circumscribed discipline like political science, every year, with each new book and journal publication, academic knowledge mutates, either through the carving out of new disciplinary and sub-disciplinary paths, or simply through the accumulative generation of knowledge within an existing paradigm. This process makes getting a handle on the field as a whole a daunting task even for specialists. For those few still aspiring and capable of life as an independent, general intellectual, it is impossible. The recent passing of Robert Dahl—a giant of twentieth century political science whose career aligned almost perfectly with the structural changes and the rise of specialized knowledge—in some ways marked the end of an era. Although Dahl was a product of the academy as well, earning a degree in political science from Yale, he was also one of the last political scientists to make intellectual contributions that spanned across all four main subfields of the discipline. It it is difficult to envision anyone accomplishing that again. The aging polymaths that remain, like Chomsky and Habermas, are links to a bygone past rather than role models for future generations of scholars.

Alongside this specialization of knowledge, it has also become clear today that an academic career cannot offer the same security it once did, regardless of how specialized one’s research is. The same market pressures that originally pushed intellectuals into the academy have been colonizing academia itself, with approximately 70% of instructors at American universities now employed as adjuncts1. It is possible that, in another generation, the current tenure track system might be unrecognizable. As tenure track positions become more scarce and recently-minted Ph.D.’s often have to choose between the precarity of short-term adjuncting or leaving academia altogether, professional scholars—especially those in the social sciences and humanities—have become casualties of historical circumstance, much like their predecessors, the intellectuals.

Much has already been written about this crisis in academia, from articles by professors dissuading students from applying to graduate schools to first-hand horror stories about the job market. For academics it seems there are two choices: either to continue in much the same way while trying to slow the encroaching neoliberalization of the university, or to actively embrace Kristof’s vision of the academic as pursuing only research immediately “relevant” to policy-makers and the public at large. Certainly both can be argued as viable short-term strategies, insofar as they may temporarily create a new status quo beneficial to all parties. But in the long run, one has to wonder if either is the answer. In the absence of unions for adjuncts and teaching assistants, their percentages across universities and their workloads will continue increasing. On the other hand, buying into Kristof’s purely instrumental conception of knowledge would impoverish many fields, particularly in the humanities.

The passing of the general intellectual and the current crisis of the academy are then two intimately linked developments in the broader history of the relationship of knowledge to the social order. Almost a century ago Gramsci pointed out that the intellectual is not an abstract category that functions in the same manner across all social and historical contexts; instead, his role and place is subject to the process of historical transformation. The mid-century intellectual was the remnant of an earlier era, the cultural inheritor of the “man of letters” that arose in what Habermas called the bourgeois public sphere of the eighteenth century2.

Today, the public sphere has morphed into new forms—most notably social media and the migration of print media to online venues. This process of democratization has been a double-edged sword. Critics see in it a decline of the potentials of public reason, in which the increased quantity of content goes hand in hand with its decreased quality. But at the same time, this democratizing effect has also opened new forums for voices that previously would have been difficult to hear. Whereas only a select few could once break into the ranks of highbrow publications like The New York Review of Books or The New Yorker, the ease of blogging and online commentary has given rise to a new generation of writers who are participating in the public sphere on their own terms.

The real questions then are not so much whether social criticism is fated to disappear forever, but what shape will it take and what will be its future relationship to the academy? In other words, what potential consequences, if any, can we infer from the present situation once we read it in light of the promise of emancipatory politics?

Historically, Marxism had been the most successful and influential critical discourse to penetrate the academy from the ranks of activists. But this turn away from the barricades and toward the university and academic respectability also led to its increasing isolation from the lives of the working classes it championed. As Perry Anderson noted in his classic work Considerations on Western Marxism, since the 1950s Western Marxism increasingly became a professionalized discourse within the academy.3 Some of the most intellectually innovative strands of postwar Marxist thought were all products of the academy, more or less detached from the struggles of the working class. The political interventions that were made on the parts of philosophers like Sartre were less the organic outgrowths of revolutionary theory and more like appendages clumsily attached to often esoteric philosophical arguments. For Anderson, among Western Marxists, only Gramsci, an organic intellectual from a peasant background and a communist militant, was able to bridge this divide because his theoretical writings were simultaneously political interventions into contemporary crises.4

Despite his incisive critique, Anderson held hope for the organic working-class intellectual. Riding a post-1968 wave of optimism regarding the reconciliation of theory and practice, he found solace in the anticipated emergence of mass movements outside of the organizational bounds of the Communist parties in the West. “In the long run,” he wrote, “the future of Marxist theory will lie with intellectuals organically produced by the industrial working classes of the imperialist world themselves, as they steadily gain in cultural skills and self-confidence.”5 This passage is striking not only for the willful optimism that has characterized the tension between Marxism as politics and Marxism as theory. It is also ironic, coming a mere three years before Thatcher and five before Reagan. Anderson could not have anticipated these events, of course, nor could he have foreseen the magnitude of the structural changes undergone by Western capitalist societies and the industrial working classes. But today, facing a rather different set of circumstances, where can we locate a new standpoint from which to bridge critical scholarship with political practice?

Recall Gramsci’s argument about the organic intellectual who is at the forefront of the critique of bourgeois society, and whose task is to articulate the new vision of the nascent working classes. In the past this metaphor could hardly apply to academics, who by virtue of their rank and education were the privileged organic class of the professionalized university system, which was itself an outgrowth of the postwar consensus and the welfare state. However, the current crisis of the system has threatened academics as a status group, at the same time creating the potential for a new kind of public engagement on their part.

Much as modern academia took shape within the postwar welfare state that brought the intellectual into the ranks of the professionalized faculty, the crisis of that same system has the potential to push the academic, no doubt in a new form and maybe even unwillingly, back into the role of the critical intellectual. Insofar as the transition from the intellectual to the professional academic was one outcome of a much larger shift in the composition of advanced industrial societies, I think that today we are witnessing a slow and gradual inversion of this process, accelerated both by technological change and by the uneasy and precarious recovery of Western economies from the Great Recession.

For the first time in over two decades alternative ways of thinking and acting to the neoliberal model are once again on the table. This time they appear not in the form of rigid party dogmas, but in an exhilarating jumble of social democratic, green, neo-anarchist, and neo-Marxist arguments. What links them together, despite their ideological and tactical differences, is a shared skepticism about the current order and its future direction.

In these circumstances, the “return” of academics to the role of the public intellectual would not be led by the already-influential voices working in fields like economics and business “relevant” to policy making (the Piketty phenomenon notwithstanding),6 despite Kristof’s imploring. Public engagement from the “new” standpoint of exploitation inhabited by the precarious academic would neither be like the general social critique of the bygone intellectual, nor specialized commentary on narrow, policy-relevant topics. Instead, it would touch upon a universal theme—the hardship of an unjust socio-economic order—that the academic now herself happens to embody and be in a position to effectively articulate. With the proliferation of new outlets creating alternative spaces for debate and critique, therein lies the promise that these will serve as the new venues for scholars on the margins—those who are precariously positioned within the academy, in debt and facing bleak employment prospects, or those who have decided to forego the academy altogether. The effect of their engagement would be to shift the dialogue by showing how the question of the “relevance” of scholarship masks the unfolding of another process—the pressure exerted by neoliberal policies across all domains of modern life, and not just the academy.

This is only one possibility, of course. A new generation of critical intellectuals re-entering (and transforming) the public sphere does not by itself promise any kind of significant political outcome. Nor is it guaranteed that this migration to the public sphere will take place at all, although the encouraging signs are there in the proliferation of new magazines and the increasing willingness of graduate students to write openly about their own experiences facing the pressures of the academic crunch. These signs suggest that the time to rethink how economic pressures are changing the form and social function of professional knowledge is upon us. The answer won’t be found in nostalgia for the old public intellectual, nor in the modern day “specialists without spirit,” as Max Weber called them, but in the re-emergence of social criticism in a new and transformed sense.7

  1. Both the American Association of University Professors and the National Center for Education Statistics have tracked data on employment in universities. See also the Chronicle of Higher Education.  

  2. Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), esp. ch. 4 passim.  

  3. Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: Verso, 1979). 

  4. Anderson, Considerations, 45. 

  5. Anderson, Considerations, 105.  

  6. Thomas Picketty, Captial in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap Press, 2014). For a good summary of discussions by Picketty’s critics and supporters see Thomas B. Edsell, “Thomas Picketty and his Critics,” The New York Times, May 14, 2014.  

  7. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, eds. and trans. Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells (London: Penguin, 2002), 121.