Big Brains, Small Impact

Dr. James Emery White | Mecklenburg Community Church | Updated: Feb 16, 2008

Big Brains, Small Impact

Twenty years ago, Russell Jacoby published The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe.  If you have heard the phrase “public intellectual,” you can thank his work.

“I offered a generational explanation for what I saw as the eclipse of younger intellectuals,” writes Jacoby on the recent anniversary.  “Why in 1987 had the same intellectuals dominated for more than 20 years, with few new faces among them?  Why was it that the Daniel Bells or Gore Vidals or Kenneth Galbraiths seemed to lack successors?”

Answer?  “Professionalization and academization appeared to be the reason.”

Unlike earlier intellectuals who tended to write for the educated public, Jacoby observed that thinkers in his day flocked to the universities, where “the politics of tenure loom larger than the politics of culture.”  Jacoby contended that younger intellectuals became professors who geared their work toward their colleagues and specialized journals.  Reflecting on the heart of his original thesis, Jacoby writes that “The new thinkers became academic – not public – intellectuals, with little purchase outside professional circles.”  Or as he wrote in his original work, “Campuses are their homes; colleagues their audience; monographs and specialized journals their media.”

Conclusion?  “Big brains, small impact.”

Jacoby has had – and continues to have - his fair share of critics, most coming, as you might imagine, from academia.  He has been accused of prizing an anti-intellectual simplicity.  Or as a reviewer of Joan Shelley Rubin’s  The Making of Middlebrow Culture put it, in response to her investigation into such popularizing enterprises as the Book-of-the-Month Club, Will Durant’s outline of history, and Mortimer Adler’s “great books” movement,

“when well-intentioned literary folk seek to broaden the audience for high culture by compromising with middlebrow tastes and expectations, what they usually end up doing is lowering standards, vulgarizing the truth, good and beautiful, and equipping pop culture commodities with pseudo-highbrow trappings.”

Whew!  So much for PBS.

What is missing in such debates is the role of the true public intellectual, one who is neither anti-academic or purely commercial.  Such scholars engage the rigors of the academy, but refuse to bow-down before its altar and become, well, academics.  They work hard to write for mass consumption, but without the dumbing-down that leads to error.

My concern is that evangelicals are increasingly polarizing between a populist camp or a purely academic camp.  The populist camp is atheological and devoid of any semblance of a Christian mind, often led by charismatic speakers who enter their pulpits armed with a few out-of-context verses slapped on to a manuscript that could have been copied from the latest Oprah.  This has been widely condemned, and rightly so. 

But less critiqued are those in the purely academic camp, evangelicals who are as prone to Jacoby’s concerns as anyone else.  For example, I attended the 58th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November 15-16, 2006, in Washington, D.C.  The theme was “Christians in the Public Square.”  A tremendous and important topic, and I came ready to see Christians in the academy make their mark.  Here is a sampling of the papers that were presented: 

“The Transition from Continential Pietism to Evangelicalism in Theodore Frelinghuysen”; “Oecolampadius and the Basel City Council (1522-31)”;
“Isaiah’s Leviathan in His Near Eastern Context”;
“The Story of the Bulgarian Bible”;
“Aristotelian Anthropology and Melanchthon’s Shift on Free Will”;
“The Sixth Century Debate Between Cosmas and Philoponus over the Shape of the Earth”;
“The Byzantine Text of Codes Washingtonianus: A Centennial Retrospect”;
“The Tanit and Elissa Deep Water Iron Age Shipwrecks off Ashkelon”;
      …and, my favorite, “Jesus and Jewish Menstruation Traditions.” 

Before you rush to the defense of the ETS, yes, there were many good and noteworthy addresses.  But let the point at least be entertained:  academization is as vacuous as commodification.  We need the middle-ground of the public intellectual. 

Case in point?  The greatest apologist for the Christian faith of the twentieth century.  

C.S. Lewis was discounted by his fellow academicians first for his less than serious focus of study (as Alan Jacobs has noted, when Lewis began his career as an English literature don he was entering a field that was quite popular among students but highly suspect among other dons – almost like pop culture programs in today’s universities), but also for his effort to write popularly for mass consumption.  It didn’t help that what he was attempting to popularize was Christianity.  It began to be “said regularly that Lewis was wasting his time on cheap popular sermonizing and science fiction, time that would have been better spent on scholarship.” (Jacobs). 

It is not that Lewis was not an able academic – his Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century should put that to rest – but in many ways, that is the point.  How many know that this work – considered by most the greatest of all of Lewis’ academic writings – even exists?  Lewis’ brilliance lay in the popular communication of ideas – which can be argued is the work of the academy at its highest.  In one of his letters, this to a priest who wanted Lewis to write a book commending Christianity to the “workers,” Lewis offers the following:

“People praise me as a ‘translator,’ but what I want is to be the founder of a school of ‘translation.’  I am nearly forty-seven.  Where are my successors?  Anyone can learn to do it if they wish...I feel I’m talking rather like a tutor – forgive me.  But it is just a technique and I’m desperately anxious to see it widely learned.”

The “it” in that last sentence, Alan Jacobs observes, is simply the “translation” of Christian doctrine into vernacular terms that ordinary people can understand.

We need more translators, which means we need more public intellectuals.

Happy anniversary, Russell.

James Emery White


“Big Brains, Small Impact,”” Russell Jacoby, The Chronicle Review, January 11, 2008, B5-B6.

Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (Basic Books/Noonday Press, 1987).

Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (The University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

“Great Ideas for the General Public,” a review of The Making of Middlebrow Culture by Bruce Bawer, The New York Times Book Review, April 12, 1992, p. 11.

Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

C.S. Lewis, Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford University Press).  The original title, before OUP retitled the work, was English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama).

See also:  Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind; Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind; and James Emery White, A Mind for God.

Big Brains, Small Impact