An academic critic admitted that he was wrong about the influence leftist scholars would have in mainstream culture.
Russell Jacoby, author and professor emeritus of history at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), wrote a book in 1987 dismissing conservatives’ fears that students of postmodernism and critical pedagogy would wreak havoc on American culture. Now, 35 years later in an article for Tablet, he admits that conservatives were right.
“In 1987 I published ‘The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe’ which elicited heated responses,” said Jacoby. “Only now do I see I got something wrong — as did my critics.”
Jacoby said he wrote the book in response to a number of bestselling books in the eighties that speculated that various offshoots of Marxist-derived Critical Theories taught in universities would produce leftist activists that would bring chaos to Western civilization.
“I argued that the conservatives should awake from their nightmare of radical scholars destroying America and relax; academic revolutionaries preoccupied themselves with their careers and perks,” said Jacoby. “If they made waves, they were confined to the campus pool.”
At the time Jacoby believed that these academics were too consumed with advancing their careers within the campus walls to concern themselves with public discourse.
“They penned unreadable articles and books for colleagues,” said Jacoby. “They were less subversive than submissive.”
Now Jacoby realizes he “missed something” that was not obvious to him at the time he wrote the book: “the dawning takeover of the public sphere by campus denizens and lingo.”
As a historian of intellectuals and education, Jacoby attributes this to the changing university landscape over the decades. There were only a small number of public leftists teaching in American universities in the 1950s. By the 1980s, their numbers had rapidly expanded, but in the 1990s the proliferation of universities across the nation halted, especially for the Humanities. The jobs they would have assumed as university faculty were no longer available in many fields.
“In my own department in 10 years we went from accepting over a hundred students for graduate study to under 20 for a simple reason,” said Jacoby. “We could not place our students.”
“The hordes who took courses in critical pedagogy, insurgent sociology, gender studies, radical anthropology, Marxist cinema theory, and postmodernism could no longer hope for university careers,” he added.
As a result, the leftists who would have become university professors had to join the workforce, bringing with them the “sensibilities and jargon they learned on campus.”
“It is the exodus from the universities that explains what is happening in the larger culture,” said Jacoby. “The leftists who would have vanished as assistant professors in conferences on narratology and gender fluidity or disappeared as law professors with unreadable essays on misogynist hegemony and intersectionality have been pushed out into the larger culture.”
“They staff the ballooning diversity and inclusion commissariats that assault us with vapid statements and inane programs couched in the language they learned in school,” Jacoby continued. “We are witnessing the invasion of the public square by the campus, an intrusion of academic terms and sensibilities that has leaped the ivy-covered walls aided by social media.”
“The buzz words of the campus — diversity, inclusion, microaggression, power differential, white privilege, group safety — have become the buzz words in public life. Already confusing on campus, they become noxious off campus,” he added.
Jacoby went on to describe the various manifestations of activist-capture in our trusted institutions in recent years, including when the New York Times published an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton advocating for military intervention during the George Floyd riots in 2020, and the paper’s staffers said they felt that the piece put them “in danger.” The article caused such public outrage that the op-ed editor, James Bennett, was forced to apologize and resign.
“When employees protest that they feel unsafe because their company is publishing an offensive article or book, we know what university courses they have taken,” said Jacoby.
“When the ACLU drops any mention of the First Amendment from its annual reports; when one of its directors declares, ‘First Amendment protections are disproportionately enjoyed by people of power and privilege’; and when its [sic] counsels its own lawyers to balance free speech and ‘offense to marginalized groups,’ we know they studied critical race theory,” he continued.
The article is a marked departure from Jacoby’s previously held views, as he now recognizes that opposition to freedom of speech comes almost exclusively from the Left.
“The self-righteous professors have spawned self-righteous students who filter into the public square,” Jacoby said. “The former prospered in their campus enclaves by plumping each other’s brilliance, but they left the rest of us alone.”
“The latter, their students, however, constitute an unmitigated disaster, intellectually and politically, as they enter the workforce,” he concluded.
“There’s no solution offered by Jacoby, just a big kvetch about how things are,” said Coyne. “And, indeed, given that the ‘studies mills’ are still grinding out students who can’t get academic jobs and will thus infest university administrations and the media for years to come, I’ll have been long underground when and if this movement dies out.”
The world-famous biologist Richard Dawkins shared Coyne’s review, “Progressive professors: the root of all evil,” to his Twitter followers on Friday. Elon Musk even chimed in on Dawkins’ post and said, “True, ‘progressive’ professors are the root of this evil.”