Russell Jacoby on Conservatives

Russell Jacoby reviews David Gelernter’s America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Jacoby’s larger thesis—of which Gelernter’s book is an example—is that conservatives confronted “by social upheavals…tend to blame other intellectuals—socialist, liberal, secular—as the cause. They perceive political unrest as rooted in fallacious ideas advanced by misguided thinkers and indict the educational system for inculcating subversion.” The sum of his own indictment of Gelernter consists of showing that the author merely invoked intellectuals as the explanation for all ills without offering much evidence:

If the ills of modernity are intensifying, conservatives know why. They rarely mention hyperconsumerism or advertising or a rigidifying class structure—the byproducts of advanced capitalism. Rather, they dwell on the presumably corrosive ideas of the educated, especially the professoriate.

The rest of the piece goes on in a similar vein: conservatives think it suffices to cite the bad ideas of intellectuals without further argument—intellectuals as “root cause” to the exclusion of other social and historical factors.

On the one hand, this criticism is fair ball. I haven’t read Gelernter’s book, but it is common for conservative to invoke intellectuals like a catch-all explanation for every problem. On the other hand, Jacoby’s criticism is a little disingenuous. Blaming intellectuals and professors isn’t like blaming plumbers or Lithuanians. If you take seriously the principle that ideas have consequences—Jacoby himself cites the book by that name by Richard M. Weaver and its influence on conservative thought—then you have to acknowledge that the people who disseminate ideas have a disproportionate influence on human affairs. Indeed, to acknowledge this is to acknowledge that people are rational. But to expect reams of psychological and sociological evidence supporting the influence of teachers and intellectuals in human affairs is bit like asking for proof that bears shit in the woods. After all, to see the belief in the rightness of, say, polygamy, as the root cause of polygamy is merely to state the obvious

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