He begins by questioning Richard Hofstadter’s idea that the influence of intellectuals and academics has tended to wax and wane over the course of the 20th century based upon “public irrationality”:
Yet is it really true that intellectuals go in and out of favor entirely for reasons of public irrationality? In fact, Eisenhower had his own brain trust — led by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who had studied with the French philosopher Henri Bergson and was a fluent reader of Ancient Greek. George W. Bush, too, turned to advisers with strong academic credentials. Paul D. Wolfowitz, his deputy defense secretary, was eminent enough in his University of Chicago days to earn a bit part in one of Saul Bellow’s novels. Leon R. Kass, also of Chicago, advised Bush on issues of ethics and science, and Bush’s second secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, once held the position of provost at Stanford University.
The deeper implication of Hofstadter’s book is not so much that Americans oscillate between periods of antiand pro-intellectualism, but that they tend to harbor simultaneously an “ingrained distrust of eggheads” and “a genuine yearning for enlightenment and culture.”
If indeed the public does yearn for “enlightenment and culture,” then intellectuals, Delbanco argues, must do more to the earn the public trust. Why should intellectuals try to reach a broader public? Delbanco offers three reasons:
1). …the nation needs liberally educated people if it is to compete in the global economy — people, that is, with a certain versatility, creativity, and, ideally, some knowledge of foreign cultures.
2). …if citizens are to participate responsibly in a democratic society, they require some knowledge of history and a capacity for critical thinking.
3). Liberal education — education, that is, that includes an engagement with what we call the humanities — deepens and enriches individual experience.
Deblanco is more persuaded by #2 and #3 than he is #1, but all of them are worth considering.
Finally, Deblanco takes intellectuals, particularly those ensconced in the ivory towers of the Ivy League and other elite bastions of academic life, to take their values seriously:
But if true liberal education is to flourish in our colleges and universities — education, that is, in history, literature, philosophy, and the arts as well as in science — we might start by pulling back from defensiveness toward putative “anti-intellectuals” outside the ivy gates, and ask whether those of us inside have lived up to our own professed values.
Can we say, with Hofstadter, that “of all the classes which could be called in any sense privileged,” it is intellectuals who have “shown the largest and most consistent concern for the well-being of the classes which lie below [them] in the social scale”? Academics certainly talk a lot about social justice, but how credible are we when, for instance, our wealthiest and most prestigious universities admit such a minuscule percentage of students (often fewer than 10 percent) from low-income families?
I like it.