Commentary Magazine


How the Intellectuals Took Over (And What to Do About It)

Here is a true story about a piece of ground on Long Island. It had a lawn on it and was doing fine. One day a contractor decided to put up some houses nearby. Bulldozers rushed in and reshaped the plot: it used to be flat; now it was sloped. The contractor’s men planted a new lawn and went away, but the ground was no longer in a position to support a lawn in the style to which lawns are accustomed. After every rain, the runoff from surrounding lots would carve a deep gully down its center. Then the contractor’s men would show up and dump soil in the gully and smooth it out and plant more seed, but each storm was the same story.

It was nearly a year before the game was called off. Big structural changes had been imposed on the land, and had to be matched by big structural changes in the landscape—otherwise the ground would continue to be unstable and gradually wash away. Substantial plants were called for, to hold the slope together with their roots. When the men who had spent their time frantically patching the gully stopped for a moment, thought it over, put aside their shovels and ordered in a bunch of bushes and small trees, the solution (although it took a while to grab hold and stick) was finally in hand.

Not to be discouraging, but why is it that, no matter how many Republicans we put on the Supreme Court, it is still capable of deciding a case like the Justice Department’s against the Virginia Military Institute seven to one (Clarence Thomas not voting) in favor of smashing the old order and putting in a new one, on the scientific principle that men and women are in practice interchangeable? How come a fire-breathing Republican House roars into town as it did in 1994, has an excellent few months, accomplishes much, and then the fight starts to leak out of it until by the time it is reelected it is an intellectual flat tire and Washington is rattling along as usual on its rims? Why is it that, more than a decade after a report on the rottenness of our schools gave us fits, induced nationwide remorse and an unshakable desire to do better, the public schools are the same? Or worse?

Yes, there have been victories, no question. Yet by and large we are patching gullies and wasting our time. We ought to put down our shovels and take a hard look at the country’s basic shape, which has changed fundamentally. Unless we come to grips with the new shape and meet it on its own terms, our efforts at repair will come to nothing and the nation will continue as it has been, washing down the drain.

_____________

 

It is generally agreed that our big national change happened in the 1960′s. “The 1960′s,” the historian Paul Johnson writes, are “one of the most crucial decades in modern history, akin to the 1790′s.” The perversity I want to understand starts in the 1960′s.

Two tectonic plates that used to float nowhere near each other collided, one rode up over the other, and things have never been the same. What happened was a sort of coup. The nation’s elite positions had mainly been occupied by a certain class of persons. Persons from a different class loomed up, jettisoned the old occupants, and took over. It had to happen this way because, to a remarkable extent, we pump our elite class out of our prestige colleges and universities, and after World War II we turned those institutions upside down. The new elite is dominated by intellectuals and their trainees; the implications are vast.

Years ago, the “New Class” theorists made a similar claim. They argued that the huge postwar expansion in college attendance had created a new elite of intellectuals and their disciples, and that a power struggle between them and the old elite (whose champions were the leaders of the business world, for example) was changing the country. The theory originated in the 1960′s and had its definitive expression in a 1979 essay collection, The New Class? (edited by B. Bruce-Briggs), that is still required reading for anyone who wants to understand modern America.

The New Class? holds up amazingly well nearly twenty years later, but today we can replace foresight by hindsight (cheaper stuff, but more reliable) and lay out a somewhat different case. Time has passed, and where the New Class theorists saw a battleground, the battle today is over: the intellectuals have won. William F. Buckley, Jr. once made the famous pronouncement that he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT. Now that we are ruled by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT, you can see what he meant.

_____________

 

Contemplate a couple of interesting intellectual crowds: the poets, painters, writers, and salon-keepers around the young Picasso in 1905 Paris, say—some of them bohemians but some true-blue intellectuals, with theories to sell and ideas to put over. Or the Trotskyists around Partisan Review in 1930′s New York. There is scant love lost in either group for organized religion, the military, social constraints on sexual behavior, traditional sex roles and family structures, formality or fancy dress or good manners, authority in general. Intellectuals have had these tendencies throughout the 20th century, and back to the 19th and into the 18th. But illegitimacy did not zoom up in 1905 Paris. No legal assault on public displays of religion took place in 1930′s America; nor did divorce rates explode or sexual constraints crack wide open. None of these things happened until the intelligentsia took over. And then they happened. It would be absurd to claim that intellectuals have imposed their tastes universally. But it is impossible to miss the obvious trend—the translucent, overlaying tint that is thinner in some places, deeper in others.

You see the evidence everywhere of rule by intellectualized elite. David Letterman interviews the actor Kevin Kline on TV. Letterman has a question about one of Kline’s movies in which “you play a Frenchman—French person,” correcting himself. It is one of those moments where the ground fractures and you see straight to the core of modern America. Letterman is no intellectual, as far as I know, but he is part of the new elite and talks its language. We nearly all do nowadays.

The idea that the “man” in “Frenchman” or the “his” in “everyone took his seat” excludes females is ridiculous, and the intelligentsia knows it. (Or knew it: in today’s schoolroom the facts are suppressed on principle.) Let us assume that the indeterminate “man” and “he” originally reflected male dominance; but things had been otherwise for a long time when Eudora Welty wrote, in her 1984 memoirs, that “It is always vaunting, of course, to imagine yourself inside another person, but it is what a story writer does in every piece of work; it is his first step, and his last too.” “He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances,” noted E.B. White in the final, 1979 edition of The Elements of Style. “It has no pejorative connotation; it is never incorrect.”

But the intelligentsia had a point to make, and decided to wipe these usages out. (There was no conspiracy at work, just a congenial, like-minded group of decision-makers.) “He” had to be “he or she,” “mankind” had to be “humankind,” and so forth. These words were repeated endlessly and in time—surprise!—they caught on.

So here we have Letterman and Kline, and Kline happens to be a male, actually, and even if you had the nonsensical idea that “Frenchman” means only a French male, Kline’s character is nevertheless a Frenchman. But after decades of elite babbling, “man” is radioactive. Letterman uses the suffix but the moment it is out of his mouth he drops it instinctively, as if he had reached for a sandwich and come up with a rattlesnake. This is what it means for an intellectualized elite to be in charge.

_____________

 

How did it happen? Did an “intellectualized class” overwhelm the old business-and-upper class, as the New Class theorists had it? Or was the outcome decided by a bloodless coup inside the generals’ tent, within the tiny upper stratum that calls the shots and sets the tone?

No doubt there was a big engagement out on the field—but a takeover at the top was decisive.

Consider that the elite positions themselves have not changed much. Ranking politicians and their staffers, judges and top lawyers, leading bureaucrats and business and financial and newspaper and entertainment people, prominent clergymen and academics: they were the big cheeses of 1930 and 1960 and, with an adjustment here and there—entertainers up, clergymen down—they still are. And the supply lines that feed these positions are also the same, at least in one key respect: the prestige colleges play a central role in staffing the elite. They did in 1930 and 1960 and still do—the Princetons and Harvards, the Stan-fords, Georgetowns, and Amhersts.

A 1990 Fortune magazine survey of CEO’s at Fortune 500 companies found that “the dominance of the Ivy League is, if anything, increasing. Whereas 14 percent of the former CEO’s surveyed hold Ivy League degrees, nearly 19 percent of the current CEO’s do.” Yale ranked first as a CEO-supplier in the 1990 survey, Princeton second. Of eight U.S. Presidents since 1961, half have been Ivy League products one way or another—Kennedy from Harvard, Bush from Yale, Ford and Clinton from Yale Law School.

I could go on, but the point is obvious. Students and parents who pay fabulous sums for prestige degrees have their reasons, and quality of teaching is not exactly the whole story. It goes without saying that loads of important people graduate from unprestigious colleges, or from none, and college training barely matters at all to our brightest lights; it beads up and rolls right off them. But the top colleges swing a lot of weight today, as they did in 1960 and 1930. Make big changes to these institutions and big changes in the American elite must follow.

And big changes were made, great big ones. Starting in the late 1940′s, admission and hiring policies were transformed; broadly speaking, intellectuals took over the faculty and the student bodies. I mean “took over” in the sense of progressing not from zero influence to total control but from a subordinate to a dominating position.

The universities had always harbored some intellectuals, but Harvard or Princeton students used to be mainly the richest, not the smartest; on the faculty, social connections used to be as good a criterion for tenure as any. The Yale man and Vassar girl were social types, not incipient intellectuals. The goal at the fancy colleges used to be to civilize the undergraduates, which involved a certain amount of teaching and a large amount of socializing, domesticating, and attitude-inculcating. A 1941 Yale alumni handbook (cited in Dan Oren’s Joining the Club, 1985):

It is generally assumed that, even with a scholarship, the poor boy entering Yale will be handicapped socially unless he happens to be an athletic star. He is assumed to have no chance to compete successfully with the graduates of Eastern preparatory schools for anything except scholastic honors.

This assumption was natural but wrong. “Yale,” the handbook continues, “will polish rough exteriors.” Yale was in the polishing business.

Seven years later, the dean was writing in a report to the president that “What I want for Yale college is an intellectual eminence as great as her athletic or her social or her eminence in activities of all sorts.” And things moved briskly in the dean’s direction. One dramatic sign was the big influx of Jews. The intellectualizing trend went a lot farther than bringing in Jews, of course, but Jews are a dye marker that allows us to trace a new class of people as it moves into the system—a new class distinguished by intellect and not social standing. At the prestige colleges today, the goal is to inculcate the intellectual’s habits, not the lady’s or gentleman’s.

_____________

 

As I understand them, the New Class theorists argued that it was not so much the radically changed character of a college education as the huge growth in numbers of the college-educated that created a new American culture. This was Irving Kristol’s influential view—the New Class emerged out of “the enormous expansion in higher education, and the enormous increase in the college-educated”—and many others agreed.

That increase was stunning: in 1940, 4.6 percent of the 25-and-over population had completed college; in 1975, roughly 14 percent had. It had to be important, had to play some role in reshaping society. But there are reasons, nevertheless, to be wary of this aspect of the New Class theory. It is hard to believe that the number of elite positions has grown anywhere near as fast as the ranks of the college-educated. Yet time after time we find a striking change of character in the occupants of powerful, long-established positions: the presidents of major universities, leaders of the mainline Protestant churches, federal judges, Hollywood big-shots. Their numbers have grown only modestly since 1960, but their views have greatly changed. There are fewer major newspapers, but their outlook has turned upside down.

Nor is the role of U.S. colleges in general wholly clear-cut. Seymour Martin Lipset wrote in the New Class anthology that “American academe is in fact sharply divided in its political views.” But one reason “for the widespread characterization of the professoriate as ‘Left’ is that the most liberal academics are in the most prestigious and politically influential positions.” The prestige colleges are disproportionately influential, and disproportionately liberal.

At any rate, the New Class theory does not fully capture an essential aspect of the intellectual takeover, an aspect that resonates with other events of that era and gives the story its poignancy—makes the reshaping of American culture not a conspiracy but a tragedy. The old elite made the revolution itself. Nothing compelled the Harvards and Yales to change their ways. They did it on their own; they kicked things off by volunteering to make room for a new elite.

The rise of the intellectualized elite is connected, in this view, to the worldwide retreat of the deeply shaken upper classes after World War II. Today’s American culture was shaped ultimately by the same forces that made Europe abandon empire—in some cases under the gun, in other important ones because the will to rule was gone. Richard Brookhiser writes something similar in The Way of the WASP (1991): “In their guilt, WASP’s not only do the right thing by those who wish to become WASP’s, but they extend themselves for the benefit of those who intend to remain something else.”

Assume that the only history you know is the postwar transformation of the prestige colleges. What predictions would you make? The faculty transformation picks up steam throughout the 1950′s. By the early 60′s, it is largely complete: the main hiring criteria now are intellectual rigor and distinction, and young professors are increasingly apt to be card-carrying intellectuals. Students matriculating in the early 60′s are the first who will get the full treatment. In the student bodies themselves, would-be intellectuals are increasingly prominent, making students as a group even more receptive to faculty influence.

The first of the new breed ought to be done and pop out of college somewhere—check your watches—in the mid-60′s, and out of graduate and professional schools starting in the late 60′s. (Robert Bork on his experiences teaching at Yale: “The change at the Law School began abruptly with the class that entered in 1967. Unlike the traditional liberal students of the second- and third-year classes, whom they frightened as much as they dismayed the faculty, these students were angry, intolerant, highly vocal, and case-hardened against logical argument.”) In the late 1960′s, a struggle should begin inside the elite; but chances are, the old guard will call a retreat before long and the young guard will take over. After all, this is the same old guard that remade the colleges in the first place. It has been turning itself out to pasture for years.

In this reading, our national turmoil over the Vietnam war was a symptom and not the disease, embittering a transformation that was in the cards anyway.

_____________

 

Let us say there was a coup at the top: that, after the war, intellectuals took the helm at the prestige colleges; that a new breed of intellectualized graduates duly emerged to claim (as these graduates always had) a large share of the nation’s elite positions; that the character of the elite changed radically in consequence. Today’s elite is intellectualized, the old elite was not. Why should that matter? What differences does it make?

The difference is this: the old elite used to get on fairly well with the country it was set over. Members of the old social upper-crust elite were richer and better educated than the public at large, but approached life on basically the same terms. The public went to church and so did they. The public went into the army and so did they. The public staged simpler weddings and the elite put on fancier ones, but they mostly all used the same dignified words and no one self-expressed. They agreed (this being America) that art was a waste, scientists were questionable, engineering and machines and progress and nature were good. Some of the old-time attitudes made sense, some did not; but the staff and their bosses basically concurred. (George Bush was elected in part, Brookhiser suggests, because of public interest in restoring these arrangements.)

Relations between the elite and the nation are very different today. The enmity between Intellectual and Bourgeois is sheepman against cattleman, farm against city, Army versus Navy: a cliché but real. Ever since there was a middle class, intellectuals have despised it. When intellectuals were outsiders, their loves and hates never mattered much. Today they are the bosses and their tastes matter greatly.

_____________

 

The essay in The New Class? that went deepest into basic cultural questions was Norman Podhoretz’s; he expanded on Lionel Trilling’s idea of the intellectuals as an “adversary culture.” During the 1960′s and early 70′s, the intelligentsia’s hatred for middle-class society was something fierce. The ferocity could partly be explained, Podhoretz wrote, by the fact that “despite all the concessions” the middle class had made, “it still refused to be ruled by the intellectuals.” Today the intelligentsia runs the show, and its hatred for class enemies has been toned down—exactly as Podhoretz would have predicted. But the hatred is still there, and comes through loud and clear on special occasions. Moreover, it has undergone a portentous change of focus. It used to be aimed at least partly upward, at the “establishment.” Now that intellectuals are the establishment, it is aimed entirely downward, at the public at large.

Today’s elite loathes the nation it rules. Nothing personal, just a fundamental difference in world view, but the feeling is unmistakable. Occasionally it escapes in a scorching geyser. Michael Lewis reports in the New Republic on the fall ’96 Dole presidential campaign: “The crowds flip the finger at the busloads of journalists and chant rude things at them as they enter each arena. The journalists, for their part, wear buttons that say ‘Yeah, I’m the Media. Screw You.’ ” The crowd hates the reporters, the reporters hate the crowd—an even match-up, except that the reporters wield power and the crowd (in effect) wields none.

The Virginia Military Institute used to be male-only. The elite didn’t like that, and set to work. Thus Geoffrey Norman in the American Spectator:

A Washington Post columnist wrote that VMI existed in a “medieval time warp, in which brotherhood is forged through sadomasochistic rituals in a forgotten monastery supported by the state for its own Byzantine purposes.” A state senator from Virginia notified the world that she had “trouble with young men who want to shave their heads and shower together.”

The elite hated VMI, and no doubt VMI hated the elite—another even match-up, except that, when it occurred to the elite one afternoon on the way to the water cooler that VMI’s way of life ought to be wiped out (just a casual notion, inasmuch as the likes of VMI hardly matter to the elite one way or the other), it was duly wiped out. The old VMI was crushed like a beer can under a tank tread and the Institute is now, needless to say, co-ed. Having put things right and fundamentally refashioned the quirky, proud old college, the elite is unlikely to think about it again for the next 100 years. Again, this is no conspiracy; the lawyers who argued for the Justice Department, the reporters who covered the case, and the Supreme Court majority that decided it just happened to see eye-to-eye with the intelligentsia.

The nation today is captured perfectly in a New Republic cartoon. (The New Republic is the conscience of liberalism; the cartoon is unrepresentative of the magazine but is representative of something bigger.) The first three panels show a white male whining about affirmative action, presumably having become a victim of it himself. “Affirmative action has left a bitter taste,” he says. “It’s nothing more than discrimination, and discrimination of any kind is wrong. People should be judged by what they can do, not what group they’re part of.” In the last panel we get an explanation for his heartfelt stand against bigotry: a bottle and spoon, with a label on the bottle reading “Affirmative Action—A Taste of His Own Medicine.” (As if he used to be in the habit of pummeling people; we start pummeling him, and he tells us, “Stop!—I see at last that pummeling people is wrong!”) Over the bottle the cartoonist has written his laconic verdict on the “affirmative-action” treatment: “Seems to have worked.”

It is amazing how much the cartoonist has unwittingly let slip about the elite and its world view. Our whining white male did not prescribe this medicine for himself; patients don’t do that. We prescribed it for him—we doctors, we the elite, we who know better. He was sick and we cured him. Intellectuals going back a century and more have had lots of prescriptions in store for the obstinate, dim-witted public, many medicines awaiting deployment.

Does the public hate the elite as unambiguously as the elite hates it? President Clinton is the paradigmatic intellectualized-elitenik, and a public that elected him twice could hardly be eaten up by class hatred (which is, it hardly needs saying, a good thing). Although the public’s political preferences have drifted rightward in recent years, they have been remarkably stable over the last few decades. Does this signify acceptance of the new order, or at least resignation? Maybe. But notice how little there is to choose in a typical election on basic cultural grounds, even if Republicans and Democrats stand for very different policies.

An American Middle East-watcher made a fascinating comment years ago about the Islamic revolution in Iran. To the Iranians, he said, Americans and Soviets looked pretty much the same. There were huge philosophical differences between them. But they all wore pants. Orthodox Islam branches away from the West at a more basic level than the point where Communism and democratic capitalism peel apart.

The divide between the American middle and the American elite may be more basic than the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Leading Republicans speak the elite’s language just as the Democrats do (“Diversity is our strength”—Newt Gingrich), honor and obey the basic tenets of orthodox feminism, are no more inclined than Democrats to be hemmed in by traditional family structure. When VMI’s future was on the line, you didn’t see Republicans rallying to its side. A few complained; most shrugged. At their 1996 convention, Republicans lavished attention on AIDS victims and rape victims, former welfare mothers and powerful female politicians. God bless ‘em every one, but in cultural terms the Democrats and Republicans are all wearing pants.

_____________

 

What to do? I would put aside politics for a while and plant bushes, attempt to stabilize the culture.

The universities are set for a long time and we cannot change them. What we could do is hire their graduates into new institutions with their own marked personalities, strong enough to counteract the powerful indoctrination engines of university and grade school and everyday life. Today’s newspapers and popular magazines, museums and TV stations, movie studios and schools mainly line up with the intellectualized elite, but no law says that it has to be this way forever.

The new institutions I have in mind would have no political agendas. They would merely promote cant-free history, apolitical art, nonfeminist news reporting for the masses, the teaching of technique and not self-esteem, moral seriousness, ideology-free language—items that today’s elite despises and is attempting to destroy. They would build on the groundwork laid down by conservative and neoconservative intellectuals over decades. Their aim would be a modest but steady increase in the number of Americans who can say “Frenchman” without flinching.

I have been told repeatedly that this idea might be good in principle but is doomed. The logistical and financial problems are too great, conservatives (being conservative) lack the necessary passion to change the country, the cultural forces of the Left are too strong to beat. When I hear these arguments I am reminded of E.B. White writing to his publisher in 1958 in connection with his proposed revision of William Strunk, Jr.’s The Elements of Style:

I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust the unadjustable Mr. Strunk to the modern liberal of the English department, the anything-goes fellow. . . . I am against him, temperamentally and because I have seen the work of his disciples, and I say the hell with him.

Is the cause of good writing lost, now that academia has dropped it? “To me,” White says, “no cause is lost.” The chances of our repairing American society might be near zero. But I find it inspiring anyway that I can address the direct descendant of the “anything-goes fellow,” the intellectual who commands modern culture, in White’s voice. I am against him. I have seen the work of his disciples, and I say the hell with him. To me no cause is lost.

_____________

About the Author

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale.




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.