What’s the University For?   /   Fall 2000   /    Articles

Intellectuals and Their Discontents

Russell Jacoby

MY TITLE, WHICH IS PINCHED FROM FREUD’S LITTLE book Civilization and Its Discontents, is misleading. I should have titled my essay, “Intellectuals and Their Contents.” I don’t worry that intellectuals are discontented, but rather the reverse: that they are too happy. Intellectuals have settled for too little; they have become too professorial and complacent. I am considering “academics” and “intellectuals” as almost equivalent terms; indeed, part of the story is how this came to be.

Some purchase on the topic of intellectuals (and intellectuals in an academic terrain) can be gained by considering the image of intellectuals and professors in films and novels. Not so long ago the professor was viewed as “absent-minded” and dysfunctional–perhaps as portrayed in the Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers or, more grimly, in Heinrich Mann’s Professor Unrat, which was turned into the movie, The Blue Angel. This image, and the reality to which it corresponded, is obsolete. To satirize a professor nowadays one cannot pretend that he or she is sexually repressed or cannot find the classroom door or the keys to the car. Just the opposite–a professor is satirized for being oversexed or too connected. This is the image of the professor that emerges in a host of recent novels, such as those by David Lodge. The fictional portrait resonates because it captures something of the current situation of academic intellectuals.

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