One of the most interesting developments of the last sixty years in the popularization of intellectual concerns and higher culture has been the appearance of “public intellectuals.” They are, for the most part, academics who use a variety of means of access to a wide audience to disseminate ideas that are sometimes an integral part of their expertise, and sometimes very far from their professional field.
There were, indeed, at an earlier time, occasional purveyors of scientific ideas either to a cultured public or as part of a conscious attempt to educate the working class. Thomas Henry Huxley was not only a major popularizer of Darwin for an educated English reading public in the 1860s, but also gave workingmen’s lectures on various biological questions. In pursuit of his own ideological program, J.B.S. Haldane, one of the founders of modern evolutionary genetics in the 1930s, wrote on science for the British Daily Worker. In the more conventional press, the feuilleton pages of French and Italian newspapers have long been the outlet for occasional articles on scientific and cultural issues by prominent academics. It has only been since World War II, however, that there has arisen a moderately large class of academics for whom a major preoccupation has been the popular explication and interpretation of either their body of technical knowledge or their theories about almost anything.
The rise of the public intellectual as a regular career category, bringing esoteric knowledge and overarching theories to a wide audience, as well as fame and fortune to the practitioner, began when the most esoteric science intruded itself onto the public consciousness with a very loud bang on July 16, 1945. In high school I was a typically nerdy science enthusiast, part of a small, more or less socially isolated coterie that met after school to trade Freudian interpretations of our dreams at the local soda fountain. But when the school year began in the fall of 1946 I found myself on the assembly hall platform, a public-intellectual-in-training, explaining the mysteries of nuclear physics to an audience of the entire school.
The Manhattan Project and the development of radar during World War II provided the impetus for a major reorientation of the relationship between the state and the academic world. It became obvious to policymakers like Vannevar Bush, head of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, that a regular major investment in scientific research would be necessary for the future security and financial prosperity of the country and that, given the competitive demands for profit, private capital could not be adequate for the purpose.1 The result has been that the annual federal expenditure for research and development (in constant dollars) has been multiplied by a factor of ten since 1947. The relevance of this immense increase in the funding of science to our understanding of changes in culture is twofold.
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.