Our nation has always depended on these heavyweights to guide us, but are they still with us, and if so, who are they?
In the wake of the Brexit vote and the election of President Trump, the experts and commentators whose ideas shape the ideas of others have tried to pinpoint the cause of the populist fervor that upended many expectations. In op-eds and books (see The Death of Expertise) the consensus seems to be: The egghead is dead.
This painful conclusion weighs heavily on public intellectuals, who created the country during the 116 steamy days of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, when Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and crew crafted a new nation entirely out of words. Then they bolstered it with 85 newspaper columns under the pen name Publius, now known as the Federalist Papers, to explain and defend their work.
For a time, it seems, Americans mixed with public intellectuals in their everyday lives. They were our preachers and teachers, discovering their voice in times of crisis. Ralph Waldo Emerson blasted our embrace of slavery, while his fellow clergyman Henry Ward Beecher saved the Union cause by traveling to Europe to deliver a series of riveting speeches that quelled the continent’s desire to recognize the Confederacy.
Intellectualism got a boost after the Second World War, when the G.I. Bill enabled universities to massively increase capacity. In this fertile period, before specialization fully took hold, philosophers, historians and sociologists explained the postwar world to the new hordes of college-educated women and men hungering for mental stimulation.