Financing the Life of the Mind

Russell Jacoby laments that it has become almost impossible for intellectuals to sustain themselves without institutional backing:

Yes, a few souls manage to hustle and do quite nicely, for instance, Christopher Hitchens. Yes, a few magazines like the “New Yorker” pay a living wage, but for most to survive, if not flourish, requires a working (and willing) spouse, family money or an academic position (or its equivalent such as a slot in a think tank or policy outfit). Yes, Scialabba has a chair at Harvard, but his sits behind a desk on the ground floor of the building which he superintends. Only the most resolute can juggle for years a day job and night time of writing. For almost everyone else, the choice is to join an institution or die on the vine.

In the wake of government harassment of professors in the 1950s, Albert Einstein was asked about the situation of scientists and famously replied, “If I would be a young man again and had to decide how to make my living, I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances.” Even for the 1950s the reference to a peddler is dated, yet the point remains salient. What are the costs of the institutionalization of intelligence?


The Internet allows new voices , but it also undercuts the traditional magazines and newspapers that at least pretended to pay. The Web forces more people to join in the rat-race to earn a living or find an academic or neo-academic position — or vanish.

I’ve been living the so-called “life of the mind” since at least the early 1990s, sometimes with institutional backing (a university or a think tank) and sometimes without (blogging and freelance writing in conjunction with other jobs or as a full-time job).  And, yes, plumbers make more per hour.

Then again, I knew that going in.  And I had no interest in fixing clogged toilets for a living.

There is more terrific intellectual discourse out there on the Web than I can possibly keep up with.  That it pays nothing or little is, I suppose, a pity.  But that it nonetheless gets produced would seem evidence of a non-problem.  The public gets the benefit of the work and the producers of the work get enough reward — even if it’s psychic rather than monetary — to continue producing it.   And they still manage to feed themselves, somehow.

And, frankly, discounting institutions seems rather silly.  Saying that one can’t make a living thinking unless one works for a university, think tank, or magazine is rather like the old Monty Python sketch about how the Romans never did anything for the people “apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order.”  After all, those places employ tens of thousands of people.

Image: Defense Tech

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Eric Florack says:

    I will make the rather obvious observation that this posts seems a jarring transition from the Megan Fox thread. (Chuckle)

  2. JKB says:

    So is the takeaway from this post that intellectuals aren’t paid as well as they might think?

  3. odograph says:

    Just because we love something doesn’t mean there has to be a job doing it.

    Why can’t I get paid fly fishing?

    If that question offends you, as an intellectual, you might be too full of yourself.

    (Plumbers can also be fly fishers, or intellectuals. There is no reason everything good has to pay, or be done one someone else’s dime.)

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Compensation levels aren’t determined by the abilities of practitioners, their costs, or even by objective need. They are determined by one of just two means: either by the market or by fiat. Which is being complained about?

  5. Drew says:

    I’m with odo and Dave…….pretty much.

    Odo – hear in the midwest there are guys who make mountains of money fishing. Well, at least marketing themseleves as fishermen.

    And Dave – “not by abilities?” Of course by abilities. However, it might simply be the ability to attract viewers, rather than abilities you or I might deem valuable See: entertainment industries, and 99% of all TV entertainers…….

  6. odograph says:

    Heh, I’ve just been watching videos of the guys who offer Sacramento driftboat rides. Point taken.