An interesting article in the UK’s Guardian. I, sorry to say, must be counted among those who see very little true intellectual promise among those commonly regarded as the intelligentsia. Still, there is always the tendency to look back wistfully on “the good old days.” However justified the tendency may be.
The fact that a nation that lives by its considerable wits should be in denial about its reliance on the life of the mind is truly weird. It's what led the historian of ideas Stefan Collini to postulate what he calls the "absence thesis". This has two dimensions – temporal and geographical. In the first, contemporary figures are regarded as just pale reflections of the great figures of the past: thus Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, say, are pygmies compared with George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Richard Posner, another student of public intellectuals, describes this as measuring today's average against yesterday's peak. In either case, it conveniently ignores the fact that the heroes of the past were often undervalued by their contemporaries as mere pale reflections of the "really" great figures of an even more distant past. The geographical dimension of the absence thesis is reflected in the belief that intellectuals begin at Calais. But, as Collini observes, "the frequently encountered claim that there are no intellectuals in Britain is generally advanced by those who, were they living in certain other societies, would unhesitatingly be regarded as intellectuals".