I returned from vacation to learn that one of my graduate advisors, Samuel Huntington, passed away on Christmas eve. Huntington was the type of broad intellectual that has become a vanishing breed in academia. He had a knack for identifying the big themes that were worthy of our attention and had the courage to make bold arguments while always remaining respectful of those with whom he disagreed.
Now we are mostly left with academics who dwell on the latest methodological technique rather than what is substantively important. Just pick up a recent copy of the American Political Science Review and you will search in vain for anything important, useful, and accessible.
And the public intellectuals who still attempt to ask the big questions too often give answers that have all the depth of a self-help book. Has Thomas Friedman ever made an argument that was not already the bland conventional wisdom of the Rotary Club in a small midwestern town?
Josef Joffe said it best: “But who will embark on projects of this kind of sweep, breath and depth? Or write as elegantly as Sam has done? That’s over in American academia, as is that fabulous confluence between America’s rise to world power and the influx of some of Europe’s greatest minds, courtesy of Adolf Hitler. Never before has there been such a perfect match between the demand for and the supply of great talent. One hates to think what would happen to a young Sam today. He might still graduate from Yale at age 18, but would he have become a Harvard professor at age 23? With that independence of mind, that contrarian spirit, that relentless search for conventional notions to be slain? Would a young Sam still be able to ask the Big Questions? And sin against so many idols demanding fealty to contemporary standards of correctness?”
Huntington’s passing isn’t just the personal loss of a wonderful man, teacher, and scholar. It also marks the end of an era.