New Book Details The Sorry State Of ‘The American Mind’

June 15, 2015

By Jamie Weinstein at The Daily Caller

The American mind is not well.

That’s what 16 scholars detail in a series of essays compiled in “The State of the American Mind,” edited by Emory Professor Mark Bauerlein and famed HarperCollins editor Adam Bellow.

In an interview with The Daily Caller about his newly released compilation “on the new anti-intellectualism,” Bauerlein explains what worries him most about American society and culture, how academia has helped foster the decline of the American mind, his view of a potential Donald Trump presidential candidacy and much more:

Surely by design, your book comes out the same day that Donald Trump is scheduled to announce whether or not he will run for president. So before we get into the book, let me ask you a question about The Donald. For better or worse, Trump has been a significant part of the American scene for over three decades. Does the continued resonance of Donald J. Trump as a popular cultural — and perhaps, even political — figure tell us anything about the “State of the American Mind?”

The temptation is to denounce the Trump spectacle as a further sign of civic deterioration. But American politics has had no shortage of colorful characters, obnoxious and/or entertaining, dating all the way back before the founding. Donald Trump is no more outlandish than many of them. We should also avoid underestimating Trump’s politico-economic talents. To remain a force on the American scene for three decades takes hard work and savvy.

But there is one sense in which the Trump candidacy marks an American failure—not a political one, but a cultural one. Why do we take his political declarations seriously? Why is he not just a specimen of pseudo-political entertainment?

I don’t mean this as a criticism of Trump himself, but of the media that reports him and the audiences that accept him as a figure of political significance. It may be that Donald Trump does amount to a political force, but he hasn’t shown that yet. A politician requires a professional staff and a campaign strategy. He has to develop a coherent platform, detail planks and plans, cultivate advisors, and mount a steady effort to attract voters. Until Donald Trump produces a genuine campaign and follows through to Election Day, let’s treat his political announcements as theater.

Let’s move on to the book. The obvious question is: What do you mean by the “American Mind” and how is its state?

For some 300 years, thinkers and commentators, writers and politicians, have talked about the American mind or the “American character,” the “American Scholar,” the “Philosophical Method of the Americans,” and other general terms for characteristic American attitudes and thoughts. It might be found in the hopes and expectations of Ben Franklin as a youth fleeing to Philadelphia to start his own life, or in the speech and behavior of common workers, which Walt Whitman believed best typified the new world citizen. In this sense, the American mind is a composite made up of the dominant, sometimes idealized, traits of our population.

Obviously, there is always a danger that this or that version of the American mind reflects the state of the portrayer more than it does the portrayed. A dark vision of people could just mark the eye of a pessimist.

That is why we assembled for this volume a set of broad and reliable observers of the American scene, many of them social scientists. Our title echoes Allan Bloom’s famous study from 1987, “The Closing of the American Mind,” which generalized about the state of our central institution for intellectual growth, the university. It was sharp and incisive, but sweeping and opinionated, too. It fit perfectly the culture wars of the time.

Our ambition is less conclusive and more specialized. We don’t have a single, overarching thesis of the nation at large. Our contributors focus on smaller phenomena, and they range across the political spectrum. But as they address different expressions of mental habits and outlooks — rising narcissism among the young, increasing entitlement behaviors among older Americans, feelings of offense voiced in media and education, ignorance of current events and civic backgrounds, etc. — a profile of deterioration begins to emerge. Taken together, they spell out a troubling national condition.

What worries you most about American society and culture today?

The first problem is ignorance. Too many Americans know little about American history and civics. The evidence comes from national tests and surveys, and I presume readers here are familiar with those results (which are announced with dreary predictability every year). The problem with not knowing what the First Amendment says or what Booker T. Washington argued is that people have thin grounds for exercising their sovereignty. They vote without knowing the issues, or they don’t vote at all. They judge American actions in the present without any knowledge of past actions (which provides a sound basis for judgment). They understand current leaders without comparing to the best and worst examples from before.

The second problem is attitudinal. The American tradition has always emphasized individualism, but a crucial feature of individualism was civic awareness. That is, individuals remained independent and self-reliant by guarding their prerogatives and monitoring those in power. But, as several contributors here demonstrate, American individualism expresses itself today in other ways. One is that they increasingly look to the government for financial support. Another is that they let self-esteem be the measure of human value. Still another is the astounding rate of adults and children taking psychiatric medications. More Americans neglect the news, too, and their attention spans have shortened to Twitter and click-bait lengths.

It sounds old-fashioned to say it, but civic health in America depends upon a vigilant and proudly self-reliant citizenry. It depends upon knowledge of our past and best ideals, along with a protestant work ethic and democratic feelings for one another. The symptoms detailed in “The State of the American Mind” run in the opposite direction.

When exactly was the “State of the American Mind” last well and what is responsible for its decline?

Because of the complexity of the problem, we can only mark out a chronology for specific areas. If we take the factor of news consumption, we have to go back before the 1980s to find healthy rates of attention among the young. Today, they are largely “tuned-out.” David Mindich cites a Pew study that finds only five percent of 18-29 year-olds follow happenings in Washington, D.C. “These are the people deciding your fate!” one wants to shout. It is a failure of what the founders understood about the First Amendment. They despised journalists, but they realized that people living far from the corridors of power needed a watchdog to keep them informed. If you don’t read the newspaper or follow other responsible media, you fall short of the duties of citizenship.

In another area, the rise of government dependency, Nicholas Eberstadt goes back to 1960, just before the Great Society programs started, to find reasonable levels of the population on some form of government assistance. He shows that, in 1963, entitlement transfers of money accounted for less than one dollar out of every fifteen dollars of personal income in the U.S. Now, they account for more than one dollar in six. This shift in policy, Eberstadt recalls, was based upon the expulsion of a basic American principle that goes back to the first colonists, namely, the distinction between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor.

As for the causes, they, too, are multiple. We would have to recite trends in technology, education, multiculturalism, media, manufacturing, and other sectors to explain changes in the American character. Let me indicate just one of them, the high levels of narcissism among the young recorded by Jean Twenge. She identifies two sources of the problem. One is the self-esteem movement in primary education and parenting that started a few decades ago. It showed up in grade inflation, TV and film, and parenting styles, all of them based on the premise that if children feel good about themselves, they will perform better and suffer fewer social problems. Recent research indicates, however, that high self-esteem is correlated with emotional difficulties and lower performance (some of the strongest students constantly question their achievement). Here we see another good intention produce an unexpected consequence.

How much blame does academia deserve? I attended university not too long ago and there was a pretty terrible state of campus debate back then, but now I read stories about trigger warnings and speakers being shouted down and it sounds like things have gotten a lot worse.

Greg Lukianoff’s, Richard Arum’s, and Gerald Graff’s entries in the volume each examine higher education and find it severely wanting, though on different grounds. Lukianoff addresses precisely the thin-skinned, offense-taking atmosphere of the campus that gives youths the impression that they shouldn’t have to countenance anything that disagrees with them. Their sensitivities are so high that they disallow speakers and demand that teachers change their syllabi. Arum examines data from national tests administered before matriculation and after graduation that demonstrates astonishingly weak advances in knowledge and skills from freshman year to senior year. And Graff begins with a dismaying condition that teachers and employers universally deplore: youths can’t write.

And what is most disappointing about the situation is that we have known about all of them for a long time. Campus protests are nothing new, nor is the complaint that Johnny can’t write. But for all the discussion of them for the last 40 or 50 years, we see no gains, and in some places a worsened state. When we look at Arum’s numbers, we think, ‘but wait, students at that school paid $180,000 to attend. What happened?’

What is the most troubling statistic the reader will find in the book?

Hmm, that’s a hard one. When Richard Whitaker reports data showing that one in five Americans took a psychiatric drug in 2010, it’s hard not to shake your head. Eberstadt’s numbers on the rise of disability payments are extraordinary. And then, there are the anecdotes offered in which, for example, Steve Wasserman runs up against deplorable anti-intellectual attitudes among newspaper editors, and E.D. Hirsch encounters fierce hostility from education professors for daring to identify knowledge essential to class mobility in the United States.

Let me mention one more as, perhaps, the most distressing statistic. As commonly known, IQ scores have rose steadily during the 20th century, the so-called “Flynn effect.” When we break down IQ into its different areas, we find remarkable gains in spatial reasoning and pattern recognition. Children gained 24 points for “similarities,” for instance. But here is what happened with arithmetic: a gain of barely 2 points for children, 3.5 points for adults. Flynn himself termed the adult score “unexpected and shocking,” and I agree.

What are the consequences for our society from this low state of what you call the American mind? at the moment, America does remain the world’s only superpower and an economic leader. Can we maintain that if this cultural and societal trend continues?

When rates of dependency run this high, when so many people are disengaged from the civic sphere and don’t care about the American past, and when individualism runs more toward self-involvement than to responsible citizenship, we can’t think that American greatness will continue unless something changes. What made this country strong was a vigilant voting public and an entrepreneurial spirit. So long as we remained true to equal opportunity and the right to pursue happiness, we prospered. As Booker T. Washington put it, “the great human law that in the end recognizes and rewards merit is everlasting and universal.” That is an American faith, but if the majority of Americans don’t think about it and believe it, then I’m afraid we’re in for a long 21st century.

Is there anything optimistic in this book? Can this decline be reversed?

When we examine the evidence today, it’s hard to find much cause for hope. Liberals and progressives point to the cultural and social changes of the last half-century as an epoch of extraordinary improvement. Women’s rights, civil rights for minorities, and gay rights signify a march of tolerance and inclusiveness. And yet, at the present time, tolerance and diversity have found expression in a political correctness that has never been so vigilant and punitive. Conservatives and libertarians point out that the same half-century has been an epoch of remarkable prosperity. And yet, allegations of injustice and poverty and lack of opportunity have never been so voluminous. The national mood is negative.

But when we take the long view, we have to believe that America will survive its present malaise, polarization, bread-and-circus consumerism, and civic disengagement. Our nation has struggled through civic and cultural decay repeatedly, and great leaders and movements have come along to mobilize individuals into engaged, dutiful citizens. We have seen a few sparks of collective intelligence and civic expression in recent years with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, the Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street. Sadly, those movements deteriorated into symbolic gestures and partisan grumbling. But the impulse was right, and if such eruptions of civic consciousness find the right leaders, we will see once more a rejuvenation of American society, a new version of the American Mind in which we can take pride.