The Decline of the Conservative Mind

July 25, 2015

By John K. Wilson at The Academe Blog

These are dark days for conservatives: 7 years of President Obama, gay marriage spreading across the land, health insurance coverage growing every day, and a collection of mediocre Republican candidates that make the words “President Clinton” seem like the future rather than the past. It’s enough to make a conservative blurt out “Jiggery-pokery” and bemoan the decline of a culture that doesn’t know what that phrase means but can google it in two seconds and then still not care.

The State of the American Mind (Templeton Press, 2015) a new collection of essays on “the new anti-intellectualism” inspired by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. This book is part of a long and not very intellectually deep tradition of bemoaning anti-intellectualism. It’s a mess of a collection, with writers ranging from the center to the far right delivering nothing of coherence except for a shared belief that everything is terrible.

E.D. Hirsch begins by bemoaning the decline in test scores, mainly from 1962-1979, caused by stupid kids and their liberal teachers, and Mark Bauerlein follows with an essay explaining how IQ scores have skyrocketed since the 1950s, but kids are still stupid.

Hirsch offers the most self-indulgent, breathtaking sentence in the book when he whines about how his best-selling, incredibly profitable book Cultural Literacy was not widely adopted by education schools: “Metaphorically speaking, the book was burned.” The fact that his third-rate book was not worshipped by education professors and did not create a revolution in teaching is not, in fact, analogous to book burning.

When Jean Twenge writes a chapter giving us the tired old argument about narcissistic youth, it seems especially ironic in this collection of elderly narcissists like Hirsch whining about their neglected greatness.

Much of the book is devoted to attacking the stupidity of young people and blame liberals for making them dumb.

Bauerlein blames the kids for talking too much with each other rather than adults, and making themselves stupid.

Daniel Dreisbach rather unconvincingly tells us that Biblical literary is really important, and blames the lack of Bible study.

Richard Arun argues that colleges lack academic rigor and that “change requires political will, not increased resources.”(74) But this kind of overall averaging misses the fact that some forms of spending, at some colleges, could improve academic rigor. The massive spending at elite private universities is not the best guide for the typical public college and its spending levels.

Robert Whitaker blames psychotropic drugs.

David T.Z. Mindich blames the lack of reading newspapers.

Maggie Jackson blames hyperconnectivity.

Jonathan Kay blames the conspiracy theorists, and like many of the authors, he’s just summarizing a book he wrote on the topic a few years ago.

Nicholas Eberstadt blames the welfare state. Ilya Somin blames big government.

Steve Wasserman blames the internet, talk show hosts, and satirists for the lack of “seriousness” today.

Dennis Prager blames “the Age of Feelings,” by which he means leftism.

A few essays have some sound points to make, but they have little to do with the thesis of the book.

Gerald Graff offers a thoughtful analysis of why students are bad writers, but I think he misses the bigger picture, that the growing emphasis on standardized testing makes writing less and less relevant to student (and school) success.

Greg Lukianoff rightly worries about censorship and echo chambers and claims (really without any proof) that there is an “increasing trend of students organizing” to censor speakers (205). Lukianoff devotes part of his essay to worrying about the relatively low percentage of college students who agree that it’s “safe to hold unpopular positions on college campus”; but Lukianoff never bothers to challenge the premise of the question: it shouldn’t be “safe” to hold unpopular or popular positions on a college campus. A university is not about having one’s ideas be safe from challenge and criticism.

In the final essay, R.R. Reno blames it all on a world where “Charlie can become Charlene without guilt, shame, or social stigma.”(219) Apart from being bigoted and inaccurate, he’s complaining about people being able to live according to their personal desires.

What most of this has to do with anti-intellectualism is a mystery, probably to many of the authors as well as the readers.

In their Afterword, Bauerlein and Bellow struggle to make sense of this mish-mash of old fashioned grumpiness. They harken back to the 1952 Partisan Review symposium when nearly all the authors “accepted a distinctive American mind, identity, experience, or tradition.” There is little practical advice in this book, except to wish that we could all go back to the good old days, in 1952 when intellectuals €supposedly shared a common delusion about the “American mind.”

Babbling about the long-sought “essential American mind”(240), Bauerlein and Bellow write, “Our intellectuals are constrained by diversity from drawing people together and Americanizing them, and so are most educators and politicians.” Really? So there’s a conspiracy of intellectuals, teachers, and politicians to keep Americans racially divided and un-American? I’m quite sure that racial divisions and inequalities would not suddenly disappear if we all just pretended racism didn’t exist anymore and all Americans shared singular ideals.

According to Bauerlein and Bellow, the job of intellectuals is to “Americanize” everybody with this “singular” ideal that they never quite specify. (Does that include European intellectuals, or are they supposed to “Germanize” people if that’s where they live?)

Such gobbledygook is expressed with absolute certainty about its correctness and the moral failings of anyone who doesn’t fall in line. This volume is full of dubious assumptions rarely proven and the absence of dissenting voices, or even the acknowledgment of opposing arguments. Along the way, they ignore the growing anti-intellectualism of the right, with its attacks on science and higher education.

Bauerlein and Bellow conclude their volume with a call for revolution. Yes, an actual “cultural revolution” to “undo the delinquent habits and attitudes of our citizens and shake the diversity ideology of the elites.” It’s enough to make me wish Allan Bloom was still around to sneer at it all.