Tumbling Down

Daniel Asia

It is well-known to anyone involved in academia that the state of the American mind is not good. Whether it is due to shoddy thinking, an inability to articulate thoughts, or poor writing skills, most of our students are pretty much a mess. That this mirrors the state of the larger culture is axiomatic.

Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow address this phenomenon in their new book, The State of the American Mind: 16 Leading Critics on the New Anti-Intellectualism, a compilation of essays addressing the anti-intellectualism, and maybe just the downright dumbness, of our age. The editors present their case in a lucid introduction recounting the historical uniqueness of the “American Mind” (note the capital): un-hierarchical, self-made, self-reliant, independent of thought and action, thrifty and industrious, and disdainful of authority. This Mind also knew specific content such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Bible, and appreciated the gifts of a divided tripartite federal government, local control, and a free press. While prizing the self, it also believed in the common good, and was willing to put time and effort into it; thus the well-prized multitude of organizations of free association.

By the 1980s this Mind had passed into history. Acknowledged by all, the only question was what one thought of that passing. Those on the right mourned it, while those on the left praised it; the former saw it as the passing of America’s glory, while the latter saw its demise as making way for multiculturalism and diversity. This book therefore doesn’t quibble about the status of where we are today, but rather assesses the ramifications of this change. Bauerlein and Bellow suggest it has wrought the following:

Instead of acquiring a richer and fuller knowledge of U.S. history and civics, American students and grown-ups display astounding ignorance of them…

Civic virtue is a fading trait, our political sphere now typically understood as merely a contest of group interests. Patriotism and the common good are quaint notions.

Individualism has evolved from “rugged” versions of the past into present modes of self-absorption….

…Instead of holding basic liberties, more and more Americans accept restrictions on speech, freedom of association, rights to privacy, and religious conscience.1

The book is divided into three sections: “Indicators of Intellectual and Cognitive Decline” looks at IQ and lagging skill levels; “Personal and Cognitive Habits/Interests” considers news avoidance, lack of attention span, and self-absorption; and “National Consequences,” as a summation, examines “broader trends affecting populations and institutions, including rates of entitlement claims, voting habits, the culture of criticism, and higher education” (xiv).

The editors are frankly judgmental and moral in their stance. If Americans don’t read or vote, this is a moral problem. If they fall short of upholding American ideals, they need to be told. In short, “The American Mind was an extraordinary creation, and it has to be remembered” and, of course, revived (xvi). Because we live in a time of material plenty and technological wonders, we ponder why it is in such a sad state. The book’s essayists help us to understand this phenomenon.

E.D. Hirsch Jr. is a path-maker in approaching this question in the realm of education. He outlined the problem twenty-five years ago in Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. A college professor of the humanities and a man of progressive persuasion, Hirsch decided to try to figure out why more students weren’t prepared for college and why many never made it there. Foraging through various academic fields, including cognitive psychology and statistics, he made two simple discoveries. IQ and SAT test scores went down not because the pool was widened to include a more diverse population, but because a teacher cohort changed from focusing on knowledge-based learning to emphasizing that students should “learn how to learn”; he discovered that abstract skills cannot develop without a strong basis of fundamental content to support them. Hirsch was, and remains, particularly concerned about how this affects the disadvantaged. Whereas in middle-class homes a body of common knowledge is purveyed in conversation, family excursions, visits to museums, books, and in conversations around the kitchen table, for others less fortunate, the knowledge and vocabulary learned in these settings will largely need to be transmitted in schools instead. He therefore argues for a core of cumulative knowledge, one that promotes an understanding of the American Mind, which is needed for a democratic citizenry to function.

Bauerlein’s contribution is “The Troubling Trend of Cultural IQ.” Oddly enough, it begins with the news that IQ numbers have been rising, which should be cause for celebration. Surely this means that the average American is getting smarter. But this is so only if intelligence is defined as “the capacity for abstraction,” since this is where the numbers have really shot up. The conundrum, then, is why young people remain woefully deficient in basic knowledge and educational skills. For example, “their reading comprehension hasn’t improved at all” (21), and verbal SAT scores plummeted from 1962 to 1980 (22). This led one reviewer of similar data to note, “Today’s children may learn to master basic reading skills at a younger age, but are no better prepared for reading more demanding adult literature” (23). So, whereas they might do better in STEM areas of knowledge, they won’t be able to function well in the humanities, as they will fail in synthesizing sophisticated ideas.

Bauerlein agrees with Hirsch’s argument that “buried knowledge,” “relevant prior knowledge” (24), and “background knowledge” (9) aren’t being taught, thus the downward trend on other important sub-scores, in particular vocabulary. Bauerlein notes the creation of an adolescent culture over the last fifty years or so, wherein young people have had less interaction with adults. The result is a segregated youth culture that is profoundly—well, adolescent—in its ideas and speech. The solution suggested is somewhat quaint. Parents need to engage their children in conversation, read together, go to museums and concerts, and generally provide more adult-guided interaction. Our youth-obsessed society is thwarting this at every juncture, but this is the only solution to the increasing segregation and cultural illiteracy of our young people

Daniel Dreisbach, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University, makes the commonsensical suggestion that “Biblical Literacy Matters.” American history and culture are rooted in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and are the source material for understanding who we are, how we started, and the ideas and metaphors that matter to Americans. The Jewish Exodus was seen as analogous to the American Founding. The Protestant Christian Reformation struck at the heart of being commanded by a religious elite, and required of its followers that they know their Bible. An ancillary positive of this is that almost all early Americans could read—an important trait for citizens of a republican democracy. Lessons from the Bible were woven into all aspects of American life, including its “social, legal, and political culture” (37). The Founders understood well that a republican form of government relied on a virtuous and engaged citizenry, and on the pillars of education and religion.

Dreisbach goes so far as to say that if you don’t know your Bible it is impossible for all parties in a conversation to communicate—it runs that deep. He says that “every educated mind…must be acquainted with the basic stories, themes, claims and symbols of Christianity and its sacred text, the Bible” (44). The same claim should be made for the Hebrew Scriptures, since, as Dreisbach notes, the Founders and their community discovered great commonality with Jewish stories, if not always with Jews themselves. Today’s universities have incoming freshman read banal and trivial writings so they have a “common point of reference.” Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see assigned instead the Book of Job, Genesis, or Luke, so that new college students would find something in common not only with their age cohort, but also their nation and civilization?

Gerald Graff, professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, argues for “Arguespeak” in “Why Johnny and Joanie Can’t Write, Revisited.” Arguespeak is the “they say/I say” format, which summarizes a position or argument followed by the writer’s response. Graff recognizes that Arguespeak goes against the grain of almost all current educational philosophy, but notes that it does work. Arguespeak also makes for more civil discourse, as it demands a cogent, dispassionate understanding of an opponent’s argument before giving a response. This approach seems simple and promising, but leaves us pondering if and how it would allow a place for creative writing—poems, stories, plays. Because while our students certainly can’t write they also aren’t able to understand themselves or make sense of their relationship to the rest of the world, an issue creative written expression might help address.

Richard Arum, who with co-author Josipa Roksa, wrote the seminal Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011), updates his findings in “College Graduates: Satisfied, but Adrift.” Arum argues that in fighting for students (consumers), universities have lavished money and attention on social amenities, while taking diminishing interest in their primary function: to educate. The decline in student knowledge competencies has been demonstrated in many studies. Arum notes the differential between undergraduate and graduate outcomes, the former being weak and the latter stronger. In an era of global competition our graduation rates are exceeded by numerous countries, although many are much smaller than America and therefore the comparison is less helpful. (Arum mentions Iceland, for example, which has a graduation rate of 41 percent.) Today’s college students study vastly less than they did twenty-five years ago, on average less than an hour a day, but earn good grades nonetheless. Students—and administrators—think that they are learning just fine, while only 33 percent of their future employers believe that colleges are preparing these students to succeed in the workplace. And in the most damning of news, when tracked longitudinally in core competencies—analyzing, writing, and reading—students make almost no improvement during their years in college.

In “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” journalist and author Robert Whitaker makes a strong case against the persistent use of drug therapy for depression and other more severe forms of mental illness. Since one in five of all Americans take some form of psychotropic drug, this affects academia as much as society at large. DSM III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 1980), the bible of psychiatry, and its subsequent editions defined mental illness much more broadly, and stated that drug therapy trumped Freudian or other forms of talk therapy. Yet studies of the last fifteen years show that instead of helping, psychiatric drugs “induce the very changes hypothesized to cause the illness in the first place” (84), and that these drugs worsen the situation over the long term. The result is that we now have more people defined with a mental illness and more of them taking drugs that will over time worsen their symptoms. Since the messiness of the mind is now quickly termed an illness, the ideas that we have the capacity for free will and are responsible for our emotions and actions have taken a big hit.2 What it means to be an American is thus proscribed and diminished, and we as a nation are less vigorous, confident, and assertive as a result.

In “A Wired Nation Tunes Out the News,” the first essay of part two, Saint Michael’s College media studies, journalism, and digital arts professor David T. Z. Mindich writes about our faltering relationship with the news and what was once called current events. The Founders took freedom of the press seriously because they assumed that an informed and inquisitive citizenry is vital to a republican democracy. Americans read newspapers and pamphlets. This is no longer true among the younger generations, and historically these patterns do not change within a cohort as it ages. But Mindich does note that despite the conventional wisdom, quality news does sell better—if you provide good materials, they will read. He suggests that schools and colleges “signal” that political engagement and knowledge of the news are important. Finally, he suggests that government “incentivize” broadcasters to provide more news and public affairs programming. There are problems with Mindich’s answers. How do you get people away from television news in order to read more news, which is almost by definition more nuanced? And if successful at that, how do you get them to read high-quality print materials? Where in the school curriculum does one place newspapers? And finally, do we want more governmental intrusion into our media, let alone into our lives?

In “Catching our Eye: The Alluring Fallacy of Knowing at a Glance,” former Boston Globe columnist and author Maggie Jackson takes on a simple problem—the speed at which society now moves—in an elegant way. Reading is now almost all superficial, and sustained analysis considered old-fashioned. It is rare that we look deeply at anything, such as a masterpiece in a museum, or actually listen, I would add, because to do so requires time; it is the “vehicle of understanding.” Jackson makes the case that to understand we must get past the surface and appearances: “Skill and time in looking are a necessity to decode any aspect of our environment” (119). She explicates this process with her three-hour encounter of Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, in which her description of gradually coming to understand its content is quite delicious.

In “The Rise of the Self and the Decline of Intellectual and Civic Interest,” San Diego State University psychology professor and author Jean M. Twenge doubles down on Arum’s argument that the current idea of believing in yourself trumps being able to accomplish something. Twenty years ago this was called creating high self-esteem, and then all good things will follow, it was thought. But the shift now to focusing on the self—the deluded and superficial feeling rather than the active and aware self—overrides actually acquiring the knowledge required to do something. The ancillary result is the “forsaking of interest in issues outside of the self” (125), and so our students think they are smarter and better educated than they are. This is abetted by being told that they are smart and having this confirmed by good grades received due to grade inflation. Narcissism is off the charts, while interest in the intellectual life has ebbed. Not surprisingly, this has also negatively affected civic engagement and an interest in politics. How to respond to this? We should communicate that self-belief is nice, but being able to do something is a lot better, that hard work is a good value and money isn’t all it is cracked up to be—a purposeful, meaningful life is better.

In “Has Internet Fueled Conspiracy-Mongering Crested?” columnist and blogger Jonathan Kay makes the case that conspiracy-mongering isn’t good for the polity, but that this problem has probably peaked as we have become savvier at sifting through the information. While many people simply believe the strangest things, Kay sees a more studied use of the Internet, Wikipedia, and Google’s new algorithms as antidotes.

In “Dependency in America: American Exceptionalism and the Entitlement State,” the first essay of part three, Nicholas Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, suggests that an antagonistic relationship exists between American exceptionalism and the entitlement state. Americans claiming economic benefits from the government and feeling entitled to receive them are revolutionary changes in our thinking and policy. Eberstadt worries about the effects on the American Mind when so many of us are “takers” of some sort, and, of course, the concomitant effects, including “the breakdown of the family structure and the flight from work of working-age men” (159). Eberstadt is not sanguine about the future as he says that “collusive bipartisan support for an even larger welfare state is the central fact of politics in our nation’s capital today” (161).

People are ignorant when it comes to politics, except for some political fans who, like the baseball version, enjoy the game. But as George Mason University School of Law professor Ilya Somin writes in “Political Ignorance in America,” it is not much worse now than it was in the past. But with government so much bigger, and doing so much more, it is just about impossible for the average citizen to keep up, and so exercise his sovereign responsibilities within a democracy. Somin suggests we begin to solve this by limiting and decentralizing government.

Yale University Press editor at large Steve Wasserman’s “In Defense of Difficulty: How the Decline of the Ideal of Seriousness Has Dulled Democracy in the Name of a Phony Populism” and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education president Greg Lukianoff’s “How Colleges Create the ‘Expectation of Confirmation’” have similarities to Maggie Jackson’s entry. Wasserman argues that the culture doesn’t allow for, and rarely admires, difficulty; that it “renders serious reading and cultural criticism increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out habits of attention indispensable for observing long-form narrative and sustained argument” (179). His article is filled with perceptive, memorable quotes from Leon Wieseltier, William Hazlitt, and my favorite, Isaac Asimov: “Anti-intellectualism has been…nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’” (182). Wasserman argues for the exercise of cultural authority, and artistic, literary, and aesthetic discrimination—in a word, judgment. Lukianoff argues that because of the supposed right not to be offended, universities have become “echo chambers” of what students want to hear, and of what faculty wish them to imbibe. Real discussion and actual debate are not to be found. The corrective is the creation of an academic environment conducive to asking tough questions and fostering rigorous, wide-open discussion.

Syndicated radio talk show host and author Dennis Prager’s “We Live in the Age of Feelings” and First Things editor R.R. Reno’s “The New Antinomian Attitude” both suggest new titles for the times. If the fifties and sixties were the Age of Anxiety, Prager’s is what his title suggests, while Reno’s is the Empire of Desire. Prager finds his designation in the locus of the self, one that knows only what it wants and not what it thinks, or what civilization has thought for thousands of years. Reno takes his designation from the writings of that lost philosopher of the sixties, Norman O. Brown. Brown took from his reading of Freud the notion that for man to find himself, he must overcome the repressive aspects of society and fulfill his own personal desires, no matter how much they contravene society’s norms or standards. Prager and Reno see this as elevating the body and its desires above the mind’s concepts of rightness, as well as civilizational—Christian or Jewish—constraints. Each person is thus only concerned with personal satisfaction, and of course one must be nonjudgmental regarding the individual “pathways” followed to achieve this goal. Reno and Prager come to a similar conclusion: the only way out of this moral morass is a mass move back to ideas and values, to the high and the noble.

In their afterword to The State of the American Mind, Bauerlein and Bellow compare the state of intellectual thought fifty years ago to today, and conclude that no matter how derisive or condemnatory of America they were, past intellectuals recognized that an American identity, or Mind, existed, and that it had value. Among intellectuals today a desire exists to transcend the American Mind and blend into something universal—the global society we hear so much about—that can be achieved now, rather than understanding it as a quality marking the beginning of a future messianic time. In the meantime, “America lies in bits and pieces” (241), like Humpty-Dumpty having tumbled off the wall. How will we put it back together again? As claimed in the sixties, it will take a new revolution, perhaps another Great Awakening, if a secular one. The question is, have we the strength, the fortitude, the chutzpah, the will?

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