Modern vs. Western Thought: America's Affliction

William H. Young

“When did America become untethered from reality?” asks author Kurt Andersen in the opening sentence of “How America Lost Its Mind,” the cover article of the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic. It began with the 1960s, he argues, when “large swaths of academia made a turn away from reason and rationalism as they’d been understood.” He estimates that a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue” now infests a majority of Americans.[1]

Such Americans have become imbued with Modern thought. My current series for NAS, which this article wraps up, argues that, over the course of roughly the past century, new forms of subjectivism and determinism became dominant in American consciousness, producing Modern thought, which has become America’s affliction.

Modern thought has replaced individual intellect, common sense, reason, truth, and virtue with “feeling” and assorted trivia—subjectivism. Modern thought has displaced objective reality with the “culturally constructed” reality of the group.

While the turn to subjectivism and determinism in thought has been led broadly by the academy since the 1960s, that turn started much earlier. In the early twentieth century, academic social science adopted the theory of the social construction of human nature that initiated, and which underlies, all the subsequent group theories and forms of subjectivism and determinism.

The products of the academy—our educated elites or professional upper middle class—have played a key role in advancing Modern thought. The academic education establishment gradually imposed Modern over Western thought through progressive and postmodern multicultural education. The media—whose messages are shaped by our cultural elites—became the predominant purveyors of Modern thought and its adverse effect on individuals, especially during adolescence where social media is the dominant influence.

Ironically, these elite products of the academy are untethered from reality when it comes to their perception of the actual effects that their Modern thought has had on those products of the education system and members of society for whom they have long set the direction and norms. 

  • Such elites evince a promiscuous devotion to the untrue in continuing to believe that their progressive postmodern multicultural version of Modern thought based on subjectivism and determinism has been a resounding success for latest generations.
  • However, the negative objective reality of the Modern thought of our youngest generations now manifests: moral relativism, poor knowledge and skills and, relative to peers in other industrialized nations, lowest literacy and numeracy.[2]

In sum, Modern thought has largely dismissed the ideals of intellect, reason, common sense, adult personal responsibility, and moral sense that were touchstones of Western thought at the founding.


The First Turn to Modern Thought

At the outset of the twentieth century, emerging realizations about the unconscious mind began the turn from a focus on reason to one centered on feeling—subjectivism. Building upon the view that individual human nature is a blank slate to be socially constructed by the group or the state, social science began to emphasize determinism of individual thought by groups that conferred identity rather than by self-determination. Academic political science shifted towards economic and collective determinism. Through the 1950s, such changes occurred within an accepted institutional and cultural framework established by the Founders.

But around mid-century, the “social character” of upper-middle-class Americans began to change from an “inner-directed” orientation, based on internalized principles, intellectual ability, and a production ethic, to an “other-directed” one, based on each person’s cooperative self and what others feel about them, along with a consumption ethic and new attitudes about thought and emotion from social class or group.

At the same time, humanistic psychology turned to “self-actualization” and the therapeutic society and further sharpened the focus of Modern thought on subjectivism and will rather than objective reality. Self-belief displaced learning.

What began with 1950’s high school teenagers becoming anti-intellectual and materialistic, forming their own “adolescent society,” grew into more than five decades of lengthened adolescence and deferred intellectual development. That national trend helped to degrade the knowledge and literacy of youngest generations and provided the intellectual basis for Modern thought.

A primary factor in the turn of Modern thought to subjectivism, in addition to education and parenting, is the media, which since the 1950s has been an increasingly omnipresent force driving public consciousness in ever more trivial, banal, and prurient directions and with an especially harmful effect on children and adolescents.

Power vs. Achievement

The late Stanley Rothman, NAS co-founder and former board chairman, concluded that our intellectual elites and professional upper middle class, which had been driven for achievement based on a standard of excellence set for oneself, the basis for American thought since the founding, reflecting the Protestant or bourgeois ethic, have instead become driven by power to control and influence others in Modern thought.[3]  Cultural determinism came to prevail through the aspirations of identity groups seeking to assert power in the name of equality and social justice.

The Second Turn to Modern Thought

With the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, more radical forms of subjectivism and determinism emerged and infused Modern thought with the purpose of discarding Western and American ideas such as reason and rationality and replacing them with feeling and the social construction of truth.  The primacy of group over individual was normalized, and group thought was radically transformed to focus on the “oppressed marginalized group.” Subjective and largely arbitrary methodologies replaced reason, logic, and the scientific method as the basis for academic social science in Modern thought.

Forms of radical subjectivity like cultural Marxism and gender feminism led to the sexual revolution and emasculation of marriage and to the wholly different notions of work and family that now prevail in Modern thought. These, in turn, have spawned dire consequences, especially for children of single-parents.

With multiculturalism, group determinism morphed into the diversity of the marginalized “identity” group and the message of subjectivism into “oppression.” Political correctness became the dogma of Modern thought in the academy and among America’s elites.

Academic postmodernism appropriated the social construction of knowledge and reality in Modern thought which substantially degraded the veracity of elite- and media-driven public discourse and led to a mainstream culture of “individualistic subjectivism” based on “a simple-minded ideology presupposing the cultural construction of everything.”[4]

Multiculturalism’s mantra stressing that one must not be “judgmental” led not only to rampant moral relativism throughout society, but to the lack of even a rudimentary vocabulary in Modern thought outlining categories of right and wrong.

With the dismissal of Western civilization and the traditional liberal arts—Western thought—postmodern multicultural subjectivism and determinism is essentially the basis for Modern thought taught in the college curriculum.

The Education Perspective

What is the reality produced by the turn to Modern thought in the education of our children as summarized above?

A January 2015 report from the Educational Testing Service, America’s Skills Challenge, provides some shocking revelations about the comparative skills of American millennials—those born after 1980, the most recent products of our educational system—using data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC) to compare the United States to 21 other member countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Our millennials rank last or next to last in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to the other industrialized nations, whereas historically we led the world. That’s true for our worst and best primary and secondary students—and our college graduates.[5]

The turn from intellect to feeling by progressive education after the 1950s and the addition of multiculturalism in schooling after the 1970s led to the subsequent failures of public education that produced the above results—and continue to do so. The skills of many of our youngest generation “may be limited to undemanding entertainment and unskilled labor,” noted Mark Bauerlein in The State of the American Mind (2015).[6]

Social Media

Two additional observations by Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation (2008) regarding the intellectual practices of today’s adolescents illustrates the state to which Modern thought—influenced of late by social media—has brought our future generations. First, Mark Zuckerberg revealed to The Wall Street Journal the secret of the site he founded, Facebook, and its customers:

The things that bother and bore them are blocked out. The people they don’t know and don’t want to know they don’t have to meet…Reality is personalized., and the world outside steadily tallies the ego inside…

For most adolescents that means the horizon ends with their friends, music, TV shows, games, and virtual contacts. The adult realms of history, politics, high art, and finance can wait….[7]

Similarly, Bauerlein summarized the state of much of our youth in The Dumbest Generation:

They have all the advantages of modernity and democracy, but when the gifts of life lead to social joys, not intellectual labor, the minds of the young plateau at age 18. This is happening all around us. The fonts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation is camped in the desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth, living off the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile, their intellects refuse the cultural inheritance that has made us what we are up to now.[8]

From the Founding

Modern thought has dismissed the reliance on the individual and reason that informed the founding generations and established the ways of thinking that were key to the success of our nation. Speaking for the Founders, Thomas Jefferson said:

We believed that man was a rational animal….We believed that men, habituated to thinking for themselves, and to following their reason as a guide, would be more easily and safely governed than with minds nourished in error and vitiated and debased by ignorance.[9]

Tocqueville said it even better:

In the United States the dogma of the sovereignty of the people is not an isolated doctrine, bearing no relation to the people’s habits and prevailing ideas…Providence has given each individual the amount of reason necessary for him to look after himself in matters of his own exclusive concern. That is the great maxim on which the civil and political society in the United States rests.[10]

The type of individual idealized in the Western thought of the founding era was one with a common human nature and an independent intellect using an intrinsic common sense, combined with an assertive self-respect and grounded by an innate moral sense as well as an ethic of adult personal responsibility and reciprocity. For many decades, that was the ideal of the American academy and our leadership elite. That kind of individual would not be recognized or would be mocked as representative of white privilege in the era of Modern thought in which we now live.


I concluded the Overview article for this series with this observation:

“I see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on its shores,” observed Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835). “They willed to their descendants,” he explained, “the most appropriate habits, ideas, and mores to make a republic.”[11] That Protestant (Puritan) ethic venerated literacy and knowledge and self-determination over self-indulgence—just the core ideas that Modern thought has rejected, with dire consequences for the destiny of our people and our nation.

Summarizing once again, Modern thought replaces individual intellect, common sense, reason, and moral virtue with feeling and trivia—subjectivism. It displaces objective reality with the “culturally constructed” reality of the group—determinism.

Modern thought is pervasive and widely divergent from Western thought and the Protestant or bourgeois ethic not just among our elite, but our people as a whole—it has become America’s affliction. I believe we will need a new leadership class in charge of the nation and dedicated to restoring the kinds of thinking that characterized the founding if Modern thought is to be reversed—through a decades-long future bootstrap effort. It will take such a leadership class and a people dedicated once again to the precepts of Western thought and the bourgeois ethic if we are to regain our trajectory as an exceptional nation. Sadly, such a leadership class will likely no longer come from the elite products of the forefront of the American academy as it did from the founding until recently.

This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image:  Pixabay


[1] Kurt Anderson, “How America Lost Its Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2017.

[2] Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, and Richard J. Coley, America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future (Princeton: Educational Testing Service, January 2015. Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[3] Stanley Rothman, Althea Nagai, Robert Maranto, Matthew C. Woessner, and David J. Rothman, ed. The End of the Experiment: The Rise of Cultural Elites and the Decline of America’s Civic Culture (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2016), 83.

[4] Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 15.

[5] Goodman, Sands, and Coley, America’s Skills Challenge.

[6] Mark Bauerlein, “The Troubling Trend of Cultural IQ,” in Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow, eds. The State of the American Mind (West Conshohocken, Templeton Press, 2015), 19-31.

[7] Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008), 137-38.

[8] Bauerlein, Dumbest Generation, 10.

[9] Henry Steele Commager, The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977), 41.

[10] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner, eds., George Lawrence, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1966), 364.

[11] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 257. 

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