The State of the American Mind: 16 Leading Critics on the New Anti-Intellectualism
edited by Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow
Templeton Press, 280 pages, $27.95
The subtitle of this thought-provoking—and alarming—collection pulls off a clever rhetorical trick. Liberal commentators often express fear of the anti-intellectual wing of the GOP, which (so the story goes) ignores nuance and doubts experts. Conservatives sometimes even stick the anti-intellectual label on their own chests.
But this book’s editors are two well-known conservatives: Bauerlein is a professor at Emory University and a senior editor for this journal, Bellow an executive at Harper-Collins. Some of its contributors are familiar conservative commentators, and many of the essays present distinctively traditional arguments. Subtly, then, the editors at once challenge the assumption that anti-intellectualism is a conservative political habit and encourage other conservatives to recognize it as a serious cultural problem.
The book is presented as a follow-up to Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, published nearly thirty years ago. Even its cover imitates the very ’80s design of Bloom’s, minus the Miami Vice pastels. But the impressive roster of scholars, journalists, and editors takes a broader survey of the landscape than Bloom, who focused on higher education. Only three essays here attend to college concerns: Gerald Graff offers suggestions to improve student writing; Greg Lukianoff documents the lack of intellectual diversity on campuses; and Richard Arum confirms every tuition-paying parent’s worst nightmare—college students don’t learn very much.
The majority of the collection explores American intellectual life outside of higher education, and consequently presents a vision that is perhaps even more troubling than Bloom’s. For example, Jean M. Twenge draws attention to the rise of what she calls “unjustified self-belief”; R.R. Reno explores the prevailing emphasis on the fulfillment of personal desire; Daniel L. Dreisbach discusses the significance of widespread Biblical illiteracy; and Robert Whitaker considers the far-reaching consequences of the over-prescription of psychotropic drugs. A point that creeps up throughout the collection is that, simply put, Americans are not thinking clearly or deeply. Our engagement with art, ideas, politics, work, and most things other than ourselves is superficial.
The contributors are not monolithically conservative, evidence of the editors’ claim that “thinkers from across the ideological spectrum express a conviction that something has gone awry in the intellectual powers of American citizens.” This variety keeps the book from becoming predictable and occasionally leads to some entertaining inconsistencies. David T.Z. Mindich’s recommendation that, to help young people follow the news, the government should find “ways to incentivize greater news and public affairs programming” precedes Nicholas Eberstadt’s case against the expansion of the welfare state and government regulations.
Steven Pinker once quipped that if he were king, all pundits who lamented the modern world’s decline would have to provide measurable evidence to support their claims. The instinct to miss the way we were often trumps any need for actual data. But most of these critics do more than merely offer sweeping claims about the good old days. They quantify decay by citing studies, test scores, and surveys. What keeps the book from being a depressing anthology of doomsayers is that most contributors offer practical solutions for the problems they identify. Arum suggests that rewarding college professors for instruction rather than research would “improve academic rigor and attention to undergraduate learning.” Dennis Prager, who worries that modern judgments are guided by emotion rather than reason, sees hope in Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper’s leadership (even if, as recent polls indicate, Canadians do not). Ilya Somin diagnoses more “foot voting,” or exercising greater choice in the private sector and state or local governments, as a remedy for political ignorance.
Bauerlein and Bellow are less prescriptive. Arguing that Americans “set social life above civic life, racial and sexual identity over American identity,” they surmise that it will take “another cultural revolution . . . to undo the delinquent habits and attitudes of our citizens and shake the diversity ideology of the elites.” But they optimistically prophesy that “another transformative era like the sixties is bound to spring forth.”
Call that hoped-for era the Age of Aquarius for the American Mind. This bracing collection is not a sufficient cause of such a time, but by identifying the problems we face and presenting practical solutions, it may hasten its dawn.
Christopher J. Scalia, formerly a professor of English, is a PR executive living in Fairfax, VA.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?