Mark Bauerlein: The State of the American Mind

State of the American Mind Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow have edited an intriguing volume of essays reporting on The State of the American Mind: 16 Leading Critics on the new Anti-Intellectualism. The book, officially published by Templeton Press today, presents as a kind of update on Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Closing was published, with a foreword by the late Saul Bellow that helped draw attention to the book. (In the 2012 edition, it adds an afterword by Andrew Ferguson.)

Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow both edited and contributed to the new book, but they have also rounded up essays by contributors including Nicholas Eberstadt, Ilya Somin, Greg Lukianoff, and R.R. Reno. We invited the editors to introduce the book to Power Line readers. Mark Bauerlein — professor of English at Emory — has answered the call. Professor Bauerlein writes:

Many thinkers today have noticed something in the way Americans think and believe that has gone awry. From across the ideological spectrum they find that the intellectual powers of our citizens have become lazy, diverted, detached, and misled. They don’t identify the same exact failing, but they agree in connecting those failings to the way people’s minds work—or don’t work.

We hear about biases of various sorts, “blinks” and “nudges,” irrational choices, cluelessness and narcissism, the failure of critical thinking, partisanship and polarization, entitlement mentalities . . . Awhile back, a political uproar ensued when one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act, MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, was found to have tied passage of it to the “stupidity” of the American people. I wonder if the outrage was due less to the insult itself, and more to the silent acknowledgement of its truth.

Recall Barack Obama’s description of a large portion of the population as “bitter, [clinging] to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” It sounds like Americans need therapy, not leadership.

However obnoxious that statement was, it only takes a quick search to find enough evidence to support the claim that Americans aren’t thinking straight. For instance:

· In 1987, 1.25 million adults received a monthly payment from the government for a mental disorder, a disability rate of 1 in 184 Americans. By 2011, the mental disability rate had tripled to 1 in 65 Americans.

· From 1983 to 2011, the percentage of Americans “participating” in government entitlement programs climbed 20 percentage points. More than 49 percent of Americans live in homes receiving one or more entitlement benefits.

· According to Pew Research, in 2000 about half of Americans read a newspaper “yesterday.” By 2012, the rate had slipped to 23 percent (the polls included digital newspapers).

· On the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (the “Nation’s Report Card”) in U.S. History, only 12 percent of 12th graders scored “Proficient.” On the Civics exam, only 24 percent reached “Proficient.”

· Fully 64 percent of 12th-graders believe that they are above average in intellectual ability, perhaps because half of all entering college students earn an “A” grade point average in high school.

· More than one-third (36 percent) of college students study five or fewer hours per week, yet they still manage to average a 3.2 grade point average.

These are disparate phenomena taken from contributions to The State of the American Mind, a collection of essays on characteristic American attitudes and behaviors at the present time. Each essay addresses a different topic—news consumption, IQ trends, literary culture, Biblical knowledge, political knowledge, college curricula, self-esteem . . .—using empirical data to demonstrate where we are and where we used to be. Contributors detail the 21st-century American mind in operation in settings ranging from the graduation ceremony to the art museum, pediatrician’s office, voting booth, single-parent home, Facebook page, blog, book review in the newspaper, and conspiracy theorist’s tract.

By themselves, the essays cover one narrow portion of the American scene. Taken together, though, they present a version of the American mind in disarray.

Greg Lukianoff’s summary of “disinvitation season” proves that a chill has settled on college campuses and that a presumption of “freedom-from-offense enforces it. Readers will be shocked as Robert Whitaker reports how and why one in five Americans took a psychiatric drug in 2010. Jean Twenge finds that college graduates in their 20s suffer long-term Narcissistic Personality Disorder at three times the rate of those in their 60s. Daniel Dreisbach’s note that the Bible was the most frequently read book during the Revolutionary period (Deuterotomy was cited in political writings more than any other text) may not surprise many people, but its influence on American political thought will. For him, today’s widespread ignorance of the Bible, especially among liberal elites, is equal to ignorance of our Founding.

It is distressing to realize how far these and other typical American traits and behaviors are from the ideals of the past. We have rising self-absorption and lower standards, more people disengaged from civic affairs and ignorant of our history. Social media have exploded, but social awareness has shriveled. In the 2014 midterm election barely one-third (36.4%) of voters bothered to show up. Of non-voters, one-third claimed to be too busy, one-fifth to be turned off by the candidates or uninterested in the result.

Compare the typical American today with representative figures from the past. Frederick Douglass stood up to sadistic Mr. Covey and made his way to freedom. Thoreau lived in the woods by himself to test how many shams and delusions had overcome his fellow citizens. They show how much we have slipped from self-reliance to government dependence, from the Age of Progress to what Dennis Prager terms the Age of Feelings. American freedom is no longer the act of setting off for the frontier and starting life anew. It is the ability to change your gender identity and have the media applaud. What would Martin Luther King or, for that matter, Malcolm X think of today’s civil rights mouthpieces?