Review: The State of the American Mind

State of the American MindThe State of the American Mind, Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow eds. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2015

Summary: The contributors in this volume chart the factors contributing to and consequences of what they see as a declining intellectual life in the United States.

In 1987, Allan Bloom expounded upon what he saw as The Closing of the American Mind. This volume, in a cover reminiscent of the former book carries that exposition forward by nearly thirty years. If anything, it appears in the minds of these contributors, we have only gone from bad to worse, as the editors state in their opening essay. This volume seeks to delineate in a more empirical fashion the contours and consequences of such a decline with recommendations of some remedies along the way.

The book is opened by E.D. Hirsch, the author of Cultural Literacy on what America needs to know. This essay essentially restates his thesis that critical thinking and problem solving skills are not enough but that a certain basic cultural literacy of the ideas and currents of thoughts that have shaped one’s culture are essential in the formation of young minds.

Three sections of essays follow. The first seeks to chart the decline of intellectual life. Mark Bauerlein opens this section by documenting the curious problem of increasing IQ scores coupled with decreasing ACT scores, particularly verbal scores, attributing this to an isolated youth culture with its own language. Daniel Dreisbach argues for the importance of biblical literacy and the dearth of it in the current generation. Gerald Graff looks at writing and contends that there needs to be a greater focus on argument rather than the complicated rubrics used in many writing programs. Richard Arum looks at the lack of intellectual development among college students. Robert Whitaker describes the rise of the prescription of psychotropic drugs for children and adolescents following the release of DSM III by the American Psychological Association in 1981, treating many behavioral and mental disorders as physiological illnesses amenable to treatment by these drugs.

Part Two describes the personal and cognitive habits of intellectual life. David T.Z. Mindich explores the decline of quality news coverage with the rise of the internet and the tuning out of the news among the young. Maggie Jackson discusses the need for slow, careful attention in an age where we think we can absorb what we need to know in a glance. Jean M. Twenge explores the rise of a “me centered” generation that is less interested in wider civic and intellectual life. Finally Jonathan Kay explores the dark side of conspiracy theory fascination on the internet, although he finds some hope in vehicles like Wikipedia. Yet he chillingly describes marriages where a spouse watches a husband or wife become absorbed in conspiracies, losing them to the real world.

In Part Three, contributors consider the national consequences of this intellectual decline. Nicholas Eberstadt remarks how we have simultaneously reached a peak of prosperity and an unprecedented entitlement state where half the country is receiving some form of government benefit. Ilya Somin explores the political ignorance of a country where 42 percent of our people cannot even name the three branches of government and 44 percent in 2013 were unaware that the Affordable Care Act was still in existence. Steven Wasserman, a former L.A. Times book critic chronicles the contemporary aversion to “the difficult”, any argument or intellectual endeavor requiring sustained and rigorous attention. Both Dennis Prager and R.R. Reno describe a society where feeling and the Empire of Desire rules over reason and moral law. Greg Lukianoff, who works with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education (FIRE) describes of the “expectation of confirmation” rules discourse in universities, where it becomes unsafe to hold views that dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy.

There are many aspects of the cumulative case these contributors make that are convincing. The substitution of sentiment for substantive argument, the inability to engage in reasoned discourse, the erosion of cogent writing skills, the decline in serious reading, and a lack of understanding of the great ideas and shaping influences that have made our country what it is, all seem self-evident. If anything, in light of recent concerns about trigger warnings and safe spaces and speech, Greg Lukianoff’s critique of university life seems generous in some ways.

I have two critiques of this work. One is that it is a collection of articles by writers on the conservative end of the spectrum. There are liberal thinkers who are also deeply concerned about the erosion of intellectual life in the country and a discussion among them would truly have been interesting, and could have modeled the substantive argumentation and civil engagement of people who differ.

My other critique is that what they are describing is a culture in decline, and yet what I felt they provided were what many would consider unwanted bandages that fail to address the deeper malady, which I would contend is one of spirit. It is fascinating to me that the intellectual flourishing that produced the American Experiment was preceded by major religious awakenings in the country in the early eighteenth century. I wonder whether an intellectual renaissance can occur without a spiritual awakening of religious institutions that are culturally captive to the same factors the authors describe of the wider culture.

The authors conclude with the hope of another cultural revolution of intellectual life and engagement. What I hope they will give themselves to is exploring the roots of the love of learning, the sources of a broader vision of life than one’s own desires, and the dispositions of radical commitment to human dignity and community that makes discourse across our differences possible and effectual. That indeed would be to “light a candle rather than curse the darkness.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

 

 

You Lost Me, The Conversation: Disconnections

You Lost Me

 

First of all, I want to say thanks to Brian and Ben for the great posts on their blogs. And thanks to others who have added their comments. Ben and I were talking this morning about the fact that it seems you can have a much more thoughtful conversation on blogs than on Facebook, which just seems to invite all the crazies and idealogues. Ben posted a blog entry on Friday that includes all the links to this conversation so far in case you want to catch up with us (or even join in).

Part Two of Kinnaman’s book is on disconnectedness: why “mosaics” disconnect from the church. In his introduction to this section, Kinnaman talks about the factors he covers as applying to other generations while having particular relevance to the current generation because of our particular cultural moment. That was helpful to note in re-reading because the disconnects were indeed true for my generation as well. They were:

  1. Overprotectiveness: an attitude that tries to guard the young from the culture rather than taking risks to engage it.
  2. Shallowness: an approach that substitutes slogans and platitudes for substantive and whole-life embracing teaching and practice.
  3. Antiscience: often the church is perceived as afraid of science, out to squelch science while many of this generation see the benefits of science and the tools of technology that they use every day.
  4. Repressive: the church is often perceived as hung up and uncomfortable with sexuality while every kind of consensual experience is available and celebrated in the culture.
  5. Exclusiveness: Christians are perceived as being unwelcoming and condemning of those who don’t share their belief in the singular nature of Christ.
  6. Doubtless: many think of the church as the last place they would go with doubts and deep questions perceiving that these are often dismissed or trivialized.

As I said above, my generation reacted to a number of these things as well. The question for me is, why then did we form churches that practice the very things we abhorred as youth? A few thoughts on these:

I think our overprotectiveness and “repressiveness” may have reflected our own generation’s history of brokenness as the generation characterized by “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.” Those of us who came to faith came to recognize that so much of our “sexual freedom” was just a pretext for taking from someone else what you wanted without really needed to commit to that person. Along the way, we discovered that sex was far more powerful as a unitive act than we gave it credit for and we ultimately either were wounded or grew hard to protect ourselves in consequence. Drugs and alcohol often were means to anesthetize ourselves from the pain and our music glorified the transient ecstasy of these experiences and the angst of our lives. Many of us experienced a richness of life in Christian communities and built marriages rooted in our trust in Christ and commitment to each other that allowed intimacy to flourish.

And we had kids! And I think the parent instinct kicked in with a vengeance because we knew that all the things that had been toxic in our own lives were still out there and we didn’t want our kids to repeat our mistakes and experience our hurts. And so we took them out of public schools in many cases (not in our family), created chastity rituals and reduced our sexuality teaching to “what not to do and who not to do it with.” (Although I think the culture does no better than this often times in simply stressing avoiding STDs and pregnancy, and talking about “no meaning no”.) It seems that we often forgot to share about the God-given wonder and at the same time mysterious unitive power of our sexuality. And we probably forgot to talk about how we got to our own convictions around these things and listen as our children ask all the questions we asked at one time.

Why did we become places that squelched doubt and science and gave simplistic answers? My own sense is that many of our churches became enamored of becoming BIG. We developed “seeker-sensitive” approaches that often were reduced to providing slick experiences of music, personal experiences, and short, easy- to- grasp messages that would inspire Christians to go slog it out for another week and help “seekers” know how to join the flock. Actually, this was quite inclusive in a way–sort of like broadcast television in a pre-cable, niche market age. The problem with substantive responses to doubt, thinking deeply about faith and science was that these were complicated and perceived as “boring” to the masses we wanted to reach, and such things took too much time in our increasingly fast-paced suburban lives.

The “exclusivity” thing is a real head-scratcher for me in some ways. We were the civil rights generation. I remember singing the Youngbloods chorus, “Come on people, now, Smile on your brother. Everybody get together, try to love one another…Right now” (I think a contemporary group tried to cover this a few years ago).  I think this changed in some parts of the Christian community in the 1980s during the Reagan years as some thought they could gain political leverage to influence the country on pro-life and other issues and the Republican party was glad to accommodate them. I first knew we were in trouble when a good friend told us (inaccurately I think, but the wider perception of Christians led her to this) that she couldn’t join our church because she wasn’t a Republican.  We stopped being “Jesus alone” people and started being “Jesus and…”. We also, I think, forgot our gospel, and decided that we needed to reform the morals of the country instead of loving people, connecting them to Jesus, and allowing Jesus to transform them (and us, who equally needed it!).

Those are a few of my musings from my own generational perspective. Thanks for reading my rambles if you’ve followed this far. And forgive the somewhat sweeping statements that I’m sure are over-simplifications in many cases–this is a blog, not a book. I’d love to know what you think, whichever generation you are in and would be glad to have you join our conversation!