- - Monday, June 15, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

STATE OF THE AMERICAN MIND: SIXTEEN LEADING CRITICS ON THE NEW ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM

Edited by Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow

Templeton Press, $27.95, 264 pages

The feminist academic Laura Kipnis recently experienced the contemporary American mind so well examined in this new volume. Ms. Kipnis wrote a critical piece about the way in which feminism has evolved on campus, and was then subjected to a series of protests and complaints, complete with Star Chamber-like quasi-judicial proceedings to condemn her crime-think, including accusations that her article made students feel “threatened” or unsafe.

The Kipnis episode, and numerous others like it in contemporary American life, perfectly represent the end result of what the editors call American anti-intellectualism. Since the publication of Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” in 1987, the trends he identified have only gotten worse. An obsession with equality has crushed considerations of or preference for ideas or traditions of lasting value, concerns for sensitivity have become reason to silence dissent, and assertion of feelings has become a debate-ending substitute for reasoned argument based on propositions citizens understand and to which they can assent. Above all hovers the specter of nonjudgmentalism, which allows any opinion or “choice” free rein — unless such choices offend the reigning leftist orthodoxy; then in the name of tolerance, it is ruthlessly crushed by those very paragons of nonjudgmentalism.

Mr. Bellow and Mr. Bauerlein expertly collect contributors who collectively present a compelling case that the dominance of anti-intellectualism is not just a curmudgeonly nostalgia for the old days. The first section, tilted “States of Mind: Indicators of Intellectual and Cognitive Decline,” present sobering data that Americans actually know less now than they did just a generation ago despite astonishing amounts spent on education and technology that gives worlds of knowledge to everyone’s phone. For example, E.D. Hirsh argues for the teaching of specific facts and contexts, especially that of our own political and cultural traditions. The liberal fantasy that there are nonspecific “general skills” that can be applied to any range of situations or texts is an educational disaster. And Daniel Dreisbach issues a call for the importance of Biblical literacy. Without it, Americans simply cannot understand why their country is the kind that it is; moreover, such literacy matters because culture matters.

For a generation or more, Americans have been drenched in content-free education. Is it any wonder we don’t think historical events or intellectual tradition are important, or that they are worth the hard work to learn? The second section, “Personal and Cognitive Habits/Interests” should surprise no one. Americans have absorbed habits antithetical not only to learning but also to republican government. Here too, the authors, such as David Mindich and Jean Twenge, lay out data to support their conclusions. Ms. Twenge, in particular, is disturbing in an essay discussing the “rise of the self.” Ms. Twenge writes, “American culture has become more individualistic, imparting messages of self-esteem and personal fulfillment that overlook genuine accomplishment and disregard interests beyond immediate experience.” When Johnny is praised for what he is rather than for what he does or knows, it is increasingly unlikely he will know or do much of anything.

The final section, “National Consequences,” brings the two sections together. In a nation that has lost a common sense of its heritage and that is self-absorbed with a revulsion for critical thinking or facing arguments with which one disagrees, the result is nondemocratic rule by a self-selected elite whose values are defined by what R.R. Reno calls nonjudgmentalism. Mr. Reno defines this in “The New Antinomian Attitude” as “an Empire of Desire.”

“Ministered to by a therapeutic vocabulary of empowerment, the pedagogy of multiculturalism, and our dominant, paradoxical moral code of nonjudgmentalism, this empire has come to dominate the American Mind,” he writes. Construing personal desires as “a primal force to be obeyed rather than one to be contained” is a revolution, and one that overturns nothing less than civilization itself, since civilization is the discipline of desire for the common good and the protection of the weak. Within the empire of desire, self-government as we have known it, is impossible.

This is an important volume, which shapes the current state of our morals and our manners. A successor volume needs to take up where the Kipnis affair leaves us. For these anti-intellectual currents are not just the currency for ideological “social justice warriors,” but are increasingly being used as tools for legal enforcement. Those who disagree with the empire of desire are therefore not just wrong, but criminals in need of punishment, or at the very least, therapy. Should that happen, the American mind will finally close for good.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (kirkcenter.org).

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