The State of the American Mind
When I was an undergraduate, one of the readings with the greatest influence on my thinking was Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a sweeping assessment of one aspect of the American mind. I have found myself going back to that book from time-to-time to help me understand current aspects of life (for example, what seems like the deteriorating nature of political and civil discourse). Although it is not necessarily reassuring, studies like Hofstadter’s remind me that what we are presently experiencing is not new. For this reason, when I see more recent studies and essays on American intellectual activity, I often take a glance into them.
One of these recent works is Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow, eds., State of the American Mind (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2015), billed on the dust jacket as a set of essays critiquing the “new anti-intellectualism.” The essays range widely, perhaps too widely, over topics from Biblical literacy to the state of higher education and are grouped in three thematic sections (intellectual and cognitive decline, personal and cognitive habits and interests, and national consequences).
For academic faculty, sometimes mystified by the challenges of teaching and engaging their students, the essays may help to explain some of the reasons for their frustrations (even if not always providing answers with how to deal with such issues). We read about declining academic rigor, declining quality of news coverage, the lack of critical assessment skills, growing political ignorance, interest in avoiding difficult problems, and a culture of confirmation. Faculty will find much to bolster their own concerns and suppositions about the students in their physical and virtual classrooms. For example, Gerald Graff’s “Why Johnny and Joanie Can’t Write, Revisited,” provides interesting insights into why this is a problem (spoiler alert, he attributes much of this to the confusing ways students are taught writing).
Some of the essays provide clues to challenges we face in the university classroom. While attempting to set the context for understanding the political, economic, and cultural contexts of recent events, we often find that many students are disengaged from following the news and lack deeper and broader historical perspectives allowing them to comprehend the significance of the news. It is difficult to blame students for not being news junkies. As David T. Z. Mindich states, “As many Americans drifted away from politics and political news, the networks chased after them with fluff. CNN has been among the worst offenders, giving over its Headline News Network, once a serious place for straight news, to a circus show of entertainment, fashion, and sensational crime news” (p. 101). I concur completely. It is just another reason why it is difficult to believe the claims that we live in an information age that makes us better informed.
We discern the reasons for why teaching and engaging students can be so difficult. Jean M. Twenge asserts that “American culture promotes the idea that self-belief is more important than actual performance. Believing that you are great is sufficient, actually learning or accomplishing something is not necessary” (p. 125). Reading Facebook entries loaded with selfies is nearly enough to convince you that this assessment is spot on and to question the value of social media other than as a means of charting the crazier aspects of our public life and culture. I long ago gave up on Facebook. And the greatest value to me in Twitter is getting current news about my baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Reading this volume may generate a mix of responses, from disagreement to provoking thought about particular issues, but that is the value of a collection of essays such as this.