The Decline of the Conservative Mind

These are dark days for conservatives: 7 years of President Obama, gay marriage spreading across the land, health insurance coverage growing every day, and a collection of mediocre Republican candidates that make the words “President Clinton” seem like the future rather than the past. It’s enough to make a conservative blurt out “Jiggery-pokery” and bemoan the decline of a culture that doesn’t know what that phrase means but can google it in two seconds and then still not care.

The State of the American Mind (Templeton Press, 2015) is a new collection of essays on “the new anti-intellectualism” inspired by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. This book is part of a long and not very intellectually deep tradition of bemoaning anti-intellectualism. It’s a mess of a collection, with writers ranging from the center to the far right delivering nothing of coherence except for a shared belief that everything is terrible.

E.D. Hirsch begins by bemoaning the decline in test scores, mainly from 1962-1979, caused by stupid kids and their liberal teachers, and Mark Bauerlein follows with an essay explaining how IQ scores have skyrocketed since the 1950s, but kids are still stupid.

Hirsch offers the most self-indulgent, breathtaking sentence in the book when he whines about how his best-selling, incredibly profitable book Cultural Literacy was not widely adopted by education schools: “Metaphorically speaking, the book was burned.” The fact that his third-rate book was not worshipped by education professors and did not create a revolution in teaching is not, in fact, analogous to book burning.

When Jean Twenge writes a chapter giving us the tired old argument about narcissistic youth, it seems especially ironic in this collection of elderly narcissists like Hirsch whining about their neglected greatness.

Much of the book is devoted to attacking the stupidity of young people and blame liberals for making them dumb.

Bauerlein blames the kids for talking too much with each other rather than adults, and making themselves stupid.

Daniel Dreisbach rather unconvincingly tells us that Biblical literary is really important, and blames the lack of Bible study.

Richard Arun argues that colleges lack academic rigor and that “change requires political will, not increased resources.”(74) But this kind of overall averaging misses the fact that some forms of spending, at some colleges, could improve academic rigor. The massive spending at elite private universities is not the best guide for the typical public college and its spending levels.

Robert Whitaker blames psychotropic drugs. David T.Z. Mindich blames the lack of reading newspapers. Maggie Jackson blames hyperconnectivity.

Jonathan Kay blames the conspiracy theorists, and like many of the authors, he’s just summarizing a book he wrote on the topic a few years ago.

Nicholas Eberstadt blames the welfare state. Ilya Somin blames big government.

Steve Wasserman blames the internet, talk show hosts, and satirists for the lack of “seriousness” today.

Dennis Prager blames “the Age of Feelings,” by which he means leftism.

A few essays have some sound points to make, but they have little to do with the thesis of the book.

Gerald Graff offers a thoughtful analysis of why students are bad writers, but I think he misses the bigger picture, that the growing emphasis on standardized testing makes writing less and less relevant to student (and school) success.

Greg Lukianoff rightly worries about censorship and echo chambers and claims (really without any proof) that there is an “increasing trend of students organizing” to censor speakers (205). Lukianoff devotes part of his essay to worrying about the relatively low percentage of college students who agree that it’s “safe to hold unpopular positions on college campus”; but Lukianoff never bothers to challenge the premise of the question: it shouldn’t be “safe” to hold unpopular or popular positions on a college campus. A university is not about having one’s ideas be safe from challenge and criticism.

In the final essay, R.R. Reno blames it all on a world where “Charlie can become Charlene without guilt, shame, or social stigma.”(219) Apart from being bigoted and inaccurate, he’s complaining about people being able to live according to their personal desires.

What most of this has to do with anti-intellectualism is a mystery, probably to many of the authors as well as the readers.

In their Afterword, Bauerlein and Bellow struggle to make sense of this mish-mash of old fashioned grumpiness. They harken back to the 1952 Partisan Review symposium when nearly all the authors “accepted a distinctive American mind, identity, experience, or tradition.” There is little practical advice in this book, except to wish that we could all go back to the good old days, in 1952 when intellectuals supposedly shared a common delusion about the “American mind.”

Babbling about the long-sought “essential American mind”(240), Bauerlein and Bellow write, “Our intellectuals are constrained by diversity from drawing people together and Americanizing them, and so are most educators and politicians.” Really? So there’s a conspiracy of intellectuals, teachers, and politicians to keep Americans racially divided and un-American? I’m quite sure that racial divisions and inequalities would not suddenly disappear if we all just pretended racism didn’t exist anymore and imagined that all Americans shared singular ideals.

According to Bauerlein and Bellow, the job of intellectuals is to “Americanize” everybody with this “singular” ideal that they never quite specify. (Does that include European intellectuals, or are they supposed to “Germanize” people if that’s where they live?)

Such gobbledygook is expressed with absolute certainty about its correctness and the moral failings of anyone who doesn’t fall in line. This volume is full of dubious assumptions rarely proven and the absence of dissenting voices, or even the acknowledgment of opposing arguments. Along the way, they ignore the growing anti-intellectualism of the right, with its attacks on science and higher education.

Bauerlein and Bellow conclude their volume with a call for revolution. Yes, an actual “cultural revolution” to “undo the delinquent habits and attitudes of our citizens and shake the diversity ideology of the elites.” It’s enough to make me wish Allan Bloom was still around to sneer at it all.

6 thoughts on “The Decline of the Conservative Mind

  1. Thank you, John. I wasn’t tempted to read the book before, but now I’m sure I don’t want to read it. On the other hand, I very much enjoyed your summary!

  2. Perhaps it is indicative of the book that Dennis Praeger, who as a talk-show host hardly qualify as an academic – even if he considers himself a “public intellectual” – was included among the authors.

    I do admit some disappointment however. Your intro paragraph, which appeared in the email announcing the post, led me to believe that there would be some connection with the tortured reasoning of Justice Antonin Scalia, whose words you were quoting. Given what you say about the likes of E. D. Hirsch (whom I remind people was not a professor of education but of English) I can see a clear path to connect what appears in this book with the way he writes his opinions.

    Oh well, perhaps it is because as someone who taught government (including AP US Government & Politics) for most of the past 17 years I have had to deal with what Scalia opines that I reacted as I did.

    Unlike a previous commenter, I may well read the book (although I will not buy it) because I fully expect it to be regularly cited by conservative talking heads and political candidates, including those currently in the process of destroying public education, have already seriously undermined K-12 schooling and now going after our great public universities, as those in Madison WI (as is my wife’s baby sister as a doctoral student) are now experiencing.

  3. What this sort of “intellectual” has been bemoaning for years is no decline but a change in demographics, a cultural shift that has expanded the types of people they are forced to deal with as “equals.” The cohesion of their nostalgia stemmed from an intellectual world open to only people of a particular sex, nationality, race and economic class. What they are missing is not gone but is simply a much smaller–and much less dominate–percentage of the whole.

  4. The blog post is loaded with red meat- not just for liberals, but conservatives too. I confess I haven’t read the book, and have no intent to read it. I am also familiar with a just couple of the authors, so I must take on faith your critiques of the others.

    Greg Lukianoff has been doing absolutely critical work in addressing censorship issues on college campuses. I can tell you from personal experience it has become outrageous in many settings. Increasingly university administrations endeavor to muzzle anyone not regurgitating the party line. That has to stop, dead in its tracks. Our founders made the First Amendment first for a reason. I know for myself that I have never, ever been as insulted when a university administration demanded I muzzle my speech concerning a plethora of abuses it inflicted upon a dozen students, myself among them. Abuses that resulted in permanent physical and emotional injuries. They initially issued those demands via student speech & conduct codes. They rewrote the First Amendment to suit their needs, and apparently did not bother to inform the US Congress. Thank goodness Lukianoff is here to inform on our behalf. I cannot say enough good about his work.

    I’ve never been as debilitated when that university unfairly and unlawfully terminated me because I refused to abdicate my First Amendment rights. I’ve never been as nauseated when that university deployed an army of investigators and lawyers to tear apart my personal and professional life as a means to bury the scandal. And I’ve never been as motivated to defend my First Amendment rights when they recently triggered a police investigation of my person because I continue to advocate for myself and the other victims. We need Greg Lukianoff, desperately. Those who write him off as a neo-conservative rabble-rouser need to take a break from the Ivory Tower and mix & mingle with the commoners.

    And I am by no means a fire & brimstone conservative. If anything, I am a very politically active moderate, evidenced by a recent oped I composed about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker:

    The other point I want to address concerning your post is not on its content, but about its tone. Yes, indeed, there is a real divide in America. A split, right down the middle, concerning ideology. The title of your post, “The Decline of the Conservative Mind” no doubt causes many conservatives to either not read the post, or not invest much of themselves if they do. Some of your adjectives, like “babbling” and “Gobbledygook,” while perhaps apt descriptors of the book, are dismissive in their tone.

    Please understand I am not being critical of you, but of EVERYONE. The George W. Bush years drove me batty, and I could not have been any more dismissive, or incredulous in my political verbiage during those eight painful years. But I have come to realize that verbiage is really very important. We can use it to alienate those with whom we disagree, or we can harness its power to build bridges.

    Yes, it’s true, those on the outside looking in consider academia chock full of arrogant elitist snobs. For all my years in academia, I certainly could rattle off a litany of names fitting that bill. But there are at least just as many who are sincere, humble and without pretense. I pride myself on the fact that my friends “on the outside” consider me just a regular guy with a boatload of common sense. That has a lot to do with how I was raised, with constant reminders to never get too big for my britches. I have been careful to keep one foot out of academia at all times, and to never forget the fact that the vast majority of people in the world do not think at all like us.

    We need to change the tone of the debate with whom we disagree. We need to acknowledge they are important. We need to communicate we do not have all of the answers. We need to bring everyone into the academic fold. We need to work together.

    We could not be any further from these things than we are now.

    • First, I don’t denounce Greg Lukianoff. His essay is one of two in the book that I think is sound, even though I critique one aspect of it. And I certainly don’t disparage the work of FIRE, which I think is very important. But doing good work doesn’t make your arguments more correct.

      You argue, “We need to change the tone of the debate with whom we disagree.” I don’t agree. I think we have two major problems in our academic culture today: we stay in ideological safe zones free from debate, and we are too nice to everyone. And these are connected: because we want to be nice, we tend to stay away from people with whom we have sharp disagreements.

      It should be noted that while I use dismissive words about this book, it’s because of my honest assessment that this is generally a lousy book with poor arguments. But I would never say things like “All conservatives are stupid” or “All conservative books are bad.” I believe this particular book is deserving of harsh criticism.

      You say, “We need to bring everyone into the academic fold. We need to work together.” I agree. But we cannot do that at the price of intellectual honesty. We should not tone down our disagreements. I know there is a danger that people will stay away from the debate of ideas if they fear being criticized harshly. But I don’t see any solution to that beyond creating expectations that we should all debate ideas, and never demand niceness as a precondition for intellectual engagement.

      I think we need to reject the culture of niceness and politeness, and the idea that “civility” is a core academic value. Real civility is the engagement in a debate of ideas, as I’m trying to do here, not imposing a code of niceness.

      • Well, as the 20th century philosopher Frank Zappa once opined, kneeling down is not the same as bending over. Which I took to mean that one actually can be nice, polite, accommodating & inviting without compromising his/ her positions.

        I spent a week in 2013 interacting with many members of Obama’s cabinet, congressmen/ women and senators. Much to my surprise, each and everyone of them acknowledged Washington had become more dysfunctional than at anytime in its history. Dysfunctional because of the ideological divide. Dysfunctional because policy makers no longer speak to each other. Dysfunctional because of the rhetoric.

        The same has happened in academia. Just take a look at Wisconsin. The public doesn’t hear what the academicians are saying, and the academicians don’t hear what the public is saying. They are talking completely past one another. And Governor Walker is exploiting that for huge political gains.

        So I have to disagree with you within the current cultural context. Were this 30 years ago, I’d say your points were spot-on correct. The disconnect IS THE PROBLEM. So I believe we need to set aside the ideological discordance, at least for a while, and find common ground… even with those we might consider to have stepped off of the intellectual cliff.

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