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The State of the American Mind: 16 Leading Critics on the New Anti-Intellectualism

Author: Adam Bellow
Publisher: Templeton Press • 2015 • 280 pages

Graham Greene said that “a story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” The State of the American Mind is such a moment of experience for contemporary American identity. For the bookprovides a sobering consideration of where we are. In our present state, American identity has been usurped by identity politics; a principled ethos of pluralism supplanted by a relative pathos of individualism; and the pursuit of happiness founded in liberty bastardized by the pursuit of the glands founded in Dionysian ecstasy.

Readers of the book should note that the collection of sixteen essays exists within the context of Allan Bloom’s prolific work The Closing of the American Mind (1987). The State of the American Mind is not a redressing of Bloom’s argument in new clothes, however. Rather,  the book presents a situational problem:

“We survey the American scene in 2015 and record unprecedented wealth, an overflow of goods that but two generations ago would have struck people as fantastical luxuries. The Digital Revolution continues apace, and more youths than ever before go to college and aspire to graduate school. Media have never been so profuse and diverse, while government has never provided so many people and organizations assistance and safety.

All the ingredients are in place, one would think, for the American Mind to prosper.”

But it is not prospering. For the authors, the state of the American Mind is at best in stasis, at worst in atrophy. At its core, the book is an examination of this decay to which the sixteen essays provide varying  responses.

Together, these essays relate a contemporary cultural narrative one will not hear in the American university lecture hall. Appropriately, the book consists of three parts: “Part One – States of Mind: Indicators of Intellectual and Cognitive Decline,” “Part Two – Personal and Cognitive Habits/Interests,” and “Part Three – National Consequences.”

In one of the several essays surrounding education, Bauerlein outlines the declineing performance of college students and adults in regards to cultural intelligence. He was discover that unless things improve drastically, matriculation and graduation rates will eventually flatten. This essay is followed nicely by Jean Tweng, who uses the American Freshman survey to point to the alarming trend in the attitudes of incoming college freshmen. Finding a meaningful philosophy of life is nearly half as important to college students in 2012 as it was in 1966. She argues that the solution to this is communicating the importance of intrinsic values over extrinsic values. Finally Steve Wasserman comments on the inability of Americans to enjoy that which they do not understand right away. Rather the digital age has resulted in making Americans ignorant and self-indulgent. The American mind is indeed in trouble.

These highlights are merely a small representation  of the brilliant dialogue between sixteen intellectuals engaging their civic responsibilities. At times the essays structure themselves on a data-dump of empirical research that, for some readers, may be overwhelming. Yet for those not up-to-date on the latest higher education surveys or cultural research studies, the fact-driven analysis will prove enlightening, yet grim. Those wanting a solution to our present problem will be disappointed to find that the book provides no single answer. This is neither a strength nor weakness of the collection. It is the only possible position as most of the critics admit, our problem is multifaceted and the only satisfactory response is an equally complex answer.

In the immediate aftermath of the publication of The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom appeared on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line to discuss his book. At the end of the interview Buckley said that “there is no anti-intellectual movement that has any institutional base” to which Bloom responded “well there’s not an intellectual movement that has an institutional base either.” The proleptic dialogue serves to illustrate that having another “conversation” about the declining American Mind would be redundant. The State of the American Mind is that conversation. What Bauerlein, Bellow, and the other critics charge the reader with is the civic duty to reassemble the American relic rather than lament its ruin.


Original CBC review by Eric Bledsoe

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