The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow have recently published an interesting edited volume on The State of the American Mind: 16 Leading Critics on the New Anti-Intellectualism. As the title implies, most of the contributions examine negative trends in public opinion and intellectual culture. I myself have a contribution in the volume that analyzes the problem of widespread political ignorance (discussed more fully in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance). The chapter updates and expands on some of the points raised in the book.
My own contribution aside, I think many of the essays in this book are well-done, and raise genuinely serious problems. For example, Greg Lukianoff's chapter covers the growing prevalence of speech codes and intellectual intolerance on campus, and Nicholas Eberstadt's chapter presents extensive alarming data on growing dependency on a variety of welfare programs (not a trend in public opinion in itself, but one that has significant cultural effects, many of them troubling). Other strong chapters consider the poor state of writing skills among recent high school and college graduates, and low levels of cultural literacy and religious knowledge.
In some ways, the book is an interesting counterpoint and companion to the Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies, another recent volume on public opinion and ignorance to which I have contributed.
Whereas most of the contributors to the Routledge volume are well to the left of me, many of the writers in the Bauerlein-Bellow volume are much more conservative than I am. Unlike the Routledge volume, The State of the American Mind is intended primarily for nonexpert readers, and is very reasonably priced.
Perhaps because of the more conservative orientation of many of the contributors, The State of the American Mind does not give enough consideration to positive trends, such as the marked decline in racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance, and data indicating major increases in IQ scores over the last several generations. Most of these positive changes get mentioned briefly, but do not get as much attention as they deserve. However, a few of the chapters do highlight positive developments. For example, Jonathan Kay's insightful chapter describes how the wave of internet conspiracy theories may have crested and has not caused as much harm as many feared. But while my overall assessment of the state of the American mind is more favorable than that of many of the other contributors to the book, the existence of important positive trends should not blind us to the very real dangers posed by the negative ones. You don't have to be either a political conservative or an across-the-board cultural pessimist to take these risks seriously.
My own contribution to the Bauerlein-Bellow volume does not claim that political ignorance is worse today than in the past, or that 21st century Americans are more anti-intellectual in their assessment of political issues than previous generations. To the contrary, I point out that the data shows that political knowledge levels are roughly the same as they were fifty to sixty years ago. And while there is plenty of irrationality and bias in the way we process political information today, it is not clear that we are any worse in these respects than were our parents and grandparents. However, the danger of political ignorance has grown because of increases in the size, scope, and complexity of government. This makes the same low level of knowledge even less adequate than they were decades ago. Also, it is striking that political knowledge levels have stagnated despite major increases in educational attainment and the availability of information.
If you are interested in trends in public opinion and various aspects of knowledge and ignorance, it's worth checking out both the more left-wing views featured in the Routledge Handbook and the more conservative perspectives in The State of the American Mind. One way to increase our knowledge about ignorance is to consider a wider range of viewpoints on the subject.
UPDATE: I have made a few stylistic and organizational changes to this post.