Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Making America Stupid

One would have a great deal of difficulty disputing Jonathan Haidt’s observation, namely, that the American mind has become surpassingly stupid. And yet, one would be hard put to agree with him that it has all been caused by social media.

One recalls, wistfully, that one Allan Bloom wrote a book called, The Closing of the American Mind in 1987. I emphasize this work because it shows that the American mind was well on its way to stupidity before anyone had ever heard of social media.

In the interest of brevity, I will offer the Wikipedia summary of Bloom’s argument:

Throughout the book, he attacks the "moral relativism" that he claims has taken over American universities for the barrier it constructs to the notions of truth, critical thinking, and genuine knowledge. Bloom claims that students in the 1980s have prioritized the immediate, blind relegation of prejudice as inferiority of thought, and therefore have "closed" their minds, as the title suggests, to asking the right questions, so that prejudice may be eradicated through logic and critical thinking, as opposed to empty, baseless instinct.[citation needed] Bloom writes, "Prejudices, strong prejudices, are visions about the way things are. ... Error is indeed our enemy, but it alone points to the truth and therefore deserves our respectful treatment. The mind that has no prejudices at the outset is empty."[3]

The American academy, including the school system, underwent a massive change after the Vietnam War. The countercultural revolution, after having brought the Vietnam War to an end, took out after the American mind. It replaced rational thought with indoctrination. It insisted on imposing dogmatic views instead of teaching children how to think rationally. And it introduced new measures of diversity and inclusion, especially affirmative action policies that diminished the merit in favor of what we now call identity politics.

Put it all together, and you get a dumbing down of academic institutions, a process that was in the works for decades before anyone had ever heard about social media.

For that reason, while I am happy to accept Haidt’s observation about the stupidity of our intellectual life, I am obliged to disagree with his notion that we should blame it all on social media. Or that it originated ten years ago. One might argue that social media has facilitated the process, but clearly, the current condition of the American mind was the product of the Vietnam era counterculture. 

What Allan Bloom saw in 1987 was what Haidt wants to attribute to Facebook and Twitter. 

While the worlds of science and math and engineering remained largely impervious to the revolution, work in the humanities and social sciences was given over to the cause. Presumably, the cause was to undermine faith in America, in its institutions, in its leaders, in its successes, in order to make education less about educating the American mind and more about providing a therapeutic experience.

Obviously, this produced a long march through America’s institutions. The media, government bureaucracy, social media  and the educational establishment were filled with people who had suffered the same indoctrination in the same leftist ideology. And then, once they had power, they immediately did everything in their power to shut down debate and discussion. They insisted that there was only one higher truth and that everything else was a betrayal of the revolutionary cause.

Besides, the advent of affirmative action programs, which largely antedated the proliferation of social media, filled universities with students who could not really do the work, and who would, if they had been judged by the same standards that were applied to other students, have flunked out.

Obviously, this is what first happened when affirmative action became an admission policy decades ago. And it was not just that those admitted with inferior test scores did less well in their classes. They were also seen as interlopers, as people who did not really belong.

The schools responded first by a wave of grade inflation, whereby special courses and departments were created where students of color could garner excellent grades regardless of their academic ability. One recalls that when one Lawrence Summers became president of Harvard University in 2001, well before the advent of social media, he called several of the leading professors of ethnic studies into his office, and asked them to explain why all their students were receiving A grades.

The professors were outraged. Some resigned their positions. They did everything in their power to undermine the Summers presidency. And they continued to inflate grades. By their dim lights the problem lay in the fact that traditional grading standards of Harvard had failed to appreciate the brilliance of these students.

And that could only have happened if the long march through the academy could take over teaching in the Humanities and Social Sciences, to render them less apt to consider diverging viewpoints and to make them more clearly designed to propose only one correct viewpoint.

As Haidt points out, it takes more intelligence to considering opposing points of view than it does to glom on to a single correct opinion and to shut down anyone who thinks otherwise. 

What Haidt correctly observed in recent history did not arise overnight with the advent of social media. Still and all, we can agree with his description of the cultural climate, as it developed over the past decade or so:

This, I believe, is what happened to many of America’s key institutions in the mid-to-late 2010s. They got stupider en masse because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of getting darted. The shift was most pronounced in universities, scholarly associations, creative industries, and political organizations at every level (national, state, and local), and it was so pervasive that it established new behavioral norms backed by new policies seemingly overnight. The new omnipresence of enhanced-virality social media meant that a single word uttered by a professor, leader, or journalist, even if spoken with positive intent, could lead to a social-media firestorm, triggering an immediate dismissal or a drawn-out investigation by the institution. Participants in our key institutions began self-censoring to an unhealthy degree, holding back critiques of policies and ideas—even those presented in class by their students—that they believed to be ill-supported or wrong.

And while Haidt, in all fairness, does not spare the American right from his critique, he correctly notes that the left, the children of the Vietnam counterculture, controls the culture:

The problem is that the left controls the commanding heights of the culture: universities, news organizations, Hollywood, art museums, advertising, much of Silicon Valley, and the teachers’ unions and teaching colleges that shape K–12 education. And in many of those institutions, dissent has been stifled: When everyone was issued a dart gun in the early 2010s, many left-leaning institutions began shooting themselves in the brain. And unfortunately, those were the brains that inform, instruct, and entertain most of the country.

Given its origin in the counterculture, the opinions that are being imposed on America’s children, are markedly anti-American. They consider America to be an organized criminal conspiracy, one that lost in Vietnam and that should have lost wars everywhere else. The attack on the American mind was an attack on success, an attack on achievement, an attack meritocracy. How better to inflate the self-esteem of those who had been failing than to undermine the success of everyone else. Nowadays high schools are eliminating advanced placement courses because they seem to favor Asian students.

In the 20th century, America’s shared identity as the country leading the fight to make the world safe for democracy was a strong force that helped keep the culture and the polity together. In the 21st century, America’s tech companies have rewired the world and created products that now appear to be corrosive to democracy, obstacles to shared understanding, and destroyers of the modern tower.

And the long march has also infiltrated the way we bring up children. One feels compelled to remark that the new ways of bringing up children were first brought to America through the work of one Dr. Benjamin Spock, in the post World War II era.

Importantly, Spock intended to downgrade competitive striving in favor of a more permissive and more creative ethos. The result was the production of the Baby Boomer generation, the one that became the Vietnam counterculture, the one that preferred making love to making war.

Haidt offers an analysis, though, in my humble opinion, his effort to argue that American children do not have enough free play is the problem, not the solution. American children are not taught rigorous standards of achievement. They lack discipline and do not respect authority. They are falling behind children in other parts of the world because they are not being judged by merit. In place of this drool over unstructured free play, I would propose that we grant more credence to the highly disciplined and organized approach favored by one Amy Chua, aka the Tiger Mom. If American schoolchildren cannot do calculus, the reason cannot be that they did not have enough unstructured free play.

Anyway, here is Haidt:

Childhood has become more tightly circumscribed in recent generations––with less opportunity for free, unstructured play; less unsupervised time outside; more time online. Whatever else the effects of these shifts, they have likely impeded the development of abilities needed for effective self-governance for many young adults. Unsupervised free play is nature’s way of teaching young mammals the skills they’ll need as adults, which for humans include the ability to cooperate, make and enforce rules, compromise, adjudicate conflicts, and accept defeat. A brilliant 2015 essay by the economist Steven Horwitz argued that free play prepares children for the “art of association” that Alexis de Tocqueville said was the key to the vibrancy of American democracy; he also argued that its loss posed “a serious threat to liberal societies.” A generation prevented from learning these social skills, Horwitz warned, would habitually appeal to authorities to resolve disputes and would suffer from a “coarsening of social interaction” that would “create a world of more conflict and violence.”

Association is not an art. It is a discipline. 

American intellectual life has been systematically dumbed down over the past five decades. It has been the result of a policy decision, an effort to reduce the importance of merit and to replace it with diversity quotas, diversity administrators, dumbed down course work and grade inflation.

The current mania about refusing to judge college applicants on the basis of standardized tests has recently come a cropper at MIT where the administration discovered that students who do not have good enough test scores cannot master the basic math that is the foundation for all further courses. 

In Humanities and Social Sciences courses, the standards are more flexible. So the professoriat has replaced the great works of Western philosophy and literature with dumbed down versions, written by people just like them. So, American students do not learn how to improve their minds by engaging with the greatest minds that our civilization has to offer, but have been forced to waste their minds on the works of dimwits and halfwits whose self-esteem is tied up in the notion that their work, work that does not pass any rigorous muster, is really and truly valuable. And if you dare to suggest otherwise, they will not engage with your ideas. They will shut you down.

The American mind has become a disaster area because we are no longer, to quote Isaac Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants. We insist that American children stand on the shoulders of midgets and dwarfs-- though, that expression is probably prohibited, lest those midgets and dwarfs discover that their much vaunted credentials mask inferior scholarship and sloppy thinking.


Anonymous said...

Social Medis has just made it easier for all the little Madame Defarges to spread their evil.

Anonymous said...

The ten dumbest states in the United States are Hawaii, Nevada, Mississippi, Alabama, Floriduh, South Carolina, West Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Arizona. Of the ten dumbest states, seven are located in the South. Hawaii might come as a surprise to some, while Florida may be expected because of the notorious Floridah ma'am stories.
It gets worse. My friend cites the fact that, of the 6,000 high school students he estimates he's taught over the span of his career, only a small fraction now make it to his grade with a functioning understanding of written English. They do not know how to form a sentence. They cannot write an intelligible paragraph. Recently, after giving an assignment that required drawing lines, he realized that not a single student could complete said assignment without Iphone.

Walt said...

Good stuff.I only disagree with you, Stuart, about independent play vs tiger momming (which seems to be just another version of helicopter momming). Social skills and learning social negotiation (social intelligence) is part of tne mix which today’s generation that relates to others through the medium of cell phones apoears to lack. Then, too, I also think independent play allows children to learn both what innately interests them and what they’re good at, while the competitive part of it gets them to hone a variety of skills, not just calculus. (I was never either good at or meant to be good at calculus which is basically irrelevant since my talents lay elsewhere but when I couldn’t bat for shit, I determinedly practiced till I could hit it out of the park— which is also irrelevant but taught me the virtue of determination.)

Anonymous said...

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19, Simian Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is an infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 Sarbecoviridae. Most people infected with the simian influenza variant will become seriously ill and require immediate medical attention. The "simian flu", a side effect of the drug that enhanced the apes' intelligence, killing most humans. If you do not want to get tested, it's still important to stay home, isolate and avoid contact with others, rest, and drink fluids.

Drew458 said...

Simian Acute Respiratory Syndrome may have cross mutated with Monkey Business virus. Let's ask Dr. Ziaus to do a study. Either way, the end result is becoming more visible every year.

Anonymous said...

*Sips some Brawndo while watching Fox News...

Anonymous said...

The STUPID is STRONG on the LEFT...