‘The effect of Dewey’s philosophy on the design of curricular systems was devastating,” Richard Hofstadter wrote over 50 years ago in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow have edited a superb collection of essays on different aspects of American culture and life that extends, deepens, and updates Hofstadter’s critique of the naïve and feckless naturalism of John Dewey that now pervades and eviscerates our culture.
The editors rightly give pride of place in their volume to a lead essay by the literary theorist and educational reformer E. D. Hirsch Jr., of the University of Virginia, one of the most distinguished scholars and thinkers in the past half century. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation (1967) remains a fundamental work in the defense of decent norms of rationality and interpretation that have been engulfed since then in the tide of French-Nietzschean irrationalism and know-nothing naturalism now so well established in our universities. Hirsch early caught the attention and approval of C. S. Lewis, who nevertheless predicted to him that his defense of objectivity would fail in the face of the onslaught of subjectivism, irrationalism, and neophilia. His prediction was prophetic.
Hirsch’s essay is central to the book, because it documents the precipitous decline of American literacy that took place from 1963 to 1979, and from which we have never recovered — a decline that had nothing to do with the inclusion of lower-class, immigrant, or black students in the test-taking population. The decline was a direct result, rather, of the retirement of older, decently educated K–12 schoolteachers and their replacement by teachers trained in “Progressive” curricular and pedagogical approaches in the teachers’ colleges and education schools that Dewey and his disciples had taken over en masse in the 1920s and ’30s, despite the noble protests of such articulate critics as William C. Bagley and Isaac Kandel. Hofstadter’s prophetic 1963 book was written on the cusp of the decline that subsequently took place.
The 15 later essays in this book provide excellent, if depressing, documentation of the other particular means and effects of this decline. Editor and university professor Mark Bauerlein’s “The Troubling Trend of Cultural IQ” documents “an intelligence breakdown” from the 1950s onward that has brought us a permanently “adolescent society” (James Coleman) — one in which, writes Bauerlein, “teenage-speak” has gradually replaced “adult-speak,” bringing about a low, nightmarish egalitarianism in which “it is cool to be dumb.” “How can mentors curtail [this] youth culture,” he asks, “when the goods and styles of it form a mega-industry that showers kids with marketing and plays upon status and consumer competition?” He concludes ominously: “I know of no way to slow this hazardous social experiment except to broadcast as widely as possible the intellectual damage it has done and will continue to do.”
Scholar Daniel Dreisbach gives us an essay called “Why Biblical Literacy Matters,” documenting the Bible’s decline from being the common book of the English-speaking peoples, especially the Americans, to its having become in effect the one systematically prohibited book in American K–12 public schooling — a proof if ever there was one of the ironic, paradoxical character of human history. If Democrat Howard Dean, beneficiary of elite education at once-Christian institutions such as St. George’s School and Yale, thinks the Book of Job is in the New Testament, we can only imagine the complacent ignorance of the Bible in intolerantly secularized public institutions. Exactly 60 years ago, in 1955, the distinguished educational philosopher Philip H. Phenix wrote, “It seems unfortunately to be the case that what has been presented as a means for preserving religious peace and freedom through secularization has to some extent become a method of propagating a particular dogmatic faith, namely, scientific naturalism or . . . naturalistic humanism.”
In “How Colleges Create the ‘Expectation of Confirmation,’” attorney Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), shows how monolithically “politically correct” the contemporary college campus is — despite the Supreme Court’s noble 1995 decision, in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, against “viewpoint discrimination” that muzzled Christians on college campuses. (The situation would of course be far worse without the efforts of FIRE, and of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.)
NYU sociologist Richard Arum summarizes, in “College Graduates: Satisfied but Adrift,” some of his own research that shows how little measurable learning actually takes place on American college campuses. “Recent research suggests that not only are students working fewer hours, but they are considerably more likely to report plagiarizing and cheating on exams than in prior decades.”
Literary critic and former Modern Language Association president Gerald Graff contributes a useful, nuts-and-bolts essay titled “Why Johnny and Joanie Can’t Write, Revisited” arguing that elaborate and fashionable K–12 and college approaches to teaching writing often “induce cognitive overload” that prevents even the simplest appropriation of the age-old tools of literacy. As against the massive underlying subjectivism of the culture and its lieutenants (what C. S. Lewis called “a world of incessant autobiography”), the patient Graff argues for a basically Aristotelian, commonsense, dialogical approach: “the need for writers to respond to others.”
In “The Rise of the Self and the Decline of Intellectual and Civic Interest,” psychology professor Jean Twenge writes ominously about the emergence of what Christopher Lasch called the “culture of narcissism.” People “born after 1980,” she writes, have “never known a world that emphasizes anything over the self — for instance, putting duty before self.” Not only does this narcissism have deleterious ethical and civic consequences, it has occupational and economic effects: Naïvely vain belief in self undermines “actual performance” of tasks and jobs. Grade inflation and massive remediation efforts at the college level go together. The effects of the 1963–79 decline documented by Hirsch have become endemic in the United States.
In Robert Whitaker’s stunning essay “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” the medicalization and anaesthetization of America by the unnecessary and harmful reliance on and administration of psychotropic medications over the past 30 years are documented to devastating effect. Whitaker does not fail to make the philosophical inference: This terrible development “has reshaped Americans’ thinking about ‘free will’ and the capacity of humans to be responsible for their emotional states and for their actions.” This essay deserves the widest possible readership.
Political scientist Nicholas Eberstadt also documents the decline of personal responsibility, in “Dependency in America: American Exceptionalism and the Entitlement State,” drawing attention, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan did 50 years ago, to the rapid decline of the American family: “Between the launch of [President Johnson’s] ‘War on Poverty’ in 1964 and 2012, the percentage of U.S. children born out of marriage has gone from 7 percent to nearly 41 percent — with nearly a quarter of all American children under 18 living with a lone mother.” Regarding the democratic-republican need for self-regulation and virtuous habits in the citizenry, Eberstadt writes: “The qualities celebrated under the banner of American exceptionalism are [today] in poorer repair than at any time in our nation’s history.”
Along the same lines, in “Political Ignorance in America,” law professor Ilya Somin, drawing on the research of Eric Hanushek, argues that “the failure of public education to increase political knowledge may be connected with its failure to achieve improvements in student achievement in other subjects such as English, science, and mathematics, despite massive increases in per-pupil expenditures over the last 40 years.” We are returned to Hirsch’s documentation of the continuing failure of Dewey’s disciples and descendants, now fortified in our educational institutions.
Hirsch’s Core Knowledge elementary curriculum is now successfully used in a thousand American schools — one of the few promising signs educationally in the past 25 years — and underlying it is a fundamental loyalty to the best world, Western, and American educational traditions. In his essay, “In Defense of Difficulty: How the Decline of the Ideal of Seriousness Has Dulled Democracy in the Name of a Phony Populism,” longtime editor Steve Wasserman defends the Arnoldian tradition that Deweyite “Progressivism” replaced: the tradition of trying to get into the K–12 curriculum “the best that has been thought and said and done” in the world of culture as a resource for children and young people. Snobs have sneered at the Hutchins-Adler “Great Books” movement as “middlebrow”; Wasserman praises it.
There are two particularly powerful essays toward the end of the book, Dennis Prager’s “We Live in the Age of Feelings” and R. R. Reno’s “The New Antinomian Attitude.” Brief summary cannot do justice to Prager’s impassioned essay. Defending the Judeo-Christian tradition and the idea of objective ethics, he rightly quotes the title of John Erskine’s famous essay, written exactly 100 years ago: “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent.” Reno’s essay has an apocalyptic edge, seeing the pervasive, increasing de-sublimation of Western culture as moving rapidly toward barbarism, giving us a world of what C. S. Lewis called “trousered apes.”
If any criticism is to be made of this outstanding book of essays, it is of their not drawing more clearly the line of intellectual genesis from Rousseau, through Whitman, to the infantilism of John Dewey and his now institutionalized descendants, a development critiqued by scholars such as Irving Babbitt, P. E. More, Yvor Winters, Randall Stewart, Richard Hofstadter, Lionel Trilling, Quentin Anderson, Russell Kirk, and Christopher Lasch.
And critiqued by E. D. Hirsch: The American founding fathers’ “stress on cultivating an aristocracy of talent and virtue, as well as the stringent rules for moral education, does not disclose a confidence that human nature should be encouraged to follow its natural development. The study of history (not nature) was to be the main subject of education for the people,” Hirsch wrote in 1996. “The Constitution [the Founding Fathers] framed does not imply trust in the innate goodness of human nature when allowed to follow its bliss.”
– Mr. Aeschliman is the author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism, a professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, and a professor emeritus of education at Boston University.