The State of the American Mind: 16 Leading Critics on the New Anti-Intellectualism
edited by Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow.
Templeton Press, 2015.
Hardcover, 280 pages, $28.

Nearly three decades after Allan Bloom pronounced the “Closing of the American Mind,” Mark Bauerlien and Adam Bellow have set out to survey the damage done by the closing of that mind. The result is a collection of sixteen essays now gathered under a much less foreboding title, namely The State of the American Mind. This nod toward neutrality aside, editors Bauerlein and Bellow do borrow from Bloom by billing their essayists as “sixteen leading critics on the new anti-intellectualism.”

New anti-intellectualism? Have things actually gotten worse since Bloom seemed to close the subject on the closed American mind? Bauerlein and Bellow seem to think so, and their selected essayists, by and large, support their thesis.

In their introduction, Bauerlein and Bellow offer a brief survey of American intellectual history that points to a once flourishing American mind. They concede that such is no longer the case, even as they contend that that mind should still be flourishing, notwithstanding Bloomian gloom and doom of now nearly three decades standing—and notwithstanding their own foray into gloom and doom today.

It’s not possible to give a fair hearing, much less equal treatment, to each essay in this brief review. But let it also be stipulated that there is value to be found in every one of these pieces, both because the angles and subjects vary and because the degree of gloominess varies as well. Some are descriptive of past and ongoing sins, and some are prescriptive in that they seek to offer paths toward reopening and reintellectualizing (to coin a word) the American mind.

To get a better feel for the whole collection, one actually might do best by first jumping to the end and reading R. R. Reno’s “The New Antinomian Attitude” before tackling anything else. Then turn to Dennis Prager’s “We Live in the Age of Feelings.” These two essays go a long way toward confirming that what Bloom feared may have finally come to pass—but they may also point toward a recovery of a lost commitment to the life of the intellect, if not to the life of the intellectual.

And there is a difference between the two. If the American educational system can be reformed, the life of the intellect can be restored—and it can be restored for the masses. But the life of the intellectual is another matter entirely. This is especially so for intellectuals on the left who have abandoned reason for feelings. One of the great ironies—and tragedies—of our time is this very abandonment of reason on the part of those claim the mantle of intellectual.

Reno, editor of First Things, gets at that abandonment in his marvelous essay. He begins by reminding us that the American mind has always had a moral dimension. Unfortunately what has happenedin modern America is that moral reasoning, such as it is, is carried on “in an Empire of Desire.” According to Reno, the assumption governing this “antinomian sensibility” is that “human beings flourish to the degree that they’re free to satisfy their personal desires, even if those desires run against long-standing moral traditions …” By Reno’s reckoning, the evil genius responsible for creating this “empire” was not Sigmund Freud, but Norman O. Brown with his 1959 book, Life Against Death. After all, Freud believed that civilized life required placing “repressive” limits on our “instinctual desires.” To put it mildly, Brown passionately disagreed. Instead of repressing desire, he called for its exaltation. More than that, he made desire “his redemptive principle.”

To Reno, Brown’s argument was at once a “stroke of genius” and a disaster for Western civilization. Brown may have styled himself as a “new Moses,” but he gave rise to what Pope Benedict XVI called the dictatorship of relativism, not to mention what Reno calls the “harrying mentality of political correctness.” As Reno also notes, political correctness offers nothing by way of a moral vision, but is instead a “regulatory regime … that works to impose the singular antilaw in the Empire of Desires: it is forbidden to forbid.” Reno concludes by asking his readers to recognize the “downward push of the Empire of Desire,” a push in the direction of accepting that the “essence of life is sexual desire and the will-to-power.”

Prager reinforces Reno’s central argument while pushing the argument in a more overtly political direction. His target is the anti-intellectual project that is at the heart of the left in the West. And at the heart of that project is … the heart. The problem is that the human heart is a “morally weak” instrument, and one that is key to the establishment of Reno’s Empire of Desires. It is also at the heart of the success of leftism, which Prager deems to have been the “most dynamic religion of the past century.” Leftism combines two very powerful drives: one which tells us that each of us is our own moral authority and the other which tells us that our feelings are our morals. As Prager concludes, it constitutes an “almost irresistible” message to most people, “especially the young.” Principles end up, in the progressive view, perfectly matching one’s own preferences, invulnerable to any external tradition or moral authority, for who can contest with what I feel is right?

Many of the fourteen remaining essays are directed at the young—at least indirectly—both in terms of what has been done to them and what might be done for them. This is not meant in any therapeutic sense, but rather in the name of both confirming where and why things have gone further wrong since Bloom and pointing to where and how things might be made right again.

If there is to be a first step in that direction, it would be to recognize the trap that is the Empire of Desires.” A reopening of the American mind will require a new understanding of what it means to have an open mind. As G. K. Chesterton once put it, “I prefer to open my mind as I open my mouth, so that I can shut it again on something solid.” And what could be more solid than using one’s intellect to recognize and accept moral truth?  

John C. Chalberg writes from Minnesota and is a senior fellow at the Center for the American Experiment in Minneapolis.