Trophies for Losers

AEI panel bemoans the current state of American society


Americans today, and especially young Americans, think much more highly of themselves yet know much less about the world around them than previous generations, according to a panel at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday afternoon.

The panel, titled "The state of the American mind: Anti-intellectualism in America more than 25 years after Allan Bloom," featured several contributors to the new book The State of the American Mind, published by Templeton Press.

The discussion was moderated by Adam Bellow, son of the late Saul Bellow. Bellow began the event by offering a definition of "the American mind," suggesting it displays particular characteristics, such as "independent thought and action, thrift and industriousness, [and] delayed gratification," and certain important influences, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Bible. It can be summarized as "individualism balanced by a sense of civic virtue," he said.

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of the book Generation Me, discussed how members of the millennial generation view themselves.

"We do have more individualism, more focus on the self," Twenge said.

However, this individualism is different than past forms of individualism that were more rugged and self-supporting, she argued.

"One way to put this is that it is a kind of delusional individualism," Twenge said. "Thinking you’re great is as good as being great. … You suck, you still get the trophy."

Using data from the American Freshman Survey, which surveys incoming college freshman, Twenge showed how college freshman rate themselves much more highly on a range of personal characteristics today than they did in 1966.

The number of students coming into college with an A average in high school has also risen dramatically, from about 20 percent in 1966 to over 50 percent today. The percent that show strong signs of narcissism has also almost doubled.

Twenge’s presentation stood in stark contrast to the discussion of cultural IQ given by Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University.

"Cultural IQ … is simply the amount of knowledge you have about things in the world, past and present, things beyond your immediate circumstances," Bauerlein said.

Cultural IQ is measured on a range of tests, including AP American History, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and the actual IQ test, which contains measurement of intelligence across a range of intellectual areas, such as abstract reasoning as well as information, Bauerlein said.

About half of students fail the U.S. history NAEP test, while only about a third score proficient in civics, Bauerlein said. SAT critical reading scores are the lowest they have been in decades, while performance on the information portion of the IQ test has been stagnant even as performance in the other sections has risen dramatically over the last 50 years or so.

These results show a low cultural awareness even as we have increasing access to information through the Internet, Bauerlein said. "This is a sore disappointment."

"Point is: actual performance, unchanged or down; self-belief, way up," Twenge said.

"This is a generational shift, but it is also a shift that has permeated our whole culture," she said.

One notable area where this illiteracy has spread is regarding religion and the Bible. Daniel Dreisbach, a professor at American University, argued that the Bible, and especially the King James Bible, was a formative part of America’s cultural fabric until recently. College students today are notably ignorant of Biblical allusions and archetypes, he said.

American society is not simply becoming more ignorant, self-centered, and self-aggrandizing; it is also becoming more dependent, argued Nicholas Eberstadt, a fellow at AEI and author of A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic.

Eberstadt noted that when he was a youth, he was skeptical of his parents’ pinings for an idyllic past. When he was a boy, the federal government spent one-third of each dollar on social welfare programs, while today it spends almost twice that.

Government programs have tended to raise the threshold for qualifying for means-based aid, effectively defining need upward and bringing ever-more people into welfare programs, he argued.

"With 35 percent of the American population accepting poverty-based, need-based government social benefits at this point, do we see an additional threat to the middle class mentality?" Eberstadt asked rhetorically. "I submit to you that it is probably very difficult at one and the same time to maintain the notion that one is a traditional, Tocquevillian, self-reliant member of the American middle class in good standing and also to go out and seek poverty-based benefits."

The event was not completely despairing. Bellow offered some hopeful words at the end, noting that his daughter recently, upon returning home from college, decided to throw away her participation trophies.