By Luis Durani*
In 1987, Dr. Bloom wrote a scathing critique of how society has failed democracy in the perennial book, The Closing of the American Mind. Dr. Bloom concluded society was more “impoverished” due to the character development being fostered by America’s universities. His central thesis focused on how concepts of openness and moral relativism have ironically led to the closing of the American mind.
He argued that openness has led to the deprivation and eradication of critical thinking. Today, decades later, the society he once critiqued, finds itself at a similar crossroads. Society seems to be at a precipice where the culmination of tensions related to race, economic disparity, and other issues appear to be fracturing the very foundation and social consciousness that has prolonged the existence of American society. Today’s downturn can be traced back to one of the most important pillars of society, education.
The primary contributor to this phenomenon has been the education system especially America’s colleges. Starting with the primary and secondary education system, the country is witnessing a large disparity in the quality of education being provided to its youth relative to other countries. The US has been on steady decline in terms of how her student’s fare. Despite concerted efforts, the graduation rate for high school still lingers around 70% but even worse, 80% of those who graduate high school is not remotely prepared for their first year of college. The governing paradigm behind the US’s current approach to both its primary and secondary system requires a dramatic change, it is archaic at best. While American Universities have historically been second to none in terms of research as well as academics it is slipping more and more. A pedagogical shift is needed.
The most perilous issue at hand is critical thinking or lack thereof. The intent behind the American education system as well as the four-year American degree is that it certifies that the graduate is an individual that not only has demonstrated commitment in achieving and successfully passing a rigorous course of study but also acquired skills and knowledge into the fundamentals of a certain subject. However, more importantly, it demonstrated that whomever the degree was bestowed upon developed certain intellectual faculties that would allow them to employ logic as well as critical reasoning abilities to solve any problem. This skill, in particular, is what has allowed American society to flourish and innovate. The universities use to produce educated individuals who were able to debate what is right and wrong in a civil manner. Unfortunately, colleges are beginning to fail more and more in this respect. They are not creating the renaissance-like student as was initially intended with the premise of a 4-year degree. Such a well-rounded individual would help alleviate society’s burden, instead, today’s students are contributing to its decline due to a sense of false bravado that has been granted to them with their college education. Today’s students due to the relative peace, economic prosperity and false bluster have developed a sense of entitlement. Whereas in reality, they are perhaps more close minded due to the false veneer that has been created by their own inflated sense of worth. The university, which was supposed to be the Socratic utopia of creating the enlightened masses, has become an assembly line that churns out heavily indebted zombies and parrots. The sheer number of colleges and conferred degrees has exponentially skyrocketed to the point that bachelor degrees are becoming futile in almost every subject aside from engineering and the sciences. Society has created a false belief that everyone should go to college and it is a right rather than a privilege for those who were academically successful. Today, students of all calibers are entering college rather than those who performed well academically. While American colleges are still notable due to the massive endowment and research money poured into them, many are devolving from being renowned for centers of innovation to infamous for its campus parties. The price of colleges has continued to unabatedly rise exorbitantly for what appears to be a more worthless piece of paper as each day goes by. With the higher influx of students with all sorts of academic ability, standards have lowered and lowered in order to help better accommodate such students. The transformation of colleges into for-profit centers coupled with the unlimited loans from the government to support this fruitless endeavor has created a major government initiative that has failed. This failure, in particular, has one of the largest consequences to society as a whole. This slow regression of society is witnessed in all aspects and professions today as intellectual capacity is producing diminishing returns.
According to a recent Pew study, Americans have at no time been as partisan and divided as they are today. While the trend has been observed dating back to the 1960s, unfortunately, data has only been consistently recorded since 1992. While the American political system was created to be a forum for a variety of political ideologies in which the voters can view and subscribe to, today it has downgraded from being a congregation of beliefs to more of a vitriol battlefield of who can further their corporate and big money interest rather than fulfill the desire of their constituents. Unfortunately, many Americans find it hard to believe but on a national scale, the two major parties are not so much different than each other.
Social beliefs are used as a veneer to help create this illusion of differentiation between the two parties making it easier for voters to choose what candidates they can select. While a nation’s social direction is important and should not be neglected, the reality lies in the fact that Americans, for the most part, do not want to be dictated to in how they live their lives. Politicians in their natural finesse are able to contour the discussion of social issues as a topic of fear and imposition on people’s everyday lives. Most people tend to be more emotionally responsive rather than logical about their decision. Equipped with such psychological depth, politicians and consultants have transformed the elections from matters of substance into a popularity contest. Sophistry has become a most sought after trait by those seeking office.
The question goes back to how has this state of affairs come into being? How did statesmen transform into dreaded and corrupt politicians? While the government, in its best form, is a necessary evil, as Thomas Paine had put it, a democratic government only denigrates in complicity with its citizenry. A true democratic nation such as the US can only move away from its roots as a republic under the auspices of the same citizenry it serves. Whether it is the influence of corporate lobbying in legislation or big money in the elective process, all this has occurred thanks to the acquiescence of the voters. While not every American needs to be a full-blown political affairs guru, it is a civic duty to know what or whom they are voting for. Yet, too many times by too many people, Americans despite arguing for change, reduction of political corruption and favoritism, vote into power those who continue the bickering, stalemate, and impotence that is government today. The power of the ballot box has been ignored for too long and the voter, not the system, has created the leviathan that everyone bemoans today. Even to this day, as Americans continue to complain about all these plaguing issues of the electoral system, they do not take responsibility for their choices. Despite the continuous grievances and Congress’ historically low approval rating, the same officials are reelected almost every election. Politico reported that 90% of incumbent Congressman and 91% of incumbent Senators were reelected in recent elections. Political scientists are quick to point to the amount of money raised, television ad, etc. that was employed by the incumbent to secure his/her seat. In reality, the source of the blame is being ignored, the voters.
Many are quick to label politicians stupid, ignorant, etc. and while these labels may be true for certain politicians they are not applicable to all. There are many savvy and intelligent officials who have to simplify their speeches, points, or goals to catch the attention of the voter. This is the nature of politics in America, the oversimplification or “dumbing” down of information into slogans, so it can catch the attention of the potential voter. To further induce potential voters, certain words are intermittently interjected into conversations, rallies, etc. to help increase a candidate’s popularity. Such a demotion of ideas by politicians reflects once again the society they partake in. Voters as people are subconsciously biased and do not like to feel inferior around others as well as disliking what they perceive as negative. Self-worth is measured by social status, thus when an intelligent politician discusses intricate subjects with the level of complexity needed, voters are turned off whereas the politician seeking office rather than serving the public sings the necessary ode to the delight and content of the voter is elected.
As society regresses more so towards emotions and becomes largely devoid of logic and facts, the emergence of a dystopia resembling what the fictional movie Idiocracy was attempting to resemble takes hold. In such a society there is a lack of any sense of social responsibility, an inconsistent set of principles pertaining to human rights of its citizens and those abroad, and a continual hindrance to the pursuit of intellectual curiosity sometimes for the sake of inclusiveness or political correctness.
Society has been demonstrating a tendency to become “dumber.” A study carried out by a team of researchers concluded that there has been a markedly exponential growth in technological advancement since the Victorian age, but a shrinking in human intelligence over the same time period. It is estimated the average individual is approximately 13.4 IQ points less intelligent than their Victorian Era counterpart. This is somewhat noticeable with the untenable understanding of geography, science, and history demonstrated by most people in the US and around the world. When one looks to society, its role models and those who are held in high esteem today, it seems to have drastically altered than several decades or a century ago. Today, reality stars, movies stars, and athletes are bequeathed extreme adoration and epitomize the majority of society’s highest aspirations, unfortunately to its own detriment. This in itself resembles a society with a sense of void and lack of worthiness that should be better inculcated. The lifestyle that is portrayed by these “role models” appeals to the most inner compartments of people’s wants and desires. It is that lifestyle they appreciate and believe that would be most gratifying. Those lifestyles are almost always glitzy, flashy, and vapid. While education is not solely to blame, it is a major contributor to the development of character and critical thinking faculties. These members of society are doomed to never escape the most minimal echelons of Maslow’s hierarchy.
Erosion of Ideals
The culmination of all these issues is starting to manifest itself in a very grave threat to society through the erosion of ideals and principles that define American society. As each side rushes to blame the other for allowing such a decimation of the American character, in reality, both are to blame. While the left critiques the right, it ignores the fact that across American college campuses a new phenomenon of shutting down right-leaning speakers or even centrist liberal speakers is taking hold. In order to preserve certain ideals, they are partaking in an epidemic to limit free speech. Even if that speech is hate speech, it should not be stymied; it could be condemned and ignored but not impeded. Such a precedent only opens the floodgates for future limitation of speech based on emotions. While those on the left are ready to critique, justifiably so, former President George Bush for his actions (Iraq War and drone strikes) and legislations (Patriot Act, etc.) for some mysterious reason they are blind to their liberal leaders such as President Obama and Hilary Clinton, who have done similar, if not worse, in the same arena.
The same is applicable to those in the right, while they have employed labels such as regressive left or social justice warriors to project a negative connotation; they sometimes seem to have a short memory on the causation for certain failures that was created by Republican leaders such as President Bush and his predecessors. The failure to focus on Afghanistan has allowed for the Taliban to regain total power in that country, while presenting farcically based intelligence led to the war in Iraq that not only destabilized the region and world but gave birth to ISIS. They forget the deficit spending and corporate welfare that President Bush engaged in, which did not help the national debt.
Long gone are the days where a Socratic, intellectual and informative discourse can be held between people on opposite side of the political spectrum such as conservative commentator William Buckley Jr. and liberal linguistic and activist, Noam Chomsky. Such public debates helped inform both sides of the aisle on the opposing side’s opinion, train of thought and sometimes allowed for reconciliation through understanding or compromise.
This plaguing issue in today’s America is once again due to the character formation of the population through the education system. The art of learning how to learn is no longer instilled in students, but instead whether in primary, secondary, and even post-secondary, the focus is memorization of material and regurgitation. Without learning how to critically think and analyze, these students become parrots, mimicking what is fed to them based on those whom they align with ideologically. In addition, thanks to the inflationary practices of universities via reducing standards and graduating students as if they are an assembly line, an implicit enablement of such people in society is taking place on a mass level. In reality, what is being created are hollow individuals in society with a false sense of intelligence and knowledge that will end up further dividing this nation and bringing the eventual decline of America, if it has not already started.
The society that Dr. Bloom critiqued was vastly different than today’s society. While certain societal inequities have been remedied in the past few decades, others have begun to become a nuisance of its own. As the consequences of the cultural and sexual revolution were setting in, the changes were something of a perturbation to people from Dr. Bloom’s era. As those effects settled, one of the biggest impacts they have had has been the education system and the philosophical ways students are being taught. Nowhere more is this detrimental effect observed than America’s universities. Today students are being mass produced without the focus on their development into open-minded, inquisitive, informed, and critically thinking individuals. It is these college-educated individuals that are expected to run the future corporations, states, and country. Unlike, students of the past, today’s students are being produced by the groves at colleges who are more interested in profits than the actual quality of the graduate. As a result, colleges have become more of a rite of passage for most young Americans rather than a medium of knowledge. Undergraduate programs have become more widely known based on party rankings rather than academics. Instead of young graduates possessing knowledge and ability to think critically, colleges and society, in general, are producing more parrot-like citizens who are more interested in vitriol partisanship than actually debating and holding a conversation in which all points are discussed and analyzed. Humility and modesty, traits of most educated individuals, are evaporating and being replaced with hubris and arrogance. Due to social media, popular culture propagated by reality TV, and the lack of a properly educated population that can analyze and think judiciously not emotionally, a vicious future is being implanted for America. One of the most important functions of a college or university is to protect the concept of reason and logic. As Dr. Bloom said, “Education is the movement of darkness into light” but today it appears education is moving society back into darkness.
About the author:
*Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese foreign policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineering and B.A. in political science. He is also author of “Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State” and “China and the South China Sea: The Emergence of the Huaqing Doctrine.” Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy