Walter Russell Mead: The Crisis of the American Intellectual

Current Affairs

Mead writes in an essay that discusses why American society seems so committed to restraining the full power of the information revolution to transform itself:

“Almost everywhere one looks in American intellectual institutions there is a hypertrophy of the theoretical, galloping credentialism and a withering of the real.  In literature, critics and theoreticians erect increasingly complex structures of interpretation and reflection – while the general audience for good literature diminishes from year to year.  We are moving towards a society in which a tiny but very well credentialed minority obsessively produces arcane and self referential (but carefully peer reviewed) theory about texts that nobody reads.  Political science is becoming more mathematical and dogmatic – while fewer and fewer Americans understand the political foundations and ideas behind American institutions.  Similar problems unfortunately exist in many disciplines.  Academic discourse becomes more self-referential and remote from public concerns; the public discussion suffers from the absence of the intellectual rigor and historical perspective that serious students and thinkers can bring to it.   (The natural sciences are in much less bad shape as the process of empirical verification imposes a certain necessary honesty on the intellectual process, but those who try to connect the sciences to the world of philosophy, policy, theology and politics suffer many of the same problems as intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences.)  At the same time, the edifice of academic studies is becoming so expensive and top heavy that except at a relative handful of very wealthy institutions the whole system of tenured teaching appointments looks steadily less sustainable.

We can see the same unhappy pattern in knowledge-based American institutions beyond the groves of academe.  The mainline Protestant churches have a hyperdeveloped theology, an over-professionalized clergy – and shrinking congregations.   The typical American foundation is similarly hyperdeveloped in terms of social and political theory, over professionalized in its staff – and perhaps thankfully has a declining impact on American society because its approaches are increasingly out of touch.  With the New York Times in the lead, American journalism was moving in this direction until the rapid onset of financial problems began to force change.”

Read the full article here.

He also makes the point that the exiting governmental models of the American intellectual skew too strongly toward using the corporation as a model for “good management” – which leads us almost inevitably toward a stifling bureaucracy.

Do read the whole thing. It’s one of the best discussions I’ve come across of the emerging inadequacy of government (and church) to break out of the current conflicted models that characterize common life in the US today. He doesn’t really suggest what the solution will look like – though he points to a lowering of the barriers to entry for people who want to join the conversation that will lead to finding a solution.

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1 Comment

  1. Martial Artist says

    Mead appears to have part of the answer, or at least the first step toward it in identifying the problem in a form of progressivism that identifies “progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. He even identifies key elements of the solution:
    • “power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large”
    • “(g)uild methods are too expensive given society’s rapidly increasing need for the services they provide; we must drastically raise productivity by re-imagining the way our society makes and distributes the services”
    • “we are extraordinarily rich in specialist intellectuals who have a deep knowledge of a particular subject. Our educational and professional systems are set up to train and support the large numbers of people needed to fill these roles. We are much less effective at teaching and supporting people who are able to master the essentials of many complex subjects, integrate the insights from this kind of study into a coherent social or political vision, and communicate what they have learned to a broad general lay audience.”
    I would humbly suggest that there is a group of individuals who have the needed knowledge to do just what Mead appears to want done. You can find a representative sampling of them through their work for a particular organization. That would be the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. Among their number you have historians such as Thomas E. Woods, Jr., who has made accessible many of the factual historical errors to which our educational system has subjected us. You will also find Austrian school economists, students of the only “school” of economics that predicted the current economic crisis and the only “school” that explained what caused it, and explained all of the data arising from the Great Depression.
    The problem is not in knowing what the answer is. The problems are that we no longer educate people. Rather, when the “educational system” is not indoctrinating them in spurious historical facts, it is training them in a one-dimensional sense.
    To rephrase what Mr. Mead states near the beginning of his article, we don’t need “a critical mass of thinkers, analysts and policy entrepreneurs who can help unleash the creative potential of the American people and build the new government and policy structures that will facilitate a new wave of private-sector led growth.” What we need is a mass of critical thinkers, analysts and entrepreneurs who can rebuild and restore the government and policy structures with which this nation was originally provided by its founders, as well as communicating that vision to the populace at large.
    We need a polis that is focused on the Rule of Law, strong individual and property rights, and the enforcement of personal responsibility and accountability. The problem then will be overcoming the reluctance of the progressives to acknowledge that man is not the intellectual master of creation. Which, come to think of it, is addressed early on in Genesis. And that task of reeducating a reluctant “ruling class” will be the real challenge. When Mr. Mead recognizes that very real nature of the challenge we face I pray he will not surrender to despair.
    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

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