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CONCERNING THE TIMES’ INTELLECTUAL HEALTH! The intellectual state of the union would seem to be not very good: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JANUARY 27, 2011

Due to some misadventures: In part due to misadventures in the snow, we’ll postpose our ongoing series, “Our’n and their’n,” until tomorrow. Then too, there was Tamar Lewin’s report in the New York Times.

CONCERNING THE TIMES’ INTELLECTUAL HEALTH (permalink): Resolved: Mental and emotional health really do matter—a lot.

Because we accept that basic premise, we were struck by Tamar Lewin’s above-the-fold, front-page report in today’s New York Times.

We’ll admit it—we were grabbed by the headlines: “Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen/Students’ Emotional Health is Rated in Major Survey.” Beneath those headlines, Lewin started like this:

LEWIN (1/27/11): The emotional health of college freshmen—who feel buffeted by the recession and stressed by the pressures of high school—has declined to the lowest level since an annual survey of incoming students started collecting data 25 years ago.

In the survey, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” involving more than 200,000 incoming full-time students at four-year colleges, the percentage of students rating themselves as “below average” in emotional health rose. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell to 52 percent. It was 64 percent in 1985.

Every year, women had a less positive view of their emotional health than men, and that gap has widened.

Wow! If we accept the notion that college freshmen can assess their own emotional health, this sounded like a real front-page story! Apparently because of the recent “recession,” the emotional health of these students is at its lowest point since this large survey began in 1985!

Lewin even included a statistic; it showed a substantial drop in these self-assessments over the course of those twenty-five years. Instantly, she cited an unnamed number of unnamed campus counselors who allegedly seem to agree with her thesis:

LEWIN (continuing directly): Campus counselors say the survey results are the latest evidence of what they see every day in their offices—students who are depressed, under stress and using psychiatric medication, prescribed even before they came to college.

The economy has only added to the stress, not just because of financial pressures on their parents but also because the students are worried about their own college debt and job prospects when they graduate.

Be careful—that passage is a bit slick! Obviously, college counselors do see students who are depressed/under stress “every day;” that’s what they’re hired to do. But did these unnamed campus counselors say they are seeing more such students? Did they say they are seeing more stress and depression due to “the economy?” You’ll note that Lewin doesn’t actually say these things, though she seems to let readers think she has. Finally, she quotes one alleged expert who does advance her thesis:

LEWIN (continuing directly): “This fits with what we’re all seeing,” said Brian Van Brunt, director of counseling at Western Kentucky University and president of the American College Counseling Association. “More students are arriving on campus with problems, needing support, and today’s economic factors are putting a lot of extra stress on college students, as they look at their loans and wonder if there will be a career waiting for them on the other side.”

According to this one observer, more students “are arriving on campus with problems.” The economy is “putting a lot of extra stress” on them.

One observer is quoted saying this; his statements may even be accurate. But Lewin is working from a ballyhooed survey, and the results of this survey don’t seem to show a big change in self-assessments over the past few years. Inside the paper, on page A20, Lewin’s editors present two graphs derived from the survey (just click here). But uh-oh! Neither graph shows a large decline in self-assessment over the last several years. Are these graphs supposed to support Lewin’s thesis? For freshmen women and freshmen men, the number who say they “felt overwhelmed during senior year in high school” seems to be the roughly same today as it was in 1995. For each group, the percentage who rate their emotional health “above average” seems to be roughly the same as it was in the year 2000. In fairness: In this second category, there has been a bit of a dip in the past several years. But how large does that downturn seem to have been? In paragraph 16, Lewin finally offers her only attempt at supporting her theses with actual data from the actual survey in question. And uh-oh! The recent change Lewin describes strikes us as being quite small:

LEWIN: “Paternal unemployment is at the highest level since we started measuring,” said John Pryor, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at U.C.L.A.’s Higher Education Research Institute, which does the annual freshman survey. “More students are taking out loans. And we’re seeing the impact of not being able to get a summer job, and the importance of financial aid in choosing which college they’re going to attend.”

“We don’t know exactly why students’ emotional health is declining,” he said. “But it seems the economy could be a lot of it.”

For many young people, serious stress starts before college. The share of students who said on the survey that they had been frequently overwhelmed by all they had to do during their senior year of high school rose to 29 percent from 27 percent last year.

Are you kidding?

In that passage, the director of the agency which conducts this survey says that “students’ emotional health is declining.” And finally! Lewin finally presents some “evidence” from this ballyhooed survey; the number who said they were overwhelmed in high school did in fact bump up last year—by two percentage points! On this underwhelming basis, we get an above-the-fold, front-page news report, in which Lewin spends a great deal of time talking about the gender gap on these self-assessments—an interesting issue which doesn’t relate to her headlined thesis.

Emotional health is very important—but intellectual health is crucial too. For both reasons, we’d suggest that people should be unhappy with Lewin’s report.

Might we make a quick observation? To the extent that college freshmen can assess their own emotional health, a story does seem to lurk in the data Lewin provides. Here it is: There was a substantial drop in these self-assessments from 1985 through the late 1990s. Go ahead—look at those two charts again! In each case, the drop-off in self-assessment is steady during those earlier years—and it largely levels off around the turn of the century. Presumably, this is why Lewin employed the full 25-year time span in the statistic she used early on in her piece. Presumably, unless she surveyed the full quarter century, she couldn’t find a statistic strong enough to fuel a front-page report.

Lewin found a 12-point drop over the last quarter century. But if we’re discussing the last several years—the years of this country’s economic collapse—it seems that strong statistics weren’t there for the pimping. Result? Late in her piece, Lewin gives one statistic drawn from the time period she is discussing—and it shows a two-point decline in recent self-assessments!

Why would Lewin (and her editors) offer such a story? We can’t answer that question. But please note: Over at Slate, Jack Shafer has virtually made a career calling out the New York Times for these “bogus trend stories.” We can’t tell you what Shafer thinks of Lewin’s report. But for a recent Poynter review of Shafer’s eight years of previous efforts, you know what to do: Just click here.

Are college freshmen being affected by the recent economic collapse? It’s entirely possible. Are they being affected enough to rate a front-page report? Lewin offers no such evidence, beyond a few subjective assessments by a few alleged experts. Meanwhile, how weak is the intellectual health of Lewin and her editors? Several analysts started to tremble and cry after reading this passage:

LEWIN: The annual survey of freshmen is considered the most comprehensive because of its size and longevity. At the same time, the question asking students to rate their own emotional health compared with that of others is hard to assess, since it requires them to come up with their own definition of emotional health, and to make judgments of how they compare with their peers.

“Most people probably think emotional health means, ‘Am I happy most of the time, and do I feel good about myself?’ so it probably correlates with mental health,” said Dr. Mark Reed, the psychiatrist who directs Dartmouth College’s counseling office.

“I don’t think students have an accurate sense of other people’s mental health,” he added. “There’s a lot of pressure to put on a perfect face, and people often think they’re the only ones having trouble.”

To some extent, students’ decline in emotional health may result from pressures they put on themselves.

In the first three paragraphs of that passage, Lewin notes the difficulties involving in crediting student self-assessments. She notes a few similar problems later on in her piece. But so what? In the fourth paragraph of that passage, she goes right back to an unambiguous interpretation of these self-assessments; there has been a decline in emotional health, she unambiguously says, while failing to offer the data which would show how slight this alleged decline seems to have been in recent years.

Why do journalists present such reports? Again, we’ll advance an obvious, but counter-intuitive and much-avoided fact:

Assuming reasonable good faith on their part, America’s highest-ranking “elite” journalists just plain flat-out aren’t real smart. This contradicts 2500 years of western world self-assessment. But it’s plainly true.

Over the years, we’ve been amazed by the way the wider world refuses to accept or discuss this obvious fact, which continues to threaten our nation’s well-being. Our journalistic elites just aren’t very smart! We keep avoiding this awkward fact, which is so blatantly true.

Further notes on the nation’s intellectual health: After last night’s adventure in the snow, we watched Rachel Maddow’s opening lecture. And good lord, how The Doctor was IN! In just the first three minutes of last night’s program, we were handed these supremely confident, though largely bollixed assertions:

MADDOW (1/26/11): The story of modern American politics writ large is the story of your father’s and your grandfather’s Republican Party now being way to the left of today’s leftiest liberals. If Dwight Eisenhower were running for office today, he would have to run, I’m guessing, as an independent—and not as some Joe Lieberman, in between the parties independent. He’d be a Bernie Sanders independent.

In 1982, who passed the largest peacetime tax increase in U.S. history? That would be Ronald Reagan.

Who called for comprehensive health reform legislation during in a State of the Union address in 1974, a program that was well to the left of what either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama ultimately proposed? That would be Richard Nixon.

Eisenhower and Reagan and Nixon—they were not the liberals of their day. They were the conservatives of their own time.

But the whole of American politics has shifted so far to the right in the last 50 years that what used to be thought of as conservative, what used to be thought of as a conservative position, is now considered to be off-the-charts lefty.

[…]

Over the past half a century, the center in American politics has gone further and further and further to the right. Halfway through Barack Obama’s first term, his State of the Union address last night is being pretty universally hailed as centrist, as not too liberal, not too conservative, but right down the middle of American politics.

And that is something that Americans like to hear. The instant reaction polls to President Obama’s speech last night were almost comically positive. CBS reported that 92 percent of the people who watched the speech approved of Mr. Obama`s proposals, 92; CNN reporting that 84 percent of people had a positive response.

Those sorts of numbers do not happen in politics. Those are crazy numbers.

In fact, those numbers are fairly typical for State of the Union addresses—a fact that can easily be adduced from a simple Google search. Far more absurd was Dr. Maddow’s groaning political history. Were Eisenhower and Nixon “the conservatives of their own time?” Please. Eisenhower was the moderate of his own time; he defeated “Mr. Conservative,” Robert Taft, to take the 1952 Republican nomination, in a bitter battle between the GOP’s two wings. For the rest of the era, he was assailed as a Communist by the right wing of the day, not unlike Obama today.

(This only happened after “Draft Eisenhower” movements had arisen in both major parties, in 1947 and in 1951. As with Colin Powell in 1995, no one knew which major party Eisenhower might choose to join.)

Was Nixon “the conservative of his time?” Well, not exactly—no. As with Ike, he stood in general contrast to the growing conservative movement inspired by Barry Goldwater—the movement which has continued growing right to the present day.

The doctor was certainly right on one point, if we allow for some characteristic ridiculous overstatement. To a significant extent, “the story of modern American politics” really is “the story of your father’s and your grandfather’s Republican Party being to the left of today’s liberals” in certain ways. To cite a slightly misconstrued example: Early in her lecture, Maddow had quoted Eisenhower making the highlighted statement:

MADDOW: Listen to the way he goes after the right here. "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things, but their number is negligible and”—and the president says—“their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

That is not what Barack Obama said last night. That is way to the left of any national Democrat at this point. That was all Republican President Dwight David Eisenhower. That was all the stuff he said when he was president.

Maddow failed to note a salient fact. When Eisenhower made those fiery statements, he was making a simple, accurate factual statement about the shape of American politics. In the 1950s, there really weren’t a whole lot of people who favored abolishing Social Security. But there are many such people today. This change has occurred, in large part, because the liberal/progressive/Democratic worlds have stumbled along for the past several decades under the yoke of “intellectual leaders” like Maddow.

The first three minutes of last night’s lecture struck us hopelessly uninformed. From there, Maddow moved ahead to silly, invidious, incoherent comments about President Clinton’s vast perfidy, especially as compared to President Obama’s vast greatness on Tuesday night. Presumably, the doctor doesn’t understand the politics of the 1990s any better than those of the 1950s. But overall, her lecture was uninformed and largely incoherent—though it was delivered, as always, with an air of complete self-assurance.

Tomorrow, we’ll be complimenting Maddow, at least as compared to certain aspects of Keith Olbermann’s performance at Countdown. But good lord! How has our national politics managed to disintegrate to such an extent since the time of Eisenhower—since the time of those accurate factual statements?

You might read Krugman’s Conscience of A Conservative—or you might watch our liberal cable channel in action! After that, do you still have to ask?