Is modern life making us sick? – Inside Higher Ed

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On the ambiguities of progress.
By  Steven Mintz
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My friend and one of my first professional colleagues, Maurice Isserman, the leading historian of the 20th century American left, played a game with his kids before they left for college: What’s getting better? What’s getting worse?
I can’t think of a better way to reflect on the ambiguities of progress.
Some aspects of life are unambiguously better. Globally, literacy rates, life expectancy and average living standards are up and extreme poverty and premature deaths are down. Access to schools and heath care has expanded. Despite the war in Ukraine and violent conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, armed conflict and battle-related deaths have declined.
Domestically, houses are bigger, cars are safer (if more standardized) and access to a college education is broader. Graduation rates have increased. The air, the water and energy sources are cleaner. Perhaps most important of all, the number of those who engage in backbreaking, dangerous, low-paying and demeaning forms of labor has declined.
Other facets of life are unequivocally worse. Not to be mordant, but take movie music. What movie songs today can compare with “Born to Be Wild,” “The Way We Were,” “New York, New York,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Wind Beneath My Wings,” the theme from Shaft, “Flashdance/What a Feeling,” “The Time of My Life,” “Walking on Sunshine,” “The Power of Love” or “The Heat Is On”?
I might argue, more polemically, that Hollywood movies, Broadway musicals and the English language novel are unmistakably worse, too.
Authors like Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Gregg Easterbrook, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, and Hans Rosling make a strong case that the public, egged on by agenda-driven activists, is unduly pessimistic. A spate of pre-pandemic books like Enlightenment Now, The Progress Paradox, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, and It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear attribute improvements to modern medicine, science and technology and, to a certain extent, market capitalism and growing state capacity that is increasingly responsive to a broad public.
These books ascribe much of today’s pessimism, negativism and ambivalence toward progress to human psychology: to choice anxiety, cognitive framing errors, the hedonic treadmill, meaning want (as opposed to material want), negativity bias, negative filtering, reference anxiety and rosy retrospection. These include the human tendencies to:
But what if Dr. Pangloss is wrong and the optimists’ rose-colored emphasis on progress is misleading? Can we make a case for cynicism and pessimism?
I’m a contrarian. I revel in playing the devil’s advocate, even if this at times annoys or unnerves my students. My graduate school training emphasized ambiguity, ambivalence, contradiction, irony and unintended consequences, and I tend to question Whiggish interpretations that are unduly optimistic or positive. I’m generally of the view that all liberations come at a price and that progress invariably cuts two ways.
I confess: this conceptual lens can itself contribute to an undue cynicism, skepticism and negativism and even to a predilection for conspiratorial thinking. Yet, I might add, no one ever went broke seeing the worst in things.
To the question “Is life getting better?” I resemble what was said about the Mugwumps, the late-19th-century liberal Republicans who had their mugs on one side of the fence and their wumps on the other. My inclination is to say, “yes and no.”
Which brings me to a series of provocative recent articles that challenge the arguments on behalf of improvement and progress. The first is by the British-Indian essayist Gurwinder Bhogal, who asks, “Is Liberal Society Making Us Il?” His answer is decidedly yes.
Bhogal’s essay asks why the incidence of “major depressive disorder, attention-deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, autism spectrum disorder and various eating disorders” is on the rise and is geographically concentrated in certain areas within the most advanced and affluent societies.
His answer is designed to shock. He argues that “young people and their doctors are viewing personal issues as medical disorders.” In a nutshell, he contends that contemporary society “is making people sick, by teaching them to feel sick.” There’s a tendency, he argues, “for people to misdiagnose their despair as a medical disorder.”
In his widely read blog, Bhogal elaborates on his negativism. He describes social media as a weapon of mass destruction. He calls out this country’s friendship recession, noting that the number of Americans without any friends increased 400 percent since 1990.
Various disorders might, of course, have very different causes. I spoke with an expert on childhood allergies at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, who states that it is indisputable that the incidence of childhood allergies has shot up. Although the explanation remains uncertain, a recent study in The Lancet points to the role of environment, climate change, migration, child feeding patterns, hygiene and epigenetics—the modification of gene expression (rather than alteration of the genetic code itself) due to environmental exposure, pollution, lifestyle—and methylation, chemical reactions in the body in which certain molecules are added to DNA and proteins.
The incidence of asthma, after a sharp rise, has apparently stabilized, but many other respiratory and food allergies continue to increase, perhaps the results of changes in pollen seasons, the introduction of new foods or plant life (or foods raised or processed in new ways), food additives, mold growth, tick bites, dust mites and more. There’s also the “hygiene hypothesis,” that children are too removed from natural immunities.
Another incendiary essay, by Elizabeth Kolbert, “How Plastics Are Poisoning Us,” appears in The New Yorker. The author of The Sixth Extinction argues that microplastics “both release and attract toxic chemicals and appear everywhere from human placentas to chasms thirty-six thousand feet beneath the sea.” Her article links microplastic pollution to a host of disorders.
Before we dismiss such essays as sensationalism-driven click bait, we might take a look at two recent books by a serious scholar. I have been enormously impressed by the scholarship of Matthew Smith, a historian of medicine and psychiatry at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde, whose studies of food allergies and attention deficit disorder strike me as exceptionally fair-minded, balanced and nuanced. He poses questions that I suspect all of us have asked:
Smith is interested in how and why physicians, psychologists, educators and parents became concerned about the “problem” of overactive, impulsive, inattentive and distractible children during the decades following World War II. He examines the ongoing debate over whether ADHD is best understood as a product of genetic predisposition, brain structure abnormalities and neurotransmitter malfunction or of environmental toxicity, food allergies and intolerances, overcrowded classrooms and a lack of outdoor play and of marketing campaigns sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. Underlying his scholarship is a “compelling plea for a much more profoundly humane, child-centered approach” to children’s education and public policy (including a strengthened social safety net) that may not be able to solve learning and behavior problems, but can, hopefully, ameliorate these challenges.
In part, he shows, the debate over the incidence of food allergies reflects a scientific divide among those physicians who hold strict views about what does or does not constitute a food allergy and those who take a more liberal view and believe that food intolerance occurs across a spectrum. He also makes clear that physicians’ rejection of claims in the 1970s that food additives and shifts in food processing contributed to a host of reactions in children “depended more on cultural, economic and political factors than on the scientific protocols designed to test it.”
In addition to reviewing the history of treatment protocols, including desensitization, elimination diets and avoidance, Smith discusses the role of clinical ecologists, who approach children’s food allergies through a wide-angled lens. Given the fact that food allergies appear to be increasing and intensifying, an ecological approach that considers a wide range of contributors—agricultural, medical, political, environmental and social, among others—strikes me as making a lot of sense.
I have written in the past about the argument advanced by Ethan Watters, who argued that psychological distress tends to be expressed in socially and culturally constructed ways. Hysteria, he argues, was just such a construct. Multiple personality disorder, as Ian Hacking has shown, was also a cultural and professional construct. We might well ask ourselves whether our children are experiencing various kinds of psychological distress—due to loneliness, isolation, anxiety, stress, pressure and a lack of free, unstructured, unsupervised collective outdoor play—and whether these stressors are contributing to a host of “new” childhood disorders. Why is it, we might ask, that rates of respiratory and food allergies, autism, ADHD, gender dysphoria, learning disorders and childhood depression and anxiety are rising much faster in the United States than elsewhere?
In general, societies only identify problems they believe they can solve—or, put more cynically, that someone can profit from, financially or in some other way. You might dismiss such a statement as cynical, and cynics, today, have few defenders. The word, from the ancient Greek term for “dog-like,” is a synonym for someone who is distrustful and suspicious, who is convinced that people are motivated primarily by ambition, greed, self-interest and vanity. A cynic is a carper, a detractor, a doubter, a faultfinder, a captious critic and a contemptuous mocker, a “man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
That’s not to say that cynicism has no defenders. In a 1997 essay, Eri Rei Izawa, a writer and MIT-trained game designer, upholds cynicism as the essential first step out of naïveté.
The journalist and philosopher Julian Baggini, who has argued that critics are “far too cynical about cynicism,” insists that cynics are right “to question people’s motives and assume that they are acting self-servingly unless proven otherwise.” It’s essential, he writes, to distinguish between thinking and acting cynically. Sure, some cynics are fatalistic pessimists, but others are realists who see through hypocrisy, pretense and duplicity “with lucidity and clarity.” As he points out, “Only by confronting head-on the reality that all progress is going to be obstructed by vested interests and corrupted by human venality can we create realistic programmes that actually have a chance of success.”
A cynic would rightly note, for example, that
Our current system of education intensifies disparities in literacy, math, science and technology. It relegates far too many Black and Latino/a students to the least resourced institutions with the poorest graduation rates. Regardless of your politics, these facts shouldn’t be acceptable.
This society has, in my view, failed to come to grips with a host of issues that call into question popular assumptions about progress, including the view that history’s arc bends toward justice. There is a lot of evidence that many children are suffering emotional distress, and that this distress is partly manifest in various physical symptoms and in intensifying psychological, learning and behavioral disorders.
In many respects, as scholars like Easterbrook and Pinker argue, life is getting better. But I worry that in certain ways that matter most, modern life is contributing to anomie, alienation and anxiety. Is K-12 school joyful? For some kids, yes, but not for most. Are children getting enough chances to play outdoors with friends? Certainly not. Do most adults experience the stable intimate and supportive relationships that contribute to a truly happy life ? Uh-uh. Whatever one thinks of organized religion, it met needs—for community, for meaning, for support, for tradition, for ritual—that contemporary society hasn’t replaced.
Call me a cynic, if you must, but it’s certainly the case that many college students aren’t studying or learning as much as they should and, in too many cases, are graduating without the skills or cultural literacies that a college graduate should possess. As a top priority, colleges and universities need to implement at scale supervised research; learning communities with a faculty mentor and dedicated advising; active participation in campus organizations and activities; expanded access to clinicals, studio courses, internships, off-campus study and project-based learning; and opportunities to tackle real-world challenges.
A true cynic is not someone who is skeptical of other people’s motives or who doubts human goodness and sincerity or and who regards human nature and institutions as essentially self-serving. The true cynic is the dissembler, double dealer, fraud or charlatan who claims to be on the angels’ side but who in reality reinforces social inequality. As Matthew Yglesias observes, professors at top universities “want to affirm values like ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’” yet refuse to acknowledge that “the whole point of top universities is to be elitist, hierarchical and exclusionary.”
Upton Sinclair had it right: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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