posted March 27, 2000

Book on The American Paradox

Since 1960, Americans have been soaring materially and, until recently, sinking socially, according to the latest book by Dr. David Myers of the Hope College  psychology faculty.

          His book "The American Paradox:  Spiritual Hunger
  in an Age of Plenty" contrasts the economic and
  technological advances of the past 40 years with a decline
  in America's "civic well-being," yet sees promising signs of
  social and spiritual renewal.
          "Here lies the American paradox," writes Myers,
  who is the John Dirk Werkman Professor of Psychology.  "We
  now have, as average Americans, doubled real incomes and
  double what money buys.  We have espresso coffee, the World
  Wide Web, sport utility vehicles, suitcases on wheels, and
  caller ID.  And we have more depression, more fragile
  relationships, less communal commitment, more children of
  children, and more violent and suicidal teens.  We excel at
  making a living, but often fail at making a life."
          Myers draws his conclusions from hundreds of
  research studies examining society from various
  perspectives.  Beginning in 1960 and running to the present,
  he tracks the sexual revolution, the waning of marriage, the
  decline in children's well-being, the increase in violence,
  increased materialism and individualism, and the toxic
  effects of media violence and impulsive sexuality.
          Studies show that the strongest predictor of
  happiness is a close, nurturing, equitable, intimate
  marriage.  Yet the proportion of unmarried American adults
  has mushroomed from 25 percent in 1960 to 41 percent.
          Some 70 percent of delinquents in long-term
  correctional facilities did not consistently live with their
  fathers.  The nation was shocked when a dozen teens died of
  gunshot at Columbine High School, but a dozen American
  children now die of gunshot in every average day.
          A long-term study found that men were more likely
  to have been convicted of a serious crime by age 30 if at
  age eight they were watching a great deal of violent
  television.
          Myers recognizes that some readers may find the
  book to be "liberal," others "conservative," but he resists
  such labels.  "If it is 'liberal' to report the toxic
  consequences of materialism, economic individualism, and
  income inequality, then the liberalism is in the data I
  report," he writes.  "If it is 'conservative' to report that
  sexual fidelity, co-parenting, positive media, and faith
  help create a social ecology that nurtures healthy children
  and communities, then the conservatism resides in the
  findings."
          Myers doesn't call for a return to the nonexistent
  good-old-days--a time when in reality women and minorities
  had less freedom, life was shorter, and the rising economic
  tide had not yet lifted most families to today?s levels of
  abundance.
          What he does seek is social and spiritual renewal.
  There is room, he believes, for both individual identity and
  communal values.
          Myers sees hopeful signs.  One Gallup poll found
  that the number of Americans feeling a need to "experience
  spiritual growth" rose from 54 percent in 1994 to 82 percent
  in 1998.  Since 1994, rates of violence, teen suicide, and
  teen pregnancy have all begun to subside from record highs.
  The national dialogue, he believes, is now shifting away
  from the expansion of personal rights and toward enhancement
  of communal civility, away from efforts to raise self-esteem
  and toward attempts to rouse social responsibility, away
  from "whose values?" and toward "our values."
          "At the dawn of a new millennium we stand where
  two roads diverge," Myers writes.
          "One continues down the well-traveled track of
  radical individualism and materialism leading toward a
  deepened cultural crisis.  As 'me-thinking' continues to
  prevail over 'we thinking,' as the rich-poor gap continues
  to widen, as the media continue to promote coercive human
  relations and uncommitted sex, as marriage continues to
  disintegrate, as children's well-being continues to
  nosedive, and if violence rebounds with the next recession,
  calls for imposed order will likely increase."
          "However, there is also a less traveled road we
  are beginning to steer toward," he writes.  "As the
  slumbering public consciousness awakens, something akin to
  the earlier social reform movements the civil rights
  movement, the feminist movement, the environmental
  movement seems to be germinating."
          "A new millennium calls for a new vision," says
  Father Theodore Hesburgh, retired Notre Dame president.
  "'The American Paradox' gives us such a new vision of
  American and we would do well to read it seriously."
          Myers' research and writings have appeared in a
  dozen books and in five dozen periodicals, from "Science" to
  "Scientific American."  His textbooks for introductory and
  social psychology are studied at nearly 1,000 colleges and
  universities.  He has been a member of the Hope faculty
  since 1967.
          "The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age
  of Plenty," is published by Yale University Press.

Free excerpts are available. Essays adapted from the book are slated to appear in the April 24 issue of "Christianity Today" and as a subject for national online discussion starting April 1.