Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Age of American Unreason

The Age of American Unreason
© 2008 Susan Jacoby
356 pages

Oddly enough, I first heard of this book about a year ago when author Susan Jacoby was invited on Point of Inquiry to talk about it. I remember being intrigued at the time, although I didn't imagine I would be able to access it anytime soon: my local libraries are not replete with books on skepticism or related issues. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to accidentally stumble upon The Age of American Unreason in my local library's web catalogue a month or so back. (I've been forgetting to check it out for a while, obviously.) The book is a general history of anti-intellectual movements as well as movements that profit from ignorance in the United States and an examination of those movements' causes -- including repeated looks at post-Nixon American culture. When I think of anti-intellectual movements, I think of Creationists versus Biologists -- but Jacoby's range is far broader than that. In the book's three hundred pages, Jacoby will look at America's treatment of intellectualism in its opening decades, criticize Social Darwinism, Communism, middlebrow culture, narratives of the 1960s, celebrity cults, fundamentalism, ideology both old and new, and contemporary American culture ("the culture of distraction"). What emerges is an explanation for why the United States has the anti-intellectual culture that it has now, drawing on the history of intellectual and anti-intellectual movements in the United States and an analysis of their consequences.

There's a lot going on this book, but I never found Jacoby's presentation of her material to be either limited, confusing, or overwhelming. She's a professional author who knows how to present her case. It reminds me a lot of Neil Postman, especially as television and the Internet enter her narrative. She is a cultural conservative in the style of Postman as she defends the intellectual potency of print culture against the kind of culture that constant television and Internet access generate. Media-driven culture is in her opinion one of the major contributors to a general culture of ignorance -- along with, of course, religious fundamentalism. I think Jacoby argues fairly well: she looks to try to emulate intellectuals from ages past in giving opposing opinions a voice in her narrative. As I read any book, I engage it and attempt to play the devil's advocate. There were some stretches here, but overall I think she builds her case well --- there ought to be enough in here to give everyone something to think about. Those who are not Americans need not be excluded: the US appears to be contagious. It's an informative and easy-to-follow read and a definite recommendation.

"Is it possible that American voters have learned something about the consequences of choosing an intellectually challenged chief executive on the basis of a beer test? [...] The most active candidates for the presidential nomination in both parties over the past year cannot be accused of being dumb. [...] Each of them pronounces the word "nuclear" correctly. It is a safe bet that all of them read newspapers and that none of them waits for a staff briefing each day in order to avoid being exposed to "opinions" from the outside world. It remains to be seen, as the campaign heats up and comes down to the final two, whether "elitism" will resurface as a political negative. One wonders whether any candidate, instead of trying to prove that he or she is just one of the folks, would dare to tell voters that what the nation needs not an ordinary but an extra ordinary president as president and that one crucial qualification for the nation's highest office is the intellectual ability to distinguish, in times of crisis and on a daily basis,. between worthwhile and worthless opinions."
- page 287. Emphasis added by me.

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  1. Great post! I find it ironic that humans have access to more information than ever, but remain uninformed. I agree, we do perpetuate entertainment output and I think it may surface over and over again due to our greedy materialistic little hearts. Have you read THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND? A decade or so ago, I found it interesting. As a teacher, I hope to invite students to solve real problems in order to impact mankind. So many young people possess such a meager amount of background knowledge. Sad.

  2. Jacoby mentions that book in her chapter "Blaming it on the Sixties". She draws more from "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life". I haven't read either, yet. I don't know if you've ever read Postman, but based on your comments I think you'd be very interested in his "Amusing Ourselves to Death".

    The dwindling level of general knowledge is something Jacoby mentions several times. What strikes me is not that people know so little, but that they aren't interested in learning more. Education is so enriching.