The Age of American Unreason
Susan Jacoby Vintage, 2008
In The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby presents an argument that can best be distilled into a statement from Thomas Jefferson, which she quotes at the outset: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Jacoby then proceeds to lay out the historical case for anti-intellectualism in the United States of America, a case that, while sometimes compelling, is incomplete.
Jacoby successfully argues that American anti-intellectualism has persevered in this country because of some particular features unique to its history. She traces this phenomenon, in part, to local control of public education. Comparing the educational systems of Western Europe and the United States, Jacoby states, "In Europe, the subject matter of science and history lessons taught to children in all publicly supported schools has always been determined by highly educated employees of central education ministries. In America, the image of an educated elite laying down national guidelines for schools was and is a bête noire..." Moreover, she argues that the American ideal of the self-made man has helped to further the idea that education need not be uniform or universal to achieve its goals.
Another strength of Jacoby's historical analysis of anti-intellectual strains in America rests in her argument that "egghead" liberal elite values were, and are, thought to conflict with "traditional American values." Jacoby lauds the "middlebrow" culture of the 1940s and 50s, yet she feels it was compromised by, for example, over-eager media and pop culture critics labeling songwriters like Bob Dylan merely poets. Decrying the decrease in the number of Americans who read for pleasure, Jacoby also takes swipes at the material those who do read are picking off the shelves. She feels it is precisely this downward spiral of empty cultural inputs enabling anti-intellectualism to thrive in America. In this section, Jacoby is most cogent and powerful in arguing that anti-intellectualism, or unreason, is a curious and inexorable quality of the American polity: Americans are ignorant, and we appear to revel in this bliss.
As objective and erudite as her analysis of the historical strains of anti-intellectualism in American life is, Jacoby falters when applying her hypothesis to the modern era. Beginning with the dueling liberal and conservative movements of the 1960s, her analysis careens toward the chasm of emotional irrationality, the same irrationality infusing the anti-intellectuals she abhors. Jacoby detests the ignorance of the Christian fundamentalists that helped foment the Reagan coalition of the 1980s, and rightly so. Yet segments of the religious community that choose to engage the world with more liberal mindsets are given scant attention. Here Jacoby's true colors shine brightly through what was until now an even-handed account. Ironically, she opposes religiosity with the same fervor religious zealots might oppose her brand of secularism. Jacoby is not wrong to attack religious fundamentalism as a key contributor to American ignorance, but she fails to give a fair hearing to those in the religious community who are able to reconcile their belief with science and secular government.
Wary of the impact of technology, Jacoby dedicates great swathes of her book to the "evils" of video games, television, the Internet, and other "infotainment" media. Though careful to point out she does not consider herself a Luddite, Jacoby's arguments against the Internet suggest otherwise. For one, she makes the absurd, undocumented argument that reading on the internet is not real reading. She writes, "There is a school of thought that applauds the Internet as the Messiah come to save print culture, but this hope of salvation rests on a fundamental confusion between the availability of text and real reading and writing." Many people may not use the Internet as an educational tool, but this is not the fault of the technology. At this point, Jacoby truly loses her bearings. Unable to decide who is to blame for the current state of American intelligence (or lack thereof), she seems neither interested in finding out, nor even making an educated guess. Is it the people? Is it public education? Is it the media? It may be all of the above, but Jacoby avoids fingering a culprit.
Jacoby's is a work of great scope, so some omissions-like her casual treatment of religious liberalism or her failure to provide evidence that reading online is somehow different from "real" reading-are to be expected. She may have also written her book a year too early; it would be interesting to read her views on the recent election of the intellectual Barack Obama to see where her American anti-intellectualism cards might fall. Americans voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, a candidate who had been smeared as one of the "elites" Jacoby believes we tend to mistrust as having un-American values. How could such an "ignorant" America come to such a remarkable solution? Americans may be ignorant of many facets of the world, but the country has shown it can appreciate a candidate whose erudition and ability to understand and convey nuance far outstrips the ability of any other politician in generations.
Jacoby comes to an extremely gloomy conclusion concerning the future of America, but with the election of Obama, that future might be a bit brighter. In the President's inaugural address much emphasis was placed on improving our lagging educational system. If these improvements are successful, we might come to another less gloomy conclusion, and meet another of Jefferson's tests: "Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."
Reason, Philosophy, Education