book review

The Age of American Unreason

Susan Jacoby
Pantheon Books, 2008, 356 pages

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February 23, 2008; updated Mar 22, 2008


The Age of American Unreason

Susan Jacoby

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T here is no question that the educational system in America today is a disaster. Cashiers who can't make change, widespread ignorance of science and technology, and students who can't find North America on a map all point to a failure of our schools to teach basic skills. Freelance writer Susan Jacoby believes that America is suffering a crisis of anti-intellectualism. But her book, The Age of American Unreason, sheds only darkness on the problem.

At first (that is, up to page xii in the introduction), Jacoby appears well-intentioned, giving the reader some hope that finally a genuine lover of knowledge has arisen from among the mass of self-obsessed mandarins that comprise the political class in this country. But instead of a thoughtful analysis, Jacoby gives us a rant. She comes across as a stereotypical angry left-winger whose TV gets covered with spittle every time President Bush gives a speech.

You might think that finding evidence for anti-intellectualism in America would be like shooting ducks in a barrel. But how is Bush using the word "folks" an example of anti-intellectualism? Is it really relevant whether the word "troop" is singular or plural? These facts are trivialities, and prove nothing except that Jacoby has the bad judgment to think they prove her case.

Jacoby reminisces at length about her childhood in small-town Michigan, and then comes up with a thesis that might be found in any issue of The Nation:

  1. Religious fundamentalists are evidence of anti-intellectualism, because they haven't accepted secular beliefs and don't believe in evolution.
  2. The anti-Communist movement (which she equates to the "Red Scare" and "McCarthyism") was a form of anti-intellectualism (presumably because she thinks Communism wasn't really a serious threat in America).
  3. The election of President Bush (who is admittedly not a gifted speaker) over the two geniuses he ran against, and the public's acceptance of his verbal foibles, indicate widespread anti-intellectualism.
  4. Some surveys have purportedly shown that some Americans are lacking in basic knowledge.

Unfortunately, only the last item even comes close to being evidence of intellectual laziness. The third item is an old-fashioned non-sequitur, and the first two items only prove that Jacoby has been listening to National Public Radio too much, and it has done something awful to her brain.

The real problem, it seems, is not that Americans are being short-changed by the schools, but that they are not being indoctrinated well enough, and therefore vast populations of unwashed Bible-thumpers and evil right-wingers can be found throughout the country who do not share the beliefs of the self-styled lower Manhattan intelligentsia. Jacoby's inability come to terms with American political diversity makes this book of little value to anyone with any interest in understanding whether anti-intellectualism is a problem, and if so, what we should do about it.

In fact, most of the anti-intellectualism that exists in this country today comes not from the general populace, but from radical activists, who regard learning as elitist, and reason and logic as Eurocentric or male-oriented. To such ideologues, clear thinking is the true enemy, because it empowers people to question the ideology of conflict based on class, race, and gender.

One would think that someone writing a book on anti-intellectualism would take an intellectual, rather than a polemic, approach. One would also have thought that someone criticizing others for being uneducated would be careful to get their facts straight. But this book is full of false statements and misinterpretations---to name but two examples, the Harriet Miers nomination (p. 197) and the "boy brain, girl brain" question (p. 214 and 232). Jacoby thinks the dissatisfaction among conservatives over the Miers nomination was because Miers was insufficiently opposed to Roe v Wade (it wasn't). Her attempt to dismiss the evidence that the brains of men and women have fundamental differences as "junk science" promoted by "right-wing anti-rationalists" is similarly ill-informed.

There are dozens of similar "Oh, brother!" moments in this disappointing book. Her comments about President Bush can only be described as hateful. As for her attempts to dismiss the threat of Communism by focusing on McCarthy and the "Red Scare", here's a quick history lesson: The Soviet Union was successfully exporting revolution, and Communist regimes committed real genocides on a scale that eclipsed even the Nazis. Yet for Jacoby, the "Red scare" was just a trick perpetrated by those evil Christian fundamentalists, like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. They are everywhere!

Communists like the Khmer Rouge murdered hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, yet ironically this book attributes anti-intellectualism only to those who fought against it. Speaking of Communism, no book on anti-intellectualism would be complete without mentioning the rabid anti-intellectualism and the egalitarianism gone mad of the Khmer Rouge, who slaughtered anyone who had more of anything than anyone else---whether it was wealth, intellect, beauty, or education. The Khmer Rouge represented the ultimate expression of Communism, which makes it doubly ironic that Jacoby attributes anti-intellectualism only to those who fought against it, while ignoring the fact that Communism's goal was to turn mankind into mindless sheep.

If anything in this country could show anti-intellectualism, it should be the widespread belief in creationism in America. Creationists seem to show a profound lack of understanding of science. But even here, what is most striking is her seeming lack of curiosity about what creationists really believe, and how many of them there really are. It might have been nice to go out into that vast uncharted wilderness beyond 110th Street and observe some in their natural habitat first. (There are rumors of a small flock of them in New Jersey.)

What about the surveys that purport to show that some shocking percentage of Americans can't find Canada on a map, that we are 24th out of 29 major industrialized nations in math skills, and so on? This might have proved her case, if she had bothered to actually present the data. Unfortunately, this section again only contains a few apocryphal and sensationalistic news stories from the newspapers. What was the subject population? What questions were asked? Where are the actual statistical results? What was the response rate? Jacoby shows a surprising lack of interest in these basic details, even though they are the single thread on which her thesis hangs.

In all the surveys I've ever been asked to participate in, I tossed the form in the garbage because the questions were obviously biased to extract the specific answers that the questioner wanted. It may well be that Americans are being poorly served by their schools. There is no doubt that many people know things that aren't true. This book, with its severely biased and often bizarre interpretation of American cultural history, is proof of that. (A typical evening in a Russian home during the 1960s consisted of impromptu jazz concerts and readings of great 20th-century Russian poets? Give me a break.)

She quotes one study that half of Americans "did not read a single work of fiction or poetry in the last year." Okaaaaaaay ... but how does that make one anti-intellectual? What if they were all still in the middle of Kant's A Critique of Pure Reason? It's very possible that people aren't reading because they know our fiction writers are producing mostly crap, our musicians are stuck in a rut, and our Nobel prize winners in literature are certifiable loonies (hint: Think Pinter). Since intellectuals produce much of our highbrow culture, its sorry state might itself be evidence of a certain amount of intellectual laziness among the elites.

Although she repeatedly invites comparisons with Richard Hofstadter's 1966 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, in parts the book reads more like The Greening of America, a drug-addled 60s-era rant against middle-class American culture that took a mass of meaningless little cultural tidbits and quotes taken out of context, mixed them up with a bunch of unfounded presuppositions, and baked them into a theory that the 1960s were the beginning of a wonderful new age of enlightenment. After reading Jacoby's book, I have become skeptical that anti-intellectualism is a real problem. It looks more like another political myth, like racism, which liberals find under every bed. If they don't find it, they create the evidence themselves, like the college professor who was caught spray-painting racial epithets on her own car, or the epidemic of nooses---which, we were informed, are prima facie evidence of racism---that mysteriously appeared and just as suddenly disappeared last year.

Only a latté liberal could take a slam-dunk like anti-intellectualism and fail so miserably at explaining it that the reader questions whether it exists at all. Jacoby needs to turn her TV off and talk to somebody outside of Manhattan who uses the Times only to wrap fish and doesn't give a flying frank what Anderson Cooper and Bill Moyers say.

If the American public holds intellectuals in low esteem, one reason may be that their reputation has been damaged beyond repair by America-haters among the intelligentsia like Ward Churchill, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and thousands of others who use their skills to mislead the public and, in many cases, betray the country they live in. Much of what anti-intellectualism that does exist is the intellectuals' own fault for encouraging the cynicism and conspiracy-theorizing that replaced rational dialogue on our college campuses during the 1960s.

And lest we forget, it was not evil neocons or bible-thumpers, but intellectuals like Derrida and Foucault who convinced a generation of naive men and women of ideas that "truth is always and everywhere a function of power." One culture was as good as any other culture. One set of beliefs---say, the belief that matter is made of atoms---is just as valid as any other---for instance, the belief that Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals are subhuman and should be exterminated. These ideas are not just the ravings of a lunatic fringe, but have percolated throughout the liberal arts at universities, and even to some extent into society at large. If there is no such thing as truth, and all values are the same, why should anyone pay attention to those whose job it is to evaluate them?

These same deconstructionists would say that intellectualism is just another value system---one designed to "perpetuate the existing class structure" or to "perpetuate inequality", or whatever their pet political cause of the week happens to be. Intellectuals only complain about anti-intellectualism, they would say, in order to convince society to give them more resources and more power. In the case of The Age of American Unreason, the post-modernists for once may be right.