I found The Age of American Unreason published in the New York Times Review of Books. I am really excited about this work and more than curious to see why historians are calling it the completion of intellectual thought unfinished by the late Richard Hofstadter. His The American Political Tradition is one of his most classic works; it is required reading in my AP United States History course. In this historical intellectual work, Hofstadter brings a more revisionist and realist account of America’s historical figures. Hofstadter, much like the Marxist historian Howard Zinn, taught and wrote history from the perspective of non elites: blacks, women, immigrants, workers, and the poor, who all had a voice in shaping the hitherto. Moreover, Hofstadter looked to end the romantic notions often used to describe the traditional white male hero of American culture (or WASP). Here is an example from his chapter on the founding fathers:
Democratic ideas are most likely to take root among discontented and oppressed classes, rising middle classes, or perhaps some sections of an old, alienated, and partially disinherited aristocracy, but they do not appeal to a privileged class that is still amplifying its privileges. With a half dozen exceptions at most, the men who had considerable position and wealth, and as a group they had advanced well beyond their fathers.
One of the things Hofstadter writes about in his many works is that of economic elitism. He described the framers as men who created an oligarchy via the Constitution only as an instrument to protect their wealth and status; he questions the democratic nature of the founders and the Constitution.~EC
There are few subjects more timely than the one tackled by Susan Jacoby in her new book, “The Age of American Unreason,” in which she asserts that “America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism.”
For more than a decade there have been growing symptoms of this affliction, from fundamentalist assaults on the teaching of evolution to the Bush administration’s willful disavowal of expert opinion on global warming and strategies for prosecuting the war in Iraq. Conservatives have turned the term “intellectual,” like the term ” liberal,” into a dirty word in politics (even though neo-conservative intellectuals played a formative role in making the case for war against Iraq); policy positions tend to get less attention than personality and tactics in the current presidential campaign; and the democratizing influence of the Internet is working to banish expertise altogether, making everyone an authority on everything. Traditional policy channels involving careful analysis and debate have been circumvented by the Bush White House in favor of bold, gut-level calls, and reasoned public discussions have increasingly given way to noisy partisan warfare among politicians, commentators and bloggers alike.
Meanwhile, studies show that American students are falling behind students from other developed countries in science and math, and that ignorance of basic civics class fundamentals, not to mention basic liberal arts concepts, is widespread. Ms. Jacoby notes that two-thirds of Americans cannot name the three branches of government or come up with the name of a single Supreme Court justice. She cites one survey finding that American 15-year-olds rank 24th out of those from 29 countries in mathematical literacy, and another indicating that only 57 percent of adult Americans had read a nonfiction book in a year.
In “American Unreason” Ms. Jacoby, the author of earlier books like “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,” proposes to anatomize this dismaying phenomenon, while situating it in historical context. Her book is smart, well researched and frequently cogent – particularly in looking at the causes of American anti-intellectualism, past and present – but just as often the material is overly familiar, blandly reprising arguments made by Richard Hofstadter in “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” by Neil Postman in “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” and other, more recent studies, while failing to pull these observations together into a coherent, new argument.
Al Gore‘s 2007 book, “The Assault on Reason,” did a better job than this volume in providing an up-to-date inventory of political and cultural developments reflecting the decline of reason in our national discourse, while Andrew Keen’s recent book, “The Cult of the Amateur,” provided a more detailed and original assessment of the downside of the Web’s “wisdom of the crowd.” In addition, Ms. Jacoby, like Mr. Keen, can sound moralistic at times, assuming the very tone that anti-intellectuals point to when putting down intellectual elitists.
As Ms. Jacoby sees it, there are several key reasons for “the resurgent American anti-intellectualism of the past 20 years.” To begin with, television, video games and the Internet have created a “culture of distraction” that has shortened attention spans and left people with “less time and desire” for “two human activities critical to a fruitful and demanding intellectual life: reading and conversation.”
The eclipse of print culture by video culture began in the 1960s, Ms. Jacoby argues, adding that the ascendance of youth culture in that decade also promoted an attitude denigrating the importance of tradition, history and knowledge.
By the ’80s, she goes on, self-education was giving way to self-improvement, core curriculums were giving way to classes intended to boost self-esteem, and old-fashioned striving after achievement was giving way to a rabid pursuit of celebrity and fame. The old middlebrow culture, which prized information and aspiration – and which manifested itself, during the post-World War II years, in a growing number of museums and symphony orchestras, and a Book-of-the-Month club avidity for reading – was replaced by a mass culture that revolved around television and blockbuster movies and rock music.
It was also in the ’60s, Ms. Jacoby writes, that a resurgent fundamentalism “received a jolt of adrenaline from both the civil rights laws” in the early years of that decade and the later “cultural rebellions.” She succinctly records the long history of fundamentalism in America, arguing that poorly educated settlers on the frontier were drawn to religious creeds that provided emotional comfort without intellectual demands, just as “the American experiment in complete religious liberty led large numbers of Americans to embrace anti-rational, anti-intellectual forms of faith.”
She is less successful, however, in explaining why, in the 21st century, Americans remain so much more religious than the rest of the developed world, and why matters like abortion, homosexual marriage, stem cell research and the teaching of evolution – which are not particularly divisive in an increasingly secular Europe – have become wedge issues in the United States.
The other thing that sets America apart from Europe, Ms. Jacoby argues, is this country’s insistence on local control of schools, which means that “children in the poorest areas of the country would have the worst school facilities and teachers with the worst training” and that “the content of education in the most backward areas of the country would be determined by backward people.”
“In Europe,” she writes, “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 for those who consider local control of education a right almost as sacred as any of the rights enumerated in the Constitution.”
The ignorance resulting from the absence of national education standards, combined with the resurgent anti-intellectualism now abroad in the land, Ms. Jacoby concludes in this useful if less than electrifying volume, is dangerous for any country, but especially dangerous for a democracy. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”