A Great Book I am Reading (A NYT Review)

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.”


15 thoughts on “A Great Book I am Reading (A NYT Review)

  1. All the books you’ve cited have one problem – they fail utterly and are proven false when one applies reality to them.

    I certainly don’t want the anti-American Left dictating the curriculum for our schools, and I’d wager that you would equally be against the Conservative Right being in charge of such things. Better to have uneven forms and levels of education than to use the schools as a means of ideological indoctrination for our children.

  2. What? If you are a Liberal you are anti-American? Right.

    Anyway, looks like a great book, I will have to check it out. I also have yet to read Al Gore’s “Assault On Reason,” but I have heard good things about it.

  3. No, Dillon, not necessarily. The Liberals do harbor many among them though that are anti-American – Ayers and his ilk come to mind – though and the tend to push curriculum that disparage America and push for ideas that lead to Socialism and the control of the US by foreign entities such as the UN.

    I don’t want such things in the schools anymore than you want Creationism, Bible readings, the Pledge of Allegiance, and other topics.

    In our current system either one of us can move away from a school district that teaches a curriculum we are dead-set against. With federally mandated curriculums, neither one of us would have that option.

    Here’s the easy question: would you like the idea of federal curriculum if a Jeb Bush-Sarah Palin ticket won in ’12 or ’16?

  4. Jonolan:

    Part of education is shaping one’s ideology. Schools should offer and present multiple POVs so that its members are informed enough to draw a conclusion. This work and many that I address simply discuss matters of social conditions often drawn from the reality of the world we live in. I make every effort not to indoctrinate my students. This is why I do not hide my views. They must be able to see what is fully worth merit and what should be challenged.

    I think this work does just that.

  5. Jonolan,

    I am hoping that the Republican party will use these next four to eight years to regroup and bring some new candidates to the table. That means no more Bush’s or Palins. Americans are getting sick of old white guys…

    But, in answer to your question – it depends. I do not have a problem with creationism being taught in public schools – as long as it is taught along with other theories. But, if Bush and Palin (god forbid) decided to mandate that ONLY creationism be taught in public schools, I would definitely have a problem with that.

  6. Greetings fellow Harding grad and thanks for the review. I’ve read a number of them on this book and I agree quite a bit. However I do have a pet peeve with it and that is the youth bashing. I experienced that as a youth in the sixties and am sensitive to it. Sure they, today’s youth, don’t have some of the knowledge we would like for them to have. But, I believe they have other endearing characteristics/talents. We are in a new era that is in the process of moving from a print based culture to the Internet/Multimedia mode of intercommunication and consequently the way we process information is different and the way we view the world is different. It is no accident that the Reformation, Enlightenment, and the development of Science all occurred after the introduction of the printing press, ie when communication changed from dominantly oral to print based. This technology produced new ways of perceiving the world and processing information and changed the world from the medieval to the modern. By analogy, we are moving or have moved out of the predominantly print mode of communication and we cannot stop what is about to happen and is even yet happening. Knowledge in this new postmodern era is associative and relational. I agree with Jacoby on a number of things and deplore the manifest irrationality of the fundamentalists. Christian postmodernists are helping me to see that Rationalists as well as Fundamentalists are two sides of the same coin and are both stuck somewhat in the Modernist past. I think it is exciting to be alive now to watch/experience this unfolding.

  7. Dillon,

    And yet the current Liberal doctrine requires creationism be kept strictly out of the schools…The ideology being taught alongside core subjects is often not one that favors the US; students seem often to be taught to look down on their own culture in favor of un-American – as in not American, as opposed to anti-American – cultures.

    While I accept that this is normal, I prefer to have the option to avoid it. A federally mandated curriculum would make that either difficult or impossible. And then there’s the fact that winds of politics change, and wildly – even by my standards – nationalistic and neo-theocratic people may end up in office and have the ability to shift that curriculum.

  8. “A federally mandated curriculum would make that either difficult or impossible. And then there’s the fact that winds of politics change, and wildly – even by my standards – nationalistic and neo-theocratic people may end up in office and have the ability to shift that curriculum.”

    Boy do I ever agree. I do not think this really can be done in a system of mass educational democratization. The French do this but I do not know to what extent. The issue of class and ideology plays too great of a role.

  9. Steve Allison – well said.

    Carson – how do you propose that we make sure that all Americans are equally prepared for college and the rest of their lives? Wouldn’t a federally mandated curriculum lead (somewhat) to educational equality?

  10. Jonolan,

    It is not a “liberal” doctrine that keeps creationism out the schools. It’s the Scientific method which keeps creationism out of the schools. Creationism isn’t science. Period. It’s a non-scientific theory, much like the theory of Big Foot.


    Good post, I’ll have to check out the book, once I get through the stack on my desk!

    I want to pick up on an idea you brought up about blogging: “the democratizing influence of the Internet is working to banish expertise altogether, making everyone an authority on everything.”

    I agree that this is a major problem. There is some need for a type of “elitism” in blogging that is based not on technorati rankings, but on “outside of the internet” knowledge. Of course, these elite bloggers exist. You are one of them.

    You could be called an “elite” blogger because you hold degrees in the areas you blog about and you teach the subjects you blog about outside the world of the internet. This is a valuable service.

    One of the things I like most about bloggers like yourself is that they are indeed experts in their field. And while blogs often contain many posts by the authors that are far from their area of expertise (Lord knows mine does!), they provide an open platform upon which the author can discuss at length, and from multiple angles, those ideas that are within the range of their areas of study. I think blogs like this offer people a look inside the mind of an academic and can excite young people into pursuing a career in an academically oriented field, or a field requiring a lot of schooling.

    However, I think there is a real struggle to be had with young minds to help them to distinguish between important and superfluous information. Information overload is ubiquitous. What’s what and who’s who isn’t always easy to figure out.

    Anti-elitism has its place, and is important in some contexts. But, not in EVERY context. A degree does not automatically make you an expert, but it IS a good signaling devise to advertise ones experience in dealing with a subject. Having a popular blog is another signaling devise. But, I’d argue a less reliable one if your concern is whether the author actually knows what they are talking about or not.

    … I think I just hit the “rambling” stage. 🙂

  11. saij,

    You’re utterly and completely incorrect. It is purely Liberal, religion-hating doctrine that keeps Creationism out of the school systems. One could argue that the “Scientific Method” keeps it out of science classes, but one cannot make the same claim for the larger picture of the school curriculums.

    They do not allow the schools to present any theist materials, though they do allow and encourage them to present purely secular viewpoints on philosophy.

  12. jonolan,

    Let me get this straight – you believe that, in order to be a liberal, you have to hate both religion and America. I don’t hate either of those – maybe I’m actually a Republican.

  13. Nice strawman, Dillon. 😉

    No, you don’t have to hate both or either religion and/or America to be a liberal. It is true though that those who do hate religion and/or America label themselves as Liberals; I normally describe them as Leftists though in order to differentiate them from the larger Liberal groupings.

    I worry about the negative effects of those Leftists on our children, and I cited the far Right’s more extreme views as a counterpoint since Iworry about their effects as well and either group could be in effective power at the federal level at any moment.

    It is my belief that a reduction in federal power along with the concomitant decentralization of authority is the best way to mitigate the effects of the excesses of either end of the political spectrum.

  14. Steve:

    Great comment. You stated that you are a product of the 60s. Does this mean you associate yourself with the political ad cultural activities of this age? Also, do you view this period as the most important period in our history? I do for many of the reasons you pointed out. But, I also see it as the period in which the pendulum finally shifted toward social justice. People could express them selves in a way that promoted a shift from the conservative bodies that held progress behind for so long. I love the 60s.

  15. Pingback: Book: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life « The Professor

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