The Age of American Unreason

By Susan Jacoby

Pantheon, 356 pages, $26

It is a familiar refrain: Our educational standards have declined, conservatives have long charged. The genuine "classics" of Western civilization have been replaced by fashionable multicultural fiction, and the media exhibit a consistent liberal bias. Their doppelgangers on the left advance their own critiques. Obsession with standardized testing has reduced primary and secondary education to little more than rote learning that continues to leave far too many children behind. Corporate titans have dumbed down the press and transformed TV news coverage into platforms for right-wing blowhards.

Meanwhile, regardless of political viewpoint, most can agree that study after study reveals American students to be woefully ignorant of geography, history and science compared with their overseas counterparts. Americans are reading less and less and devoting more and more time to video gaming and Internet surfing. Political polarization has turned political discourse into shouting matches, while pundits spout endless cliches in a self-serving effort to promote themselves and fill up the hours on cable-TV shows.

In "The Age of American Unreason," Susan Jacoby, a self-described cultural conservationist, adds her voice to these laments, expressing her particular fear that "the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to functioning democracy." Over the past three decades or so, she argues, the U.S. has been confronted by a growing anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism that bodes poorly for the future.

This is not simply another our-culture-has-gone-to-hell-in-a-handbasket rant expressing nostalgia for a time when politicians were nobler, magazines and newspapers more substantive and culture richer. To be sure, Jacoby indulges in a somewhat romanticized past when middle-class families immersed themselves in middlebrow culture; surrounded themselves with books, newspapers, magazines and fine-art reproductions; subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month Club and took part in Great Books discussions; and otherwise placed a "high value on scientific discoveries and progress."

But like historian Richard Hofstadter, who wrote decades earlier (and who is an inspiration for this book), Jacoby knows that anti-intellectualism has a long and deep history in America, one she briefly explores in chapters on the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Contemporary anti-rationalism's roots can be found in an "older, nonpolitical tendency in American thought -- a chronic suspicion of experts that dovetails with the folk belief in the superior wisdom of ordinary people." Since the 1890s, "a significant minority of Americans" has believed that "intellectualism and secular higher learning are implacable enemies of their faith" or are susceptible to pseudoscience, the claims of which are "impervious to evidence-based challenges."

Jacoby's primary purpose, however, is less to chart the long history of anti-intellectual currents than to explore what has gone wrong in recent years and to identify the newer, invidious forces eroding clear thought and cultural literacy.

Her trenchant diagnosis of our contemporary woes is unremittingly bleak. We are afflicted by a "virulent outbreak of anti-rationalism" whose symptoms include the "erosion of memory and knowledge." Young and old are absorbed into a "culture of distraction" that shortens our attention spans through "unlimited electronically and digitally generated distractions" that discourage curiosity, reflection and sustained thought.

Particularly troubling is what she sees as a "general decline in American civic, cultural, and scientific literacy," a loss of "curiosity about both past and present that is the essence of true learning," which "provides fertile soil for political appeals based on sheer ignorance." Public speech has been debased, basic understandings of "what constitutes good science" are in short supply, and voters and politicians alike are increasingly incapable of rendering "thoughtful judgments."

Explaining who or what is to blame for the rise of anti-rationalism and unreason lies at the core of Jacoby's analysis. Predictably, she points her finger at fundamentalist religion, past and present, as a chief source of anti-intellectualism. In their opposition to stem-cell research and the teaching of evolutionary theory and their support for intelligent design, fundamentalists promote public ignorance of science and the deleterious notion that "facts are whatever folks choose to believe." Their approach puts them at odds with "the old Enlightenment rationalism that made such a vital contribution to the founding of our nation." In so arguing, it's safe to assume Jacoby will hardly budge the fundamentalists whose influence she decries.

Jacoby expends as much energy eviscerating the media for their contributions to the degradation of "intellect, learning, and reason." Mainstream news outlets "have done more to undermine logic and reason" than have extremists, she argues, by acting on the concept that "anything 'controversial' is worth covering and that both sides of an issue" -- even when one of them is demonstrably false -- "must always be given equal space," an approach that can give "credence to nonsense."

While TV news coverage becomes skimpier, she maintains, newspapers similarly have reduced the length of their articles, depriving their declining readership of in-depth coverage. Jacoby harshly disapproves of the "slash-and-burn approach of newspaper executives toward coverage of . . . literature and classical music," and considers the elimination of stand-alone book-review sections or the reduction in the amount of space devoted to reviewing to be an abrogation of their "cultural obligation." "By downgrading book review sections," she charges, publishers are "complicit in the very phenomenon that threatens their survival: the decline of print culture."

But nothing, it seems, compares with the injurious effect of video-driven infotainment culture, of which the Internet is the most prominent vehicle. What passes for political debate or cultural exchange among bloggers leaves Jacoby decidedly unimpressed. She is apprehensive (to put it mildly) about the uncritical rush to embrace educational video gaming and the seemingly unstoppable embrace of " 'post-Gutenberg' education," which is attracting significant foundation support. (She is skeptical, for example, of the MacArthur Foundation's $50-million, five-year program not just to study but to underwrite new digital learning media, and she is downright hostile to Baby Einstein and Sesame Beginnings videos.)

Beyond the matter of quality, Jacoby's bill of complaint against infotainment culture is two-fold. First, it contributes to the "relentless abbreviation of the public's attention span," diminishing our "capacity to absorb ideas and information." Second, it increasingly monopolizes our fragmented attention. "The more time people spend before the computer screen or any screen," Jacoby insists, "the less time and desire they have for two human activities critical to a fruitful and demanding intellectual life: reading and conversation." The silence and time required for reading, concentration, contemplation and conversation is threatened by new media, she claims. Rejecting pop arguments that video culture promotes its own, distinct kinds of literacy, Jacoby finds in the decline of pleasure reading an ominous trend that threatens to further impoverish intellectual life.

Finally, Jacoby finds considerable fault with elementary and secondary schools as well as with universities. At the precollegiate level she is appalled at the low level of math and science education, the jettisoning of music and art classes, and the "decline of once common cultural knowledge among the young." Our educational system, she believes, "does a poor job of teaching not only basic skills but the logic underlying those skills."

University professors also come in for a drubbing for lacking the "backbone" to prevent the dilution of core curricula and for "pandering . . . to students who apparently want to major in infotainment," thus ensuring students' "narrowness and ignorance." Taking jabs at right-wing professors for sloppy thinking, she reserves her stronger punches for various academic leftists and cultural-studies proponents in the humanities and social sciences for the promotion of "[i]ntellectual quackery" and junk thought. In venting against warranted examples of flaky professors, though, she tends to equate the exceptions with the whole, reducing the entirety of higher education to its sometimes-embarrassing extremes.

If we presently stand at the edge of a cultural abyss, is it too late to turn back? Jacoby admits it is customary for authors of pessimistic books to "propose solutions that . . . offer some basis for hope." Her conclusions are hardly reassuring. She takes some comfort in recent voter support for stem-cell research and the improved prospects for evidence-based science. For this to matter substantively, she believes that ordinary Americans must acknowledge our "overarching crisis of memory and knowledge" and abandon "the delusion that technology can supply the fix for a condition that . . . is essentially nontechnological." "Real political leadership" would help, she concludes, as would a commitment of academics to advancing a "common civic culture" in the classroom.

Jacoby senses that this might all be wishful thinking on her part, for she has found "little evidence to indicate that Americans have either the desire or the will to lessen their dependency on the easy satisfactions held out by the video and digital world" or to tackle other problems. "It is possible," she honestly confesses, "that nothing will help." Ultimately, she falls back on the unsatisfying solution of individual responsibility. An "alternative to the culture of distraction" might be "created one family at a time," with parents assuming responsibility for promoting genuine learning and encouraging reading by limiting "screen time" for their children.

If "The Age of American Unreason" is short on solutions and long on critique, Jacoby's provocative arguments are worth considering. What she doesn't fully demonstrate is how close to the precipice we stand. Critics may plausibly question her depiction of an earlier cultural landscape as a golden age and our current one as overly bleak. After all, as The Washington Post recently noted, "you can't swing a library card without hitting somebody in a book club." According to author Rachel Jacobsohn ("The Reading Group Handbook"), the U.S. boasts more than 1 million literary discussion groups. Those avid readers, deeply engaged in literary conversations, are invisible in Jacoby's pages. Their presence would significantly complicate -- and perhaps modify -- her picture.

Jacoby's pessimism about the state of American culture, politics and education challenges those on the left and the right. The passion she brings to her engaging arguments should sound a warning bell that we would do well to heed -- or at least debate.

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Eric Arnesen, professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is writing a biography of civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph.