The age of American unreason

by Susan Jacoby

Hardcover, 2008

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Pantheon Books, 2008.

Description

Traces the current of anti-intellectualism from post-WWII to the present and argues that the nation's cult of unreason is both deadly and destructive.

User reviews

LibraryThing member fpagan
Don't know much about history,
Don't know much biology,
Don't know much about a science book,
Don't know much about the French I took.

It sometimes seems that lyrics such as these from the 1958 Sam Cooke song "Wonderful World" should be part of the US national anthem. Then there is the observation
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of the late comedian George Carlin (I paraphrase): Think of how stupid the average person is; then consider that, by definition, half the population is stupider than *that*.

In a country with 2600 colleges and universities, how can there be so much ignorance about everything from geography to the structure of government to the factuality of biological evolution, from the metric system to the right way of assigning red and blue as political-party colors?

Don't know much about geography,
Don't know much trigonometry,
Don't know much about algebra,
Don't know what a slide rule is for.

Susan Jacoby does discuss ignorance per se, but the main concern of her book is US anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism, both the history and the current era thereof. The truth of "we're dumb" is regrettable enough, but the propensity to say "we're dumb and proud of it" is worse. The book approaches the issue, with scholarship, from several different angles. I will just mention a couple of these aspects.

Religiosity, of course, is a big part of the problem -- nothing is more effective than religion at making people stupid. Long sections of the book have to be devoted to the effects of religiosity. These sections are perhaps best skipped (that's what I mostly did) because of the unrelenting dismalness of the truth they lay forth and the sheer nonsensicality of religion itself.

In the chapter entitled "Public Life: Defining Dumbness Downward," Jacoby's remarks about the 43rd president strike me as being irrefutable but relatively light-hitting: "If Bush's election was not a measure of conscious anti-intellectualism on the part of voters, it was certainly a measure of the public's indifference to demonstrable mental acuity and knowledge as standards for the presidency." (p 285) Pointing out that Shrubbish often does things like referring to Spanish as "Mexican" and popping his cork when an American newsman poses a question to a foreign leader in the latter's own language, she says, "The issue is not whether Bush is as stupid as he sounds but that he ... is unashamed of -- and even seems quite proud of -- his own parochialism and intellectual limitations." (p 285)

My own view, for what it's worth: The 2000 election, in which Shrubbish did not get a plurality (let alone a majority) of the popular vote, proved that the US electoral system can be non-democratic. The 2004 election, in which Shrubbish got a popular majority, proved that the system can be not worth a damn even when it *is* democratic. Voter idiocy makes democracy worthless. The 2004 "re"-election of Shrubbish was perhaps the worst and most unforgivable thing the American people will have done to the world in my lifetime, and may be seen by future historians as the beginning of America's final descent from power and influence.

Don't know nothin' 'bout _Decline and Fall_,
Don't know nothin' 'bout nothin' at all.
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LibraryThing member bragan
In this book, Susan Jacoby presents an overview of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in American society. She has some very harsh things to say about modern American politics, and a few harsher things to say about pseudoscience, both of which I believe are fully justified. She also traces
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the political and religious roots of anti-intellectualism in the past, with a special emphasis on the sixties, and those chapters for the most part strike me as interesting, thoughtful, and fair. Unfortunately, I can't say as much for her discussions of modern media and pop culture, as she all too often wavers from what should be a reasonable examination of the mixed blessings of the Information Age into an only slightly more sophisticated version of, "Stupid rotten-brained kids today with the video games and the YouTube and the inexcusable lack of interest in classical music or listening to me talk about Russian poetry!" I have very little patience with that kind of attitude, and I'm afraid that my annoyance with it colors the entire book in an unfortunate negative light. After all, sometimes "anti-elitism" is a foolish and dangerous belief that just because other people might know more about something than you do, that doesn't make what they have to say about the subject any more valid than your own ignorant opinion. And sometimes, it's a perfectly justifiable dislike of people like Jacoby telling you that if you don't read the same books they do, it means you're stupid. Those two things desperately need to be separated, not conflated more than they already are, and Jacoby is really not helping on that score.

Despite my mixed feelings, I do think this is worth reading. But I recommend doing so with a bit of a critical eye.
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
The Age of American Unreason is about the dumbing down of the United States in many areas: belief in creationism and in biblical inerrancy, the inability of students to locate countries on a map, widespread innumeracy, civic illiteracy, and the media's promotion of junk science, to name but a few
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examples. She lays the blame on the video revolution, on the ascendancy of cultural studies in universities, and of course on the religious right.

She laments the passing of middlebrow culture, which encouraged non-academics to better themselves with good reading. As a librarian, I'm also sad to see the end of that era, and to see how uninterested the library community is in preserving it. These days, the public library culture is mostly about mass-marketing and giving 'em (the presumably stupid public) what they want, meaning what the publishers tell them to want. Read your James Patterson and like it, you dumb slob, because the library is going to buy 20 copies. Meanwhile, we're discarding our Michener books (Jacoby looks fondly on those fat middlebrow tomes) because they don't circulate enough.
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LibraryThing member Narboink
Susan Jacoby gives us a good, clear-eyed view of American intellectual history; particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century. It's not an exhaustive or definitive history, but it neatly contextualizes the current tendency of media (and political partisans) to misunderstand the pedigree
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of modern political thought. However, in many respects, it's not unlike Al Gore's "The Assault on Reason" and many other self-righteous polemics. Jacoby is at her best when she's exposing the manner by which society's manipulators and profiteers exploit dangerous cultural trends to their own advantage; she's at her worst when she becomes a misanthropic scold willfully ignoring the psychological pathologies that make average citizens vulnerable to the machinations of the market. (Additionally, the stories of her personal literary life are maddeningly self-aggrandizing.)

Finally, the book falls apart in the final chapters. Here we are assaulted with the usual parade of statistics meant to convince us of the decline of American education. In addition, she takes wild, generalized swings at the Bush administration without taking the time to contextualize or justify them. While there is undoubtedly truth in her conclusions about the Bush administration, she undercuts her credibility by not taking the time to provide comprehensive explanations of how she arrived at them (and by confusing anecdotes with evidence). Consequently, the last few chapters abandon a scholarly tone and sound more like hyperventilated screaming.

It's a decent book, but be prepared to suffer a little.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
A very weak effort by Susan Jacoby author of the excellent Freethinkers. While her mission and her quest are worthwhile, she relies on anecdotes instead of scientifically gathered information to make her case. Her selection bias is huge, eg she pits a young 21st plagiarist author against a 60's
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philosopher friend of hers. Her rant against all things modern (video games, TV, cell phones, iPods, rap, blogs, ...) and her abhorrence against changes in grammar and use both obscure the real issue and reveal an unfortunate crazy cat-lady streak. In her youth ... Jacoby is her own worst enemy in getting her message across. She practices exactly what she deplores as junk science and junk reporting.

Similar to Al Gore's The Assault on Reason and Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal in intent and approach, a severe case of nostalgia blunt the book's impact and case. The first half of the book continues the theme of the great freethinkers of the 19th century and the countervailing development of fundamentalist religion in the United States. The second half of the book treats the rise of fundamentalism and the erosion of a knowledge culture in the 20th century. But is this really true? Were earlier US generations less religious and more open to science? Was Camelot an age of reason? I don't think so, bur would love to see some data (which Jacoby does not present). In my opinion, she compares the elite of her generation to the current average - which is a mistake.

Knowledge has always offered and still offers less prestige in the US than wealth. What you own is more important than what you know. Education in the US is often not a goal in itself but a step in improving marketability (starting salary). The failure of the US education system is amply documented elsewhere. I would categorize US educational failure in three types: Ghetto, Kentucky and Agrestic. The simplest case are inner-city poverty and educational failure (Ghetto), which requires a New Deal package of economic investment, institution building and support. The backwardness of isolated and economically deprived regions (Kentucky, Afghanistan) is probably incurable and only solvable by the demographic flight of the young. As the number of people involved is quite small, it does not merit attention.

The most puzzling case is the suburban one (Agrestic), as their knowledge low-balling is not based on economic deprivation but a displacement of conspicuous consumption from education to consumer goods: A beautiful house instead of a beautiful mind. The US is one of few countries where severe lapses of knowledge (Austria/Australia, Shia/Sunni, evolution) are common and do not assign the speaker to the fool's corner. Functional specialization has made it possible to lead successful lives without interacting with the wider world (a return to a medieval pattern), which causes grave problems when politicians have to solve global problems.
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LibraryThing member nexist
An entertaining book both erudite and accessible, which today are seldom the same & in fact is the point of the author. She shows how the tendencies of both the left and the right have contributed toward an exaltation of willful ignorance in the US. Be prepared to be angry when you read this book.
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As it points out all of the things you have been tolerating, you will find your ability to "be reasonable" deteriorating. Stand up for reason.
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LibraryThing member bingereader
Although an interesting work, Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason seems to lack a coherent focus, which is only further marred by the essentially liberal slant. Although I am more liberal leaning myself, I had expected a less political work; in the end, however, Jacoby seems to rail more against
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the Right and religious fundamentalists than against a sense of unreason and irrationality per se. Although she will sometimes mention the irrational aspects of the left, this a rare occurrence.

At times, the book also tends to drag. Perhaps, I am one of Jacoby's generation of video-game playing ADHD types, but I still believe that a book should be able to hold a reader's attention. I generally enjoyed the work, but it was plodding and repetitive at times.

Finally, she tends to make sweeping generalizations at times. For example, she rails against the video game industry and the use of electronic media without really considering that these are tools that can also offer other functions. With regard to video games, myself and countless others I know have been inspired by the games we play to learn more about the settings. As an example, playing Age of Empires inspired me to read more about medieval history, while the more recent Assassin's Creed led me to pick up Reston's Warriors of God. And, with regard to the iPod, I have used it frequently to listen to books from Audible.com and from iTunes.

So, though she certainly makes valid points, there are times when her generalizations are far to broad.
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LibraryThing member mferg
This was a book I basically enjoyed. While I agree with her premise, I found at times that I wanted more citations in support of some of her assertions. Without them, her arguments were less convincing.
LibraryThing member yapete
Not bad read, but most of it not too surprising. Unfortunately, most people aren't listening, so things won't change (only get worse).
LibraryThing member reannon
I had watched Susan Jacoby on a couple of shows promoting this book and have been anxious to read it since, though it wasn't what I was expecting - it was something better. I had expected to be a collection of stories about the decline of knowledge in the country and a plea for change, and it is.
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By saying that it is something even better, I mean that she gives the reader the context of the current poor state of civic understanding and discourse. Part of the book is an intellectual history of anti-intellectualism in America (neat trick, that) as well as the history of intellectualism, and even of the place the two met for a while, the middlebrow culture of the Book of the Month Club and the Great Books of the Western World series.

Not surprisingly, Jacoby sees the key points in the decline of knowledge and understanding to be the decline in reading and in conversation, mostly attributable to the culture of infotainment which began with TV.

She explains herself much better than I can, so here is a pretty extensive quote from p. 297:

"Liberals have tended to blame the Bush administration as the problem and the source of all that has gone wrong during the past eight years and to see an outraged citizenry, ready to throw the bums out, as the solution. While an angry public may be the short-term solution, an ignorant public is the long-term problem in American public life. Like many Democratic politicians, left-of-center intellectuals have focused on the right-wing deceptions employed to sell the war in Iraq rather than on the ignorance and erosion of historical memory that make serious deceptions possible and plausible - not only about Iraq but about a vast array of domestic and international issues.

The general decline in American civic, cultural, and scientific literacy has encouraged political polarization because the field of debate is left to those who care most intensely - with an out-of-the-mainstream passion - about a specific political and cultural agenda. Every shortcoming of American governance, in foreign relations and domestic affairs, is related in some fashion to the knowledge deficit of the American public..."

I've believed critical thinking was the answer, but she points out that thinking critically requires some knowledge as well as the habits of rational thought.

She does stimulate some curiosity when she talks about that other industrialized cultures don't seem to suffer quite as badly. One assumes it is the educational system that works better, but it would be nice to know if, for example, other countries have lower statistics on amount of television watched. Dare I say it? She needs a blog to answer such questions, a suggestion she would not thank me for.

Please read it. Think about it. Discuss it with others. For these things Jacoby would thank you.
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LibraryThing member TulsaTV
I found her examination of anti-intellectualism in America informative and persuasive, but she is preaching to the choir. Her overuse of the term "middlebrow" comes off as snobbish, and her indictment of electronic media is light on fact and heavy on personal grievance. These chapters are heavy
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slogging. The explosion of e-book reading shortly after publication dents her thesis.

Another contrary data point: I am told that one of my first spoken words was "Mo", referring to then-ubiquitous TV personality Garry Moore. So you know that I watched beaucoup TV during my childhood. Today, I do a website about local TV. Yet, I have read a huge number of books in my lifetime, including this one.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
Ah, a left-wing version of Alan Bloom's 'Closing of the American Mind.' Just what we need.
There are good things about this book, specifically, the history of the early and mid-twentieth century. The opening chapters and the closing chapters, however, are mind-boggling. If one takes it upon oneself
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to defend 'reason', it is best to be rational in the task. Jacoby can't do it. I'm glad she pointed out that the worst instance of irrationality is our general inability to distinguish between causation and correlation. Just because x and y go together doesn't mean one caused the other, and it certainly doesn't mean you can decide which is the cause and which the effect. But instead of taking her own advice, Jacoby argues that stupidity is caused by 'screen media.'
Of course there can be no evidence for this causation, only a correlation. I'm not surprised that people who watch more television do worse on tests of intelligence. I am surprised that one would conclude from this that television causes low intelligence. Had Jacoby thought a little more before launching onto her Jeremiad, she might have considered the following:

* that the Emersonian individualism she preaches is itself a cause for irrationalism. It implies that each person should find their own way. The problem is that nobody can ever 'find their own way.' At best, they can get thrown onto a path, and much later learn to view it dispassionately. But if you assume that everyone can, by virtue of being a 'unit, one character,' a picker of peculiar fruit, you block off this possibility. And you assume that the path you're on was freely chosen, unlike 'the gross, the hundred or the thousand.' Unlike everyone else.

* that this individualism fits nicely with the doctrines of 'responsible journalism,' which mandate that both sides of a story be told even when there is only one side. 'Responsible journalism' has left American blissfully free of truth in reporting. Jacoby and her ilk believe that long form reporting is what we're missing. Not so. What's missing is a belief that journalism involves more than facts; it involves opinions.

* Jacoby argues against all social theory, most of the social sciences, philosophy, theology... in short, anything which isn't based on physical scientific facts. This fits in nicely with the about 'responsible journalism.' The question arises, then, what Jacoby's own work is? It's certainly social science in some guise or another, with a hefty dose of philosophy (Enlightenment humanism, more or less). So the book is self-refuting. More importantly, if all knowledge is scientific fact, then the 'rational' among us have nothing to say to those we think of as 'irrational'. Facts are neither reasonable nor unreasonable. Only their interpretations are reasonable or unreasonable. And unfortunately, Jacoby's interpretation is unreasonable: there is a correlation between screen media use and intellectual ability, not a direct causal relationship.

* Her belief that this is a causal relationship means Jacoby doesn't look a little deeper to find the reason so many people spend all their time watching TV, despite knowing that a game/a concert/a dinner with friends is more fulfilling: most of us are simply too frigging tired to make the effort. And we're too tired because our work-hours have increased, the intellectual requirements of our work have increased, and our holiday time has decreased. Had Jacoby done a bit more reading of the classics, and a bit less time reading I. F. Stone's idiotic conversations about those classics, she would know that 'negotiation' means, more or less, 'not leisure.' And that it was precisely leisure that made all the deep thinking of the classic authors possible - the free time that was more available in the 'fifties and 'sixties, and which has now disappeared.

You can't just tell people to read more if they're too tired to read. Better to spend your time fighting for reasonable labor laws. But I think we know how unlikely that is. It wouldn't sell at all.
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LibraryThing member HollyW
I was quite excited to read this book, as I've been a fan of Jacoby's writing in the past, and find the topic to be timely and important. The discussions about elitism, intellectuals, and class divisions that were prominent over the past year in the political landscape made me consider the book
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with a hopeful perspective - while Obama was widely criticized for his intellectualism, we did, as a people united, elect him into office.

Unfortunately, I found one aspect of the book to be quite disappointing. While I think that she made a number of important points, I found her arguments undermined by a broad, un-nuanced generalization of the conservative intellectual establishment. Her unwillingness to engage in a straightforward discussion of how the conservative and liberal groups actually pursue and promote intellectualism made it difficult for me to take some of her arguments seriously. An excerpt provides an example of how she engaged this topic:

"By 1980 popular identification of intellectualism with the left was such that the right-wing intellectuals who provided much of the ideology for the Reagan administration were able to advance the fiction - so important first o Reagan and....to the election of Bush the younger - that the so-called elites consist entirely of liberals opposed to old-fashioned American values of traditional religion, unquestioning patriotism, and pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps. Conservative intellectuals mastered an art that liberals never did : they somehow managed to present themselves as an aggrieved minority even while feasting, as liberals had during the Kennedy administration, at the government trough."

I find this to be an inaccurate, and a gross exaggeration. I don't believe that anyone could actually make the argument that The Heritage Foundation, or the American Enterprise Institute, are not obviously intellectually comparatives to the Brookings Institution. She consistently used aggressive language that did not, in my mind, present a fair characterization of both sides of the intellectual/political divide.

However, in her discussion of politics and intellectualism, I do think that she makes an important point. Leaving aside the intelligence of President George W. Bush, as I don't wish to engage on that topic here, I'd like to include the entire quote here:

"If Bush's election was not a measure of conscious anti-intellectualism on the part of voters, it was certainly a measure of the public's indifference to demonstrable mental acuity and knowledge as standards for the presidency. In this context, it is important to note that most members of the media rarely raise questions, even in a roundabout way, about the intellect of a major party presidential candidate - much less about a man who actually occupies the Oval Office. A president may be described as stubborn, or as impatient, or as a sexual libertine - even, on rare occasions, as a liar - but it would be unthinkable for "objective" reporters, in print or on television, to bluntly raise the question: 'Is this man smart enough to be in charge of the country?' It is a question that ought to be asked openly about every man and woman who seeks high office...This is not to say that the smartest boy or girl in the class would necessarily make the best president, but that there ought to be a higher threshold of intellect, as well as a higher standard of cultural and scientific literacy, than that currently required for political candidates." (Jacoby, p. 285-286).

Two items stand out for me: first, that the American people can be described as indifferent to the capabilities and qualities of their primary leader and representative; and secondly, that the presidency demands not only intelligence, but cultural and scientific literacy. To ground this discussion in a timely issue, let us consider the debate between evolution and creationism.

A scientifically literate President could be expected to be familiar with the underpinnings of the scientific argument (evolution) - to understand the fundamentals of the theory, how it has been developed, a general sense of the current state of related research, and the overall scientific background to be able to engage with the topic in a meaningful way.

On the other hand, a culturally literate President could be expected to have studied the history of the debate; to know about the Scopes trial, its main participants, and its outcome(s); to understand the importance of creationism to those who accept it as a primary explanation for their world; and to see how this fits into the cultural landscape of America - both for those who support teaching evolution and creationism side by side, and for the individuals who adamantly oppose such a structure.

Finally, we could expect our President to understand how any action, promotion, or legislation regarding this issue could impact our global relationships and the future of our society. Do we think it is too much to ask this type of literacy from our selected leader? Jacoby seems to argue that, compared to our parents and grandparents, we do - and instead of aspiring to the best, we aim for the "lowest common denominator".

Aside from the political discussion, I found that Jacoby provided a solid history of intellectualism in America over the past century - from the development of a "middlebrow culture" which made fine art, literature, and music accessible to a greater part of the American population; to the impact of television and the internet on our attention spans and communities. It makes me sad to learn, as she states, that 40% of Americans do not read books; parents only read to their children an average of 40 minutes a day; that Americans have such poor esteem for geography, foreign languages, and global news; etc. I was also fascinated to read all of the negative studies on the "Baby Einstein" and other such products (obviously I'm not a parent yet).

I don't think that I would recommend this highly for the general reader. Much of what she says seems fairly self-evident, and I particularly find that she does not contribute much that is new to the discussion of technological advances and how these engage the intellect. In fact, I find her negative perception of technology a weak component of her entire argument, as I believe that it indicates an incomplete understanding of the web-based world. She argues early on that in the first half of the 20th century, Americans aspired to a higher standard, wishing to imitate and bring to a more accessible level those intellectual luxuries formerly enjoyed by the rich: fine art, music, literature, etc. How is the use of the internet as a delivery mechanism different than the Book of the Month Club that first launched literature into the homes of many middle-class Americans? If I am able, via the internet, to listen to a podcast or view a video of a performance that I would otherwise not have access to, how then can we throw the baby out with the bathwater and proclaim that technology is leading to the destruction of intellectual engagement?

3/5 stars for a solid read, but not highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member nancydotcom
My brother doesn't believe the what, ( 98% of all Scientists?) who've made these studies their life work, about global warming. But he DOES believe what George Carlin, a comedian, says about it. ....... so yes, I think she has something here. The anti-intellectualism mindset in this country is
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nuts. In this area where I now live, the vast majority of the people are PROUD to be ignorant.
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LibraryThing member neurodrew
The author is a journalist, and writes very well. She contends that the American public is becoming increasingly unwilling to apply reason to public affairs, and increasingly becoming hostile to experts, scientists and data. She locates most of the fault on the rise of fundamentalist religions in
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the past 30 years, although also targets diversity programs in colleges, sixties radicalism, the rise of visual media, and the decline of reading. She does review some of the history of a strain of anti-intellectualism in American thought, supposing herself a heir to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Thought, published in 1963. It seems her main concern is the rise of fundamentalism and the problems of the Bush administration
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LibraryThing member rakerman
Preliminary review: Initial chapters a bit heavy on the media criticism - asserts that television and Internet are contributing to American unreason - my question is if that's the case, how come other nations have TV and net but still remain intellectual?
LibraryThing member slothman
When surveys show that one in five American adults think the Sun goes around the Earth and two-thirds are unaware that DNA is the medium of heredity, one has to wonder what's going on in our nation. Sudan Jacoby takes up the challenge, and shows the historical roots of American thought and
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opposition to it, starting in the early days of our nation, moving through the Red Scares and the Sixties into the present day. I found a great deal of perspective in here that my own education lacked, even growing up in Berkeley in the 1980s.
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LibraryThing member Illiniguy71
A very intelligent book about cultural and intellectual decay in contemporary America. One suspects she is correct about the decay caused by such readily available video entertainment and "infotainment". She has not given us the last word on decay of the public schools, but her comments and
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implications on that subject are worthwhile. Be sure to read all the way through to the end. I found the last chapter and conclusion especially valuable.
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LibraryThing member Randall.Hansen
A friend recommended this book, and I both enjoyed it and also got upset by it. Comforting to know that anti-intellectualism is not a new trend, but something that has been going on in this country since the beginning. I just wish there were ideas for how we combat the problem, especially as
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related to politics and picking politicians we would "like to have a beer with" over people with great minds and ideas. How many people who talk about what the Constitution says or what the Bible says really know those documents? We seem to be a soundbite nation, in which uninformed opinions are ok, especially if based on some kernel of truth. A good read, and I learned some things I definitely missed in my hears of history classes.
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LibraryThing member bkinetic
This books is a survey of anti-intellectualism in America. Jacoby traces the roots of this aspect of American culture and illustrates how it continues. It is especially frightening that ignorance, illogic and emotionalism have managed to be elevated to virtues in popular culture. Effective
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self-governance in a democracy depends on an educated population capable of making logical decisions based on dispassionate evaluations of evidence, so the anti-rational trends Jacoby describes threaten the basic foundations of a participatory democracy.
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LibraryThing member theanalogdivide
I'm trying to figure out how anyone who didn't already agree with Jacoby's central premise - that the level of discourse in this country has degenerated to anti-elitism, ad hominem attacks and name calling - would have any inclination to pick up this book whatsoever. She lays out a good argument,
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but it's presented with such a coating of smug self-righteousness, that you realize that this anti-elitism might be completely justified.
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LibraryThing member Devil_llama
This book is a very good entry into the critical thinking genre, looking specifically at America and the current anti-intellectual currents that reject logic and reason in favor of emotionally charged, fuzzy, feel good argumentation. This book should be in every library around the country.
LibraryThing member Steve_Walker
Good book. Could have been a great book. Unfortunately Jacoby, like most extreme fundamentalists, (religious or atheist- it really doesn't matter) has an ax to grind that gets in the way of her writing. Pity.
LibraryThing member thebradking
Susan Jacoby's book is at its best when she's weaving together her philosophical take on intellectualism and elitism with failings in modern education, American citizens, and public debate. Unfortunately, she sometimes falls into a sense of "days gone by," reminiscing about individual moments in
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history, e.g. Robert Kennedy announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, without convincingly connecting that moment to her thesis.

That Robert Kennedy uses a few lines of poetry in an extemporaneous speech hardly qualifies as proof of his intellectualism, any more than I using poetry from the likes of Robert Frost or Stephen Crane as a teacher proves my elitism. Still the book offers an interesting take on how relativism in education has helped usher in the age of pseudo-science, which in turn begets a dumbed-down public debate in America.

There's little chance that anyone reading the book will come away with an opinion, as Jacoby's take on religion, television, media, education, and politics are the foundation of the work. While some essays left me wanting the author to prove her point (she often argues with anecdote), each section forced me to consider where I stood on the issue of intellectualism in America.
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LibraryThing member JohnGrant1
Although I'd vaguely heard her name, I hadn't come across Jacoby's work before; now that I have, my Powells wish list has taken a walloping . . .

With a wonderfully fresh, witty prose, a lot of humour and just the right touch of fogeyishness, in The Age of American Unreason she tackles the very
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evident modern social problem of rapidly spreading irrationality among Americans -- and not just among what I nervously call the underclasses -- that has occurred partially but not entirely in consequence of a catastrophic dumbing-down of our culture. After an introductory chapter on contemporary "just us folks" culture -- try plugging "folks" into all the relevant places in the Gettysburg Address to get a measure of the paucity of modern politicians' thought processes alongside Lincoln's -- she takes up the story at the dawn of the new nation, skipping rapidly from there to the 19th/20th centuries cusp and the impact of the pseudoscience of Social Darwinism. Here she follows the line of Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944/59), that it's meaningful to describe Social Darwinism as having been a "movement" (or an approximation thereof), rather than the more common recent assessment that Social Darwinism was a later invention applied in retrospect to a rather disparate group of philosophers. Further chapters deal with the McCarthy witch hunts, the importance of the 1950s' middlebrow culture, the gains and excesses of the 1960s (her brief drubbing of Timothy Leary on pp174-5 is alone practically worth the entrance fee), etc., before she reaches the present (and recent past), where a series of chapters examines such topics as junk thought, that "New Old-Time Religion" and the collapse of attention spans in a "Culture of Distraction". Her final two chapters are entitled "Public Life: Defining Dumbness Downward" and "Cultural Conservation".

As many will perceive, this book could have been designed specifically with moi in mind; I was joyously punching the air so often it was begging me for mercy. All of my disgustingly snobby elitisms and intellectual pretensions -- such as my boring-old-fartish preference for cultural artefacts that are worth more than the 30 seconds it takes to watch a YouTube clip -- were amply catered to (lemme tell you about the lambasting of chicklit; or just see Timothy Leary, op. cit.). But don't get the idea that I was enjoying the book just as a sort of echo chamber: I learnt a very great deal from it, in particular from its chapters on the middlebrow culture of the 1950s and on Social Darwinism (I learnt more, I think, from Jacoby's breezy roundup than I did, later, from Hofstadter's book). And her hilarious skewing of various cultural icons is just an aspect of something more important, which is her constant pattern of offering accurate insights into ideas and social pillars that we all too often regard as givens but which are revealed, under Jacoby's spotlight, to be follies.

One of many conclusions I came away with was that the oft-bemoaned political polarization in this country today is likely connected in some way (it's not a one-to-one relationship) with a polarization between those who read widely and voraciously, spending considerable portions of their time in this activity, and those who don't. Another was that the sole major trouble with this book is that the very people who might gain the most from reading it probably never will.
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