Are we dumb and getting dumber? Susan Jacoby thinks so

Conversations like these: sacrificed to headphones?
CORBIS/William Gottlieb
Conversations like these: sacrificed to headphones?

As two Ivy-trained lawyers engage in a lengthy struggle for the Democratic nomination, and thereby the opportunity to challenge the political status quo, author Susan Jacoby postulates the coming together of major cultural forces in drastic need of change — a confluence that she believes threatens the very democracy a president pledges to uphold.

In a new book, she has kick-started a timely conversation about ways of thinking (or not thinking) that tend to impede a reasoned approach to civic life and its inevitable problems. In “The Age of American Unreason,” Jacoby argues that “America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism.”

This triple-threat condition, “as opposed to the recognizable cyclical strains of the past,” she argues, “is aggressively promoted by everyone, from politicians to media executives … and it is passively accepted by a public in thrall to the serpent promising effortless enjoyment from the fruit of the tree of infotainment.”

Ignorance as a political issue
While the populace seeks enjoyment and responds to polarizing appeals to fear and self-righteousness, she writes, “It remains to be seen, as the current presidential campaign unfolds, whether Americans are willing to consider what the flight from reason has cost us as a people and whether any candidate has the will or the courage to talk about ignorance as a political issue affecting everything from scientific research to decisions about war and peace.”

The affected specifics she cites include Americans’ view of evolution as “controversial” rather than as mainstream science, a culture of distraction, a new unwillingness to hear other points of view, mass acceptance of all sorts of junk science, and so on.

The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani accepts the premise.

 “For more than a decade there have been growing symptoms of this affliction,” Kakutani  writes, “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.

“[Jacoby] 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.”

‘Semiconscious anti-rationalism’

Indeed, in much the same way that Al Gore did in last year’s “The Assault on Reason,” Jacoby presents more of an argument than an explainer or exploration; she tends to state rather than ask. After opening with a tribute to historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” she notes that Hofstadter’s conclusion was guardedly optimistic. Forty years later, she writes, “it is difficult to suppress the fear that the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to functional democracy. During the past four decades, America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic.”

To her thesis, Philadelphia Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano responds, ” … you might wonder how anyone, anywhere, could disagree. But one could. Where might the hunt for counterevidence begin?” After citing several potential places, including international elites who send their kids to U.S. universities, he writes, “The issue, in short, is complicated. And the greatest flaw of The Age of American Unreason … is that it feeds the notion of American anti-intellectualism as a no-brainer truth.”

Jacoby, he says, “instead of viewing the rich debate between American secularists and believers as proof of our intellectual vibrancy, sees a dumbed-down culture in which rationalists fail to silence believers with muzzles authorized by the Enlightenment. That perspective unfortunately indicates Jacoby’s general bent. Her specific likes and dislikes emerge not from the solid reasoning she advocates, but from a mishmash of name-calling, confusion between intellectual activity and America’s ‘genteel tradition,’ and unconvincing links between modern communication technologies and ‘unreason.’ ”

Romano argues that the book’s “overall argument underwhelms because she stacks the deck. She takes the forums of cultural life she disdains — dopey TV reality shows, formulaic drive-time radio, fragmented Internet discourse, and newspapers that pander to lowest-common-denominator tastes — as the markers of American intellectual life. She simply won’t accept that, for American intellectuals, life is elsewhere. In a nation that boasts more educated people, college graduates, books sold and general literacy than ever before, intellectually oriented people patronize institutions that pay attention to sophisticated print culture — universities, colleges, Web sites, publications, radio shows — and dump those that aim at bottom-level taste.”

Go where the intellectuals are
His conclusion? The author should go where the reasoning is. “American intellectuals don’t waste their time reading about junk, and neither should Jacoby. Ensconced at a first-class university or college, she’s likely to find that her ‘Age of American Unreason’ never happened.”

John Dicker, in a Boston Globe piece engagingly titled “How down have we dumbed?” finds Jacoby’s argument both “engaging and unrepentantly (and often unbearably) crotchety.” He notes that while we have “nuance-free foreign policy,” examples abound that we’re not falling off a cultural cliff — including that his New Yorkers keep coming and Cormac McCarthy’s ultra-serious “The Road” was an Oprah selection.

Clearly, Jacoby has started something — a conversation like those around the dinner table that she recalls from her childhood in the ’50s, conversations she laments occur too infrequently as we bustle around with buds in our ears.

As Americans prepare to choose a new leader, Dicker, though not entirely buying her argument, nevertheless gets into thinking about it — perhaps her main goal.

“Ultimately,” he writes, “Jacoby’s sins of distinction blurring can be overlooked for the saliency of her larger point, which is that the American hostility toward ideas and those who posit them is a national vulnerability.”

Susan Albright, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. She can be reached at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 04/08/2008 - 11:53 am.

    Finally! A review of Jacoby’s book that doesn’t tsk tsk and unquestionably support her “crotchety” thesis about our being dumbed down.

    Jacoby is just another in a long line of reactionary scolds who cannot stand the fact that each new generation finds different paths to knowledge, in addition to the more traditional routes.

  2. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 04/08/2008 - 06:24 pm.

    Thank you much for the collected reviews and a good place to agree somewhat with Ms. Jacoby. Let’s see how NRC ranks the University of Minnesota in their next pass. Maybe these pages have already mentioned how US News & World Report has been tallying a shift (link below). Annecdotally, Sears has changed–apparently due to computerization–a succession of four clerks could not answer the question, “Does this store accept returns?” Same as it ever was? Likely both yes and no.

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