Ignorance: The new national threat

By Susan Jacoby
Pantheon Books, 356 pages, $26

One of the biggest threats to the American way of life might not be the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, but rather the insidious erosion of learning and rationalism in the United States, a place where “just us folks” live. American students score 24th in the world in mathematical ability, two-thirds of Americans between 18 and 24 can’t locate Iraq on a map, and one out of four public school teachers believe that dinosaurs and humans lived side by side.

This is the America that Susan Jacoby dissects in her new book, The Age of American Unreason.

As a self-professed cultural “conservationist,” journalist Susan Jacoby covered education for The Washington Post and produced in 2004 the well-received Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Now she focuses on the historical trends that derailed reason and secular thought in American culture. The Age of American Unreason is a contemporary version of Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. With this grandchild of Hofstadter’s work, Ms. Jacoby joins other modern authors grappling with the same issues, such as Chris Hedges (I Don’t Believe in Atheists, 2008) and Al Gore (The Assault on Reason, 2007).

Ms. Jacoby enshrines the Founding Fathers’ adage: An informed citizenry is crucial to the workings of democracy. She writes, “The general decline in American civic, cultural and scientific literature has encouraged political polarization because the field of debate is often left to those who care most intensely -- with an out-of-the-mainstream passion -- about a specific political and cultural agenda.”

In this 11-chapter chronological romp through American intellectual history, especially in the first few excellent chapters, Ms. Jacoby traces the origins of the fledgling American democracy and the confluence of thought and action that birthed it. She then scrutinizes the many factors influencing American anti-intellectualism. They include the religious revival known as “the Second Great Awakening” in the early 19th century; reaction to Darwinism and evolution in the form of social Darwinism and other pseudosciences; the suspicion of communism and socialism that followed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent identification of intellectuals with those movements; the “anything goes” 1960s with the rejection of experts and authority, modern religious fundamentalism, junk thought, junk science, and infotainment and the Internet.

Early in American history, men of action became more esteemed than men of thought. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay, “Man Thinking,” “identified one of the important and social tendencies already laying the groundwork for a permanent schizophrenia in the nation’s attitudes toward learning and intellect. … The health of democracy, as so many of the founders had proclaimed, depended on an educated citizenry, but many Americans also believed that too much learning might set one citizen above another and violate the very democratic ideals that education was supposed to foster.”

Science and religion coexisted fairly well throughout most of American history, according to Ms. Jacoby. But, the widespread faith in science that prevailed in the 1950s led to an eventual disillusionment among some sectors in society and the rise of today’s Christian fundamentalism.

However, it’s not just religious fundamentalism that underlies contemporary America’s anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism. Junk science affects political decisions even at high levels of government, including the Supreme Court. Justice Anthony Kennedy relied upon anecdotal information about post-abortion syndrome popularized by antiabortion advocates in his majority opinion on partial-birth abortion in 2007. According to Ms. Jacoby, “No randomized studies exist to prove the existence of ‘post-abortion syndrome’ comparable to posttraumatic stress disorder, but a major randomized study of more than 5,000 women, conducted over an eight-year period by the American Psychological Association, found no significantly higher incidence of depression or stress-related illnesses in women who have had abortions.”

Ms. Jacoby also subjects politicians to her piercing analysis. Numerous digs at the Bush administration might eventually date this book, but as Ms. Jacoby points out, liberals tend to blame all problems on the Bush administration: “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.” And Ms. Jacoby says one of the most serious failures of vision on the part of liberal intellectuals has been “a reluctance to acknowledge the political significance of public ignorance.”

Localism in America’s public education system comes under heavy fire. Ms. Jacoby reminds the reader that in countries like France, a national curriculum ensures that all students learn the same material. She bemoans the loss of core curriculums and basic courses at the university level and their replacement by classes emphasizing infotainment and the distractions of the Internet.

When Ms. Jacoby discusses the present-day intellectual scene, flaws in this complex book become more apparent, as she relies more on personal opinions and anecdotes than on the hard science and historical research propping up her earlier chapters.

Yet The Age of American Unreason is a serious contribution to any discussion of what ails the United States. In most cases, Ms. Jacoby documents passages with footnotes and draws on statistics from reputable studies and reports, as with her gripe about the “innumeracy” rampant even among experts. Her quasi-elitist tone grates at times, but also conveys sorrow that we live in a nation where ignorance is prized, where people don’t even know just how ignorant they are.

For Ms. Jacoby, the inadequate education of most Americans, combined with the blind faith of anti-science fundamentalism, fails to create the informed citizenry necessary for the optimum functioning of democracy. Unfortunately, she reaches no real conclusive solution for the problems of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism other than a return to the classics. Nevertheless, The Age of American Unreason provides fodder for thought long after the last page is read.

Cynthia D. Bertelsen is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

National Catholic Reporter May 2, 2008

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