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The Age of American Unreason Paperback – February 10, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Inspired by Richard Hofstadter's trenchant 1963 cultural analysis Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Jacoby (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism) has produced an engaging, updated and meticulously thought-out continuation of her academic idol's research. Dismayed by the average U.S. citizen's political and social apathy and the overall crisis of memory and knowledge involving everything about the way we learn and think, Jacoby passionately argues that the nation's current cult of unreason has deadly and destructive consequences (the war in Iraq, for one) and traces the seeds of current anti-intellectualism (and its partner in crime, antirationalism) back to post-WWII society. Unafraid of pointing fingers, she singles out mass media and the resurgence of fundamentalist religion as the primary vectors of anti-intellectualism, while also having harsh words for pseudoscientists. Through historical research, Jacoby breaks down popular beliefs that the 1950s were a cultural wasteland and the 1960s were solely a breeding ground for liberals. Though sometimes partial to inflated prose (America's endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism), Jacoby has assembled an erudite mix of personal anecdotes, cultural history and social commentary to decry America's retreat into junk thought. (Feb. 12)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

Identifying herself as a "cultural conservationist" (but by no means a cultural conservative), Jacoby laments the decline of middlebrow American culture and presents a cogent defense of intellectualism. America, she believes, faces a "crisis of memory and knowledge," in which anti-intellectualism is not only tolerated but celebrated by those in politics and the media to whom we are all "just folks." The Internet, for all its promise, is too often "a highway to the far-flung regions of junk thought." Meanwhile, twenty-five per cent of high-school biology teachers believe that human beings and dinosaurs shared the earth, and more than a third of Americans can’t name a single First Amendment right. In such an environment, Jacoby argues, the secular left and the religious right can have no fruitful dialogue on issues like the separation of church and state. She offers little hope that the situation will improve, opining that, despite increasing levels of education, "Americans seem to know less and less."
Copyright © 2008 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (February 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400096383
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400096381
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (174 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #306,865 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

255 of 278 people found the following review helpful By Eggcrate on February 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Jacoby is at her best when she reasons close to the facts, documents her claims, and builds logical sequences from those facts. She is at her worst when she engages in speculative, broad brush generalizations that seem to be presonalized impressions.

Her book has the texture of being written from two mindsets, one more objective and untimately far more informative, and the other, more subjective and tendentious without the assurance that those impressions are carefully grounded in evidence.

Because of this dual natured, dual flavored style some reviewers have accurately sensed the weak side of Jacoby's thought processes and taken umbrage. Which isn't entirely unfair, only incomplete and one sided criticism.

Where Jacoby shines, and when she shines she shines brightly, is the spot on deconstruction of the "belief path" that America has taken over the last three decades from the Reagan Revolution, some would say the seeds were planted in the Nixon administration (this with Nixon's calculation that the religion card could be played for maximum political advantage) until the NeoConservative debacle of the present.

Jacoby makes a strong case that Americans are not inherently stupid, anti-rational, or ahistorical clamoring rubes (although a superficial reading of her book could leave one with that emotive sense of her thrust), rather that the American media, American educational structure, and the introduction of disruptive technologies have colluded to produce an atmosphere so sterile and lacking of nutrition that Americans are growing up as stunted, incomplete, intellectually damaged citizens dangerously unprepared for the global tasks we will soon face.

This is a most terrible actuality to see as it truly is.
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164 of 185 people found the following review helpful By A.W.G. on February 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Susan Jacoby's beautifully written and convincingly argued book should be sine qua non reading for ALL parents, as well anyone who has anything to do with education. She clears away any doubts one might entertain about the benefits of even the most "educational" videos for young children, backing up her points with evidence from reliable sources. According to a recent study carried out by the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Hospital, overexposure to videos like "Brainy Baby" may actually be impeding language development in babies.
The book's acute analysis of political "communication" and media punditry should also be required reading for anyone who aspires to make an informed and wise choice in the crucial political battle currently being fought for the future of our nation. Her observations are all the more interesting in light of the current attack on "eloquence" in political speech--with its specious implication that one cannot be eloquent and effective simultaneously.
There are purely intellectual pleasures as well to be had from Jacoby's wonderfully ambitious reach into American history. I particularly enjoyed her investigation of the idea that, from the very beginning, our democratic culture rested on a contradiction: [Jacoby, 37] "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."
I particularly recommend the downloadable vodcast of Jacoby's interview with Bill Moyers [Feb. 15th] [...] . Given the very substantial interest the book has already sparked, there may be some hope for us yet.
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270 of 314 people found the following review helpful By Robert F. DeVellis on July 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a book I should have liked. I picked it up enthusiastically when I read the jacket flaps, as it seemed to make an argument that I often find myself making -- more and more people decide matters on the basis of their preconceived biases with little regard for the facts. People don't like being troubled by facts when guesses, hunches, gossip, and drivel are so much easier and more amusing to digest.

As a college professor, I guess I qualify as an intellectual, although that word seems to have multiple surplus meanings, only some of which I consider an accurate reflection of who I am. But without question, I'm an advocate of evidence as a basis of reaching conclusions. I teach research methods to doctoral level students and write papers for scientific journals. I serve on editorial boards and have been a peer reviewer for public and private (nonprofit) research agencies. I take matters of evidence seriously.

So, why did I end up being disappointed in a book that seemingly advocates for the values I hold in such high esteem? Before answering that directly, let me say that there were parts of this book I did find informative and engaging. For example the discussion of how reason guided many of America's founders' view of the world, was handled skillfully (although I might not catch minor glitches because this isn't an area in which I have anything beyond a general level of knowledge). What disappointed me, however, was an apparent disregard for the role of evidence as the basis for other conclusions the author seems more than willing to treat as factual.

This may be best illustrated by a quote from p.
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