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The Age of American Unreason Hardcover – February 12, 2008
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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)
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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 cant 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."
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Well -- if you haven't read this fine (if deeply unsettling) book yet, there's no better time for it. Jacoby is smart, witty, and passionate about the dead-end direction so many Americans are taking today. As for the complaints about her use of anecdotal evidence, this is as much cri de coeur as it is thoroughly researched study. It's meant to make you feel as well as think, and then think some more. Civilization can be a thin & fragile veneer, all too easily lost when not enough people uphold & defend it. Start here -- most highly recommended!
Her thesis, in short, is that contemporary electronic communication, from TV and the Internet, to mass advertising, has drawn America away from nature, books, and the life of the mind. She perceives, correctly, that Steven Johnson's book of just a few years back, "Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter," threatens her thesis, and she attempts, in her first chapter, to dispatch it quickly. But rather than address the substantive claims and supports that book offers, she maligns it with little more than innuendo, contempt, and derision. But Johnson's book is, whatever else you may think of it, suffused with a good deal of empirical data, and Jacoby chooses to simply ignore it and move on.
I share Jacoby's sadness that the life of the mind is not broadly valued, but I don't share her belief that it was ever valued all that much more than it is today. The nostalgic aspect of her book is thus the weakest part of it because she is doing something inherently unreasonable, accumulating anecdotes that do not add up (at least for me) to a compelling support for her claim. It was, afterall, William F. Buckley who said, long before the Internet and TV preachers presumably made us all stupid, that he preferred that the country be trusted to the first fifty names in the Boston phone book to the faculty of Harvard. Contempt and distrust of intellectuals and the elite, like the poor, have been with us always. Jacoby, who has written a book on Greek tragedy, surely knows Aristophanes' "The Clouds," a funny and disturbing send up of the atheist intellectuals of ancient Greece.
For all my complaints, however, the book is worth having and reading, if, for no other reason, to draw fresh intellectual air from someone who loves the life of the mind. But let's not kid ourselves. The average person in 1950 probably could no more locate Iran on a world map than a person can today.
But at the end of the day, Jacoby's book is flawed. In the first place, it really seems to be two books in one. The first six chapters, a quick intellectual history of anti-intellectualism, is book #1. The final five chapters, a partial analysis-partial polemic concerning the present state of affairs, is book #2. The two don't hold all that well together in a single volume.
Second, as other reviewers have noted, either of the two books could've been better edited. Jacoby is windy, and tends at times to get on a roll that she just can't seem to cut short. Her disdain of the Baby Einstein merchandising, for example, is one of these tangents that deserves much less space than she devotes to it.
Ultimately, Jacoby's book doesn't need to be read straight-through. Discerning readers can pick and choose chapters, and then be inspired (hopefully) to pick up Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Many of Hofstadter's examples are dated, of course. But his brilliant analysis of the history, causes, and character of anti-intellectualism is still spot-on. Jacoby's book is a nice appendix to it.
Three and a half stars.