The Age of American Unreason

The decline of American civilization has been a favorite subject for writers throughout the last half century. Their screeds usually follow one of two models: the conservative (of which Allan Bloom?s The Closing of the American Mind is the most notable example), which blames the mindlessness of modern culture on the ’60s, political correctness, and the hijacking of the universities by radical feminists and multiculturalists; and the liberal (with Richard Hofstadter?s 1963 Anti-Intellectualism in American Life as prototype), which tends to point a finger at religious fundamentalism, ignorance, racism, and anti-Darwinist school boards. The two sides have always been united, however, in their distrust of television and the electronic media and their belief that these technologies are rendering us ever dumb and dumber. In the words of journalist and social historian Susan Jacoby, “The media, while they may not actually be the message, inevitably reshape content to fit a form that subordinates both the spoken and the written word to visual images”; she expresses a heartfelt disgust for our current way of life, which ensures that we all spend our time “sucking at the video tit from cradle to grave.”

The premise of Jacoby?s new book, The Age of American Unreason, is summed up in this sentence: “During the past four decades, America?s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously intensified 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.” There is nothing particularly original in this; indeed, Jacoby is only adding her voice to a voluble chorus that includes Richard Dawkins, Neil Postman, Sam Harris, Todd Gitlin, and Al Gore (whose recent book The Assault on Reason has much in common with Jacoby?s study). But Jacoby, who proved herself a competent cultural historian with Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, has placed her material in a historical context: why, she asks, is America so peculiarly vulnerable to anti-rationalist rhetoric? Why has America and America alone, among developed nations of the Western world, made a backward swing toward fundamentalist theology and the rejection of scientific consensus? Why do we seem so very open to junk science and pseudoscience?

Part of the problem is obvious: we are scientifically ignorant, mostly because our public schools have failed us. But why have they failed us, and why have we allowed them to do so? Jacoby?s explanation is both cogent and persuasive: progress has been arrested because of the triumph of local school control over the ideal of national standards, thanks to “the vastness of the continent, the Constitution?s deference to states? rights, and the jealous maintenance of local prerogatives within states.” “Most politicians in the founding generation,” Jacoby reminds us, “were opposed to all general taxation for education, including at the state and local levels.”

That battle was eventually won, but taxation for schools was to remain local rather than national. “In Europe, the subject matter of science and history lessons taught to children in all publicly supported schools has always been determined by highly educated employees of central education ministries. In America, the image of an educated elite laying down national guidelines for schools was and is a b?te noire?.” And the situation has been exacerbated by long-standing American prejudices and clich?s: our blind idealization of the autodidact and the self-made man; the “popular equation of intellectualism with a liberalism supposedly at odds with traditional American values”; “a chronic suspicion of experts that dovetails with the folk belief in the superior wisdom of ordinary people”; and the idiotic mantra “Those who can, do; those who can?t, teach.”

Jacoby?s analysis of the historical roots of American anti-rationalism is intelligent and well argued. When she turns to the present, however, her broad generalizations about culture and education are distinctly less plausible. Few, I think, would disagree with her claim that video has debased political discourse, since “the only kind of politics that does not lend itself to video images is any political appeal to thoughtfulness, reason, and logic” — and that it has equally coarsened religious discourse, as religion comes across most powerfully on video when it “makes no attempt to appeal to anything but emotion, and leaves no room for doubt.” But with Jacoby?s passionate critique of the Internet and the blogging culture she herself eschews rational argument and falls back on her emotional responses. With no scientific data to support her opinion, she claims that reading words on the Internet is not “reading” in the true sense — that it does not activate the deep mental processes that are required to read, for example, a daily newspaper.

Periods of intense cultural change are always disturbing, and there is no doubt that we are now in the midst of an upheaval at least as intense as those that occurred in the early modern period, with the invention of the printing press, and during the 18th century, with the rise of the daily newspaper. But whether online or off, people are still reading, and the jury is still out on whether the Internet will cause people to read and write more or less, and on whether reading a newspaper is intrinsically “better,” more mentally engaging, than reading a news blog. The fact that newspapers were the primary mode of news dissemination for the last two centuries does not mean that they are necessarily the best mode, or that they are irreplaceable.

Jacoby?s contention that the advent of television and the eclipse of print culture by the culture of video corrupted and eventually destroyed the aspirational middlebrow culture of the last century is equally debatable. She mourns the decline of the Book-of-the-Month Club, for instance, without mentioning the remarkable recent florescence of book clubs in general and Oprah?s in particular. She looks back with nostalgia to the period when every middle-class household had copies of Will Durant?s histories on their bookshelf — but how many owners of those books actually read them? Remembering my own youth, it seems to me that these volumes usually served more as props or showpieces than as well-thumbed reference books. And Jacoby fails to address the fact that book sales are high today, more books are being published than ever before, and the rise of Internet shopping has made book buying easier and cheaper than one would have thought possible only a decade ago.

Jacoby, then, is capable of comprehending the big picture when she looks at the American past — her discussions of 18th- and 19th-century issues are especially enlightening — but she has not succeeded in doing so in her analysis of the current cultural scene, and her frequently valuable observations are too often adulterated by the standard “what?s the world coming to” rant of the older generation.