Our country is barely smarter than a fifth grader -- no wonder it's drowning in religious fundamentalism and political ideologues on both sides, argues Susan Jacoby.
By Laura Miller
Feb. 15, 2008 | For an author of serious nonfiction, success can lead to some surprisingly disheartening encounters with the reading public. Susan Jacoby's 2004 history of American secularism, "Freethinkers," was among the first in the recent wave of welcome books protesting the growing influence of religion in civic life, and universities and other institutions soon began asking her to deliver lectures. Jacoby jumped at the chance, only to find that wherever she spoke, "my audiences were composed almost entirely of people who already agreed with me." Instead of participating in the great public debate that she envisions as central to American culture, she was preaching to the choir. What's more, she learned, "serious conservatives report exactly the same experience on the lecture circuit."
A couple of years later, put up in a student dormitory after giving another talk, she found her environs "eerily quiet." Gone were the "high level of noise and laughter," the "late-night and all-night" conversations she remembered from her own undergraduate years. Instead, everybody was "on line or in an iPod cocoon." To top it all off, when she was invited back to her alma mater, Michigan State University, to receive an honorary award, she struck up a conversation with an honors student in the College of Communications Arts, only to find that the young woman had never even heard of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats. Apparently, even when students felt like talking they didn't know enough about their own disciplines to be worth talking to.
Such are the little disillusionments that vex a public intellectual's soul. Furthermore, as Jacoby sees it, they are telling the same story as those shocking polls that show most Americans can't list the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment or find Iraq on a map. All of it confirms her suspicion that "the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to a functioning democracy."
Richard Hofstadter's 1963 classic, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" (a clear inspiration for this book), described anti-intellectualism as "older than our national identity" and deeply rooted in our history. Jacoby thinks the old American distrust of those who devote themselves to "ideas, reason, logic, evidence, and precise language" has been worsened by the conditions of contemporary life. There is, she writes, "a new species of semi-conscious 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." People never read books, they can't concentrate on anything significant for more than a minute or two, and as a result they don't really think anymore. Lulled by the "pacifier" of "infotainment," their civic and political decisions emerge from a confused welter of laziness, reckless emotion and prejudice.
The chief manifestations of this newly virulent irrationality are the rise of fundamentalist religion and the flourishing of junk science and other forms of what Jacoby calls "junk thought." The mentally enfeebled American public can now be easily manipulated by flimsy symbolism, whether it's George W. Bush's bumbling, accented speaking style (labeling him as a "regular guy" despite his highly privileged background) or the successful campaign by right-wing ideologues to smear liberals as snooty "elites." Unable to grasp even the basic principles of statistics or the scientific method, Americans gullibly buy into a cornucopia of bogus notions, from recovered memory syndrome to intelligent design to the anti-vaccination movement.
"The Age of American Unreason" veers unevenly between well-argued debunkings of assorted crackpot claims and litanies of gripes that come dangerously close to diatribes. A former reporter for the Washington Post and program director of the Center for Inquiry-New York City, a rationalist think tank, Jacoby can certainly formulate concise ripostes to the likes of former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, who suggested that the underrepresentation of women among the top ranks of the hard sciences must be due to innate gender traits. "What places Summers' speculative statements within the realm of junk thought," she writes, "is not the idea that there might be some differences in aptitude between men and women but his unsupported conclusion that such disparities if they exist, are more important than the very different cultural messages girls and boys receive about whether they can expect to succeed in science."
Jacoby takes care to point out that the political right and left have both indulged in anti-rationalism, and this is one of her book's strengths. Intellectuals themselves often come in for a drubbing at her hands. She reproaches those deluded American leftists who defended Soviet communism in the 1930s and '40s, long after it had become obvious that Stalin and his successors presided over a brutally oppressive regime. (She also points out that the influence of such figures on American culture at large has been vastly overstated by both their friends and their enemies.) She quotes goofy feminist theorists from the 1980s, academics who likened Isaac Newton's laws of mechanics to a "rape manual" and called Beethoven's Ninth Symphony "horrifyingly violent."
Although Jacoby scolds culture warriors like Allan Bloom, author of "The Closing of the American Mind," for both misunderstanding and misrepresenting the upheavals on American campuses during the 1960s and '70s, she also deplores many of the leftist remedies for those conflicts. Women's and African-American studies departments, she argues, only "ghettoize" the subject matter they champion, and further Balkanize and provinicalize university students. Not coincidentally, the creation of those departments generated more faculty jobs without pressuring traditional professors to reassess their curricula: "Too many white professors today could not care less whether most white students are exposed to black American writers, and some of the multicultural empire builders are equally willing to sign off on a curriculum for African-American studies majors that does not expose them to Henry James and Edith Wharton."
Jacoby, who covered education for the Post during the '60s, sees herself as a "a cultural conservationist, committed, in the strict dictionary sense, to the preservation of culture." She believes in the classics (whether of literature, music or the visual arts), and at the same time sees no reason why they can't be expanded to include great works by people (women and racial minorities) previously excluded from the canon. It's not a zero-sum game. Hers is a moderate, sensible, well-founded position, shared by many Americans, yet it somehow rarely got voiced amid the raging hyperbole of the culture wars.
Fundamentalism, however, is the real red-hot center of American irrationality, and Jacoby calls religious assaults on the theory of evolution "a microcosm of all the cultural forces responsible for the prevalence of unreason in American society today." She notes that in the summer of 2005 nearly two-thirds of Americans told pollsters that they believed creationism should be taught in schools alongside Darwinian evolution. The poll revealed what Jacoby characterizes as "an intellectual disaster as grave as the human and natural disaster unfolding in New Orleans" at the same time.
It's hard to quarrel with her on that one, and compounding the mess is the fact that most Americans don't even understand the religion they want to see defended: "A majority of adults, in what is supposedly the most religious nation in the developed world, cannot name the four Gospels or identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible." For me, this startling information immediately brought to mind Stephen Colbert's interview with Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland on "The Colbert Report." Westmoreland co-sponsored a bill that would require the display of the Ten Commandments in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but, when asked, couldn't actually list the commandments he's fighting to enshrine.
Perhaps we're better able to assess the "reality-based" consequences of putting a fundamentalist in the White House than we once appeared to be. The problem is, when push comes to shove, we don't always feel like facing reality.
The missing factor in Jacoby's formula is just that: In addition to being capable of rationality, we also have to want to be rational. Intellect, copious reading and education by themselves are no guarantee of reasonable or even sensible behavior, as the neo-conservative true believers responsible for the Iraq war have amply demonstrated. Yet this is one aspect of American religiosity that doesn't seem to interest Jacoby much. In considering the Second Great Awakening, the outburst of religious revivalism that swept through the nation in the early 19th century, she kicks around some possible causes (the "unsettled" social conditions following the Revolution, the difficulties of life on the frontiers, etc.) in a desultory fashion. Then she writes, "in any event, the reasons why fundamentalism triumphed over 'rational' religion in the American spiritual bazaar are less important than the fact that fundamentalism did succeed in capturing the hearts of large numbers of Americans."
It's hard to imagine what could be more central to Jacoby's subject than the motivations of those Americans who chose what she describes as "willed ignorance" over reason. Isn't it likely that the recent resurgence of that ignorance arises from similar needs and desires? If there were some other way to address those needs (or fears), perhaps fundamentalism would be less appealing, and perhaps reason could be made more so. However, that would require admitting that people who are capable of reason will nevertheless sometimes pick an irrational course of action or belief. Rational people do this all the time, of course -- even intellectuals.