Saturday, September 20, 2008

Book Reviw: Age of American Unreason

TitleThe Age of American Unreason
AuthorSusan Jacoby
Tagsintellectuals, anti-intellectualism, education, critical thinking

I had watched Susan Jacoby on a couple of shows promoting this book and have been anxious to read it since, though it wasn't what I was expecting - it was something better. I had expected to be a collection of stories about the decline of knowledge in the country and a plea for change, and it is. By saying that it is something even better, I mean that she gives the reader the context of the current poor state of civic understanding and discourse. Part of the book is an intellectual history of anti-intellectualism in America (neat trick, that) as well as the history of intellectualism, and even of the place the two met for a while, the middlebrow culture of the Book of the Month Club and the Great Books of the Western World series.

Not surprisingly, Jacoby sees the key points in the decline of knowledge and understanding to be the decline in reading and in conversation, mostly attributable to the culture of infotainment which began with TV.

She explains herself much better than I can, so here is a pretty extensive quote from p. 297:

"Liberals have tended to blame the Bush administration as the problem and the source of all that has gone wrong during the past eight years and to see an outraged citizenry, ready to throw the bums out, as the solution. While an angry public may be the short-term solution, an ignorant public is the long-term problem in American public life. Like many Democratic politicians, 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.

The general decline in American civic, cultural, and scientific literacy has encouraged political polarization because the field of debate is left to those who care most intensely - with an out-of-the-mainstream passion - about a specific political and cultural agenda. Every shortcoming of American governance, in foreign relations and domestic affairs, is related in some fashion to the knowledge deficit of the American public..."

I've believed critical thinking was the answer, but she points out that thinking critically requires some knowledge as well as the habits of rational thought.

She does stimulate some curiosity when she talks about that other industrialized cultures don't seem to suffer quite as badly. One assumes it is the educational system that works better, but it would be nice to know if, for example, other countries have lower statistics on amount of television watched. Dare I say it? She needs a blog to answer such questions, a suggestion she would not thank me for.

Please read it. Think about it. Discuss it with others. For these things Jacoby would thank you.
PublicationPantheon (2008), Hardcover, 384 pages
Publication date2008
ISBN0375423745 / 9780375423741

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