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The Age of American Unreason

The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby (Pantheon Books, 2008)

Reviewed by Lee Maltby

As this review makes its way to the printer, it is easy to feel that there is no escape, no refuge, nowhere to turn from the oppression of what is presenting itself as a national discussion on the future of the United States and its role in the 21 st century. As a short-term solution to this dilemma, one can turn to the Age of America Unreason by Susan Jacoby. Of course, the book will not bring the election to quick end, but it will shed some light of reason on why we find ourselves in an election where so much of what is offered as a national dialogue is, in fact, irrational, absurd, and at times, downright dangerous.

The book begins with an irresistible tease—a president, #43, who prefers “the folks,” in contrast to presidents who called upon the citizens, the workers, and the farmers, to rise and meet the challenges that were upon them. Jacoby traces the loss of “dignified public speech” to the dumbing down, the “degradation” of the political process that we are experiencing today. Unfortunately, this dumbing down of American life has deep roots in the history of our nation; and the consequences of that history are now wreaking havoc in the United States and in our relations around the world.

The book possesses great value for educators and academics, students and parents, taxpayers and politicians. First, it soundly condemns much of what passes for education today—at all levels. Jacoby cites a survey of biology teachers who believe that humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth simultaneously. She reports on how the teaching of evolution is suppressed through various tactics, including intimidation, religious intolerance, and financial pressures. She is dumbfounded at how poor the American public understands the science that supports the evidence of climate change. It is SCIENCE, she states, but too few people understand what that means. Which, she says, means not only that many teachers are doing a bad job, but the people who train them are failing, and our society is at fault for not having greater expectations of our system of education. She ridicules professors who cannot write an intelligible sentence, and universities and programs that support areas of instruction and research that are meaningless and a poor excuse for education. She writes “The job of higher education is not to instruct students in popular culture but to expose them to something better.”

Jacoby’s wrath is particularly severe in its treatment of conservative religious thought and its influence in education and politics. She does not condemn religion per se, but she recognizes its role in undermining education, especially in the southern United States. Here, Jacoby draws from her earlier text Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, where she describes the triumphalist Christian movements that seek to undermine rational thinking.

Yet, despite her distaste for fundamentalist thinking, Jacoby is no less sparing in her discussions on pop culture, mass media and infotainment, and the abuse of technology as both distraction and a masquerade for knowledge. As further evidence of the deterioration of American society, Jacoby cites studies on declining literacy and the deterioration of the daily newspaper. Here, she errs in one small way. She writes that reviews of classical music are disappearing from papers like the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune does carry reviews of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (as well as many other important venues). But, in accord with Jacoby’s main point, the Tribune recently moved its book reviews from the Sunday paper to the Saturday edition, which must save the Tribune corporation significant money on newsprint. Besides, there aren’t that many people who read the book reviews, right?

One of the most interesting aspects of the book, and what is not explicitly addressed by Jacoby, (nor is it a theme of the book) is the passion that underlies her thinking. She is a person who cares deeply about the values of culture and learning. She is appalled at the downward spiral that is evident in many areas of modern life today and she fears the impact that that spiral is having upon American society. A reader can only wonder, what is the source of this passion? Could Jacoby explain this rationally? It reminds one of the old cliché, ‘The heart has reasons which reason does not know.” Yet, it is in part the passion of her writing which engages the reader throughout the book.

The Age of American Unreason is a plea for rational thought, liberal attitudes toward learning and education, and cultural conservatism in the true meaning of the word—conserving culturally that which is to be protected from destructive influences and the “preservation in being, life, health and perfection.” Yet Jacoby despairs that “It is possible that nothing will help.” She believes that the solution lies in families, parents and citizens, who value “true learning above all else.” If the election year conversation has you throwing the remote at the television or skipping sections of the newspaper, The Age of American Unreason will bring some well-deserved relief (albeit temporarily).