Friday, December 05, 2008

Book Review: "The Age of American Unreason"

Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon, 2007) is one of the most frustrating books I've read in a long time. It wasn't that I disagreed with the premise (while I take issue with some of her arguments - and how she goes about making them - I am in general agreement on the fundamental message of the book); what bothered me most is that Jacoby has fallen into one of the very traps she decries. She's written a book in which many people like her will find some points of agreement, but which is unlikely to gain any converts. Honey vs. vinegar and all that: you're unlikely to persuade someone to change their behavior by belittling their intelligence and tossing insults at them.

Perhaps better titled the Ages of American Unreason, this book examines the history of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in America, beginning - she suggests - in the heady days of the early republic. In the first several chapters (following a fairly lengthy introduction), Jacoby discusses early instances of these dangers rearing their heads: in the Second Great Awakening, in the debate over Darwinian evolution beginning in the late 1850s, in the spread of "social Darwinism" later in the 19th century, communist philosophy in the middle of the 20th century, and then the spike in fundamentalist Protestantism beginning in the mid-1900s. She argues that we are currently in an age of American Unreason, but her examples stretching back to the very roots of the nation suggest that perhaps our own time may not be so unique after all.

That said, Jacoby begins her book by suggesting that the current state of unreason is different from all those that have come before: "This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation's heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly great damage than its historical predecessors did on American culture and politics" (xi). She provides numerous examples of this, combining bits from some scary public opinion surveys about the extent (or lack thereof) of civic, literary, scientific and general knowledge with personal anecdotes which serve to buttress her argument but not in any meaningful way.

Some of Jacoby's points are important, and well-argued. She has an excellent point about the current education system at every level, which is not functioning as it should. I agree entirely that the shift toward "practical education," which has resulted in the continued specialization and narrowing of educational tracks that creates college graduates who've never taken courses outside their major, is not a good thing. I join her in lamenting the fact that right-wing fundamentalist ideologues have succeeded in creating doubt in many minds about the state of scientific debate over topics like evolution and global warming. Yes, people ought to spend more time with books and less time in front of the t.v., or video games (I particularly liked her section on the relative benefits of reading versus playing video games, p. 251-252).

But there were times when I was turned off by Jacoby's finger-pointing rhetoric. The media are not to blame for every ill of society (although to be sure the bear the blame for some), nor are political centrists (who, she argues with no basis whatever, "place all opinions on an equal footing and make little effort to separate fact from opinion", p. 211).

My main point of contention with Jacoby (aside from that nasty shot at centrists which was just uncalled for) is with her generalizations about certain elements of modern culture. She dismisses the rise of young adult fiction glibly, thus: "If a girl hadn't outgrown Nancy Drew by around age twelve, there was something wrong with her. When you were old enough to turn to books for an exploration of the mysteries of sex and adulthood, you turned to adult fiction by adult authors writing about adults" (p. 266-67 That might have worked fine, and might continue to work fine, but why denigrate a genre of literature (some of which is awful but some of which is quite well done, just like any other genre) that can speak to young people from a perspective closer to their own?

Jacoby seems to have a particular hatred for blogs, which again seems rather gratuitous. Here's her generalization: "Blogs spew forth, in largely unedited form, the crude observations of people who are often unable to express themselves coherently in writing and are as inept at the virtual conversation skills required for online exchanges as they must be at face-to-face communication" (p. 272) Wow. Sure, that's true of some blogs, just as it's true of some books, &c. But I've been reading and writing blogs for several years now, and I think I can safely say that there's a healthy subset of perfectly intelligent and intelligible blogs out there, which I find quite coherent and not at all crude. I've even met a few of the writers in person, and can report that they manage to carry on a conversation quite nicely, thank you very much. Of course by Ms. Jacoby's standards, maybe I can't, so who am I to judge?

Jacoby goes out of her way to lament the "decline of conversation" (I have to send this chapter to my mother, who agrees wholeheartedly with the author on this point), by providing a perfectly silly personal anecdote: apparently she spent one night in a college dorm recently after giving a talk, and was surprised not to have been kept up all night by loud noise. First of all, having lived in a college dorm (for much longer than one night) recently, I can say that perhaps that night might have been the exception rather than the rule. Second, I don't think that the kind of noise which tends to keep one up at night in college dorms is the kind of intelligent conversation Jacoby seems to have been craving anyway. It was passages like this that made me a little bit crazy as I was reading this book. I don't think her message is a bad one, but I think she should have buttoned it up a bit more, laid off the generalizations and unwarranted attacks, and been a little more concerned with persuasion than with bloviation and self-centered retrospection.

Jacoby's final chapter, usually, as she notes, the one reserved in this type of book for proposed solutions, doesn't go in for that. Perhaps she figured out that anybody to made it to the last chapter probably didn't need to make many personal changes (since most people who did had rolled their eyes and given up on the book chapters ago). Instead, she discusses the need for "reality-based leadership," and "adult self-control," both of which are, rather obviously, desirable things. I'd like to know how Jacoby's feeling these days, now that the American people delivered a fairly stinging rebuke to the stunning anti-rationalism of the soon-to-be-departing Bush administration and its would-be successors and elected the first intellectual president in forty years. Perhaps she's allowing herself a little breather. I sure hope so.

Yes, America's got troubles. Many of them stem from what is to many of us a shockingly widespread unwillingness to accept fact as fact, and from our increasingly sound-bite-based culture which puts a premium on brevity and glibness at the expense of exposition. We do need to turn off the t.v., or at least push back against the trash which currently fills the airwaves. We do need to make sure that our education system does what it needs to do. On some level we need real leadership to make these things happen, and one hopes that perhaps that force for change has finally arrived. On another level, there are choices each of us can make in our own lives to improve our own way of life and the culture as a whole. Read more, game less. Talk more, text less. And so on. Simple things. Life is choices.