Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Review - The Age of American Unreason

There are few things more mystifying to me than the anti-intellectualism that permeates American culture. We are a country that says it values education, so much so that our national program is called No Child Left Behind, yet we allow our most gifted children to pretty much fend for themselves, even though they're far more likely to find solutions for our problems.

So I was looking forward to reading Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, a book that attempts to chronicle the current level of anti-intellectual sentiment and the ways in which it has taken root in America. While it was well-written and persuasive, I came away somewhat unmoved. Perhaps it was more my problem than Jacoby's, maybe I have already been so steeped in the fundamental American mistrust of thinking that another book on the subject is incapable of stirring my emotions. Anyone picking up this book is probably already aware of how illiterate, innumerate, iggeographate, and ihhistorate we are, and how little anyone cares.

Having said that, there is a lot of good writing and thinking here, and I recommend this book (if you can stomach it). It falls very much into the tradition of Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death (both quoted, with Hofstadter a particular influence on Jacoby).

One problem is that there is no real explication of what an intellectual is; Jacoby does quote Hofstadter: an intellectual "in some sense lives for ideas - which means he has a sense of dedication to the life of the mind which is very much like a religious commitment." At other times, the definition seems to be anyone who thinks rationally, or works in certain jobs. This is not fatal to the basic thesis, but it is a bit off-putting. It would have been interesting for Jacoby to explore the implications of having intellectuals create output which is anti-intellectual.

I'm thinking here of video game developers. Game creators tend to push the envelope of what's possible with almost monastic dedication; they are the very epitome of people who have a near-religious commitment to the life of the mind, but they produce software that is seen by many as corrosive to fostering the same in our young people.

Much of the book is taken up with a history of anti-intellectualism. In an attempt to be comprehensive, Jacoby allows the energy of the book to grind to a near-halt. Some of this background about topics like the rise of social Darwinism or the insight of Emerson is interesting, but it requires a lot to stay with it, especially when no clear-cut conclusion is reached as to why, uniquely among developed countries, the U.S. is so hostile to anything that smacks of intellectual pretense. Taking even the least-restrictive definition of intellectual as a person who tries to think carefully about the world around him or her, it's remarkable how that process is discouraged even in so-called "knowledge jobs."

Even so, let me go through this book and make some observations; in so doing, I hope to convince you to read it despite my somewhat tepid comments so far. I'll start with some thoughts inspired by my reading, if not fully developed within.

Anyone who ponders the American attitude to thought will fairly soon come across the exaltation of common sense. Much of the mythos of America is built around that idea; for example, we recognize Franklin as a coiner of aphorisms that are grounded in common sense, rather than as the multi-faceted genius he really was. Common sense relies on generalizations and inertia, telling us, for instance, that we will continue to enjoy cheap oil, and there's no such thing as global warming.

As a result, we politicize knowledge, allowing science to fall under the domain of people who want to use it to promote an agenda. This is why, as I have discussed several times previously, economics is seen as scientific, rather than as a branch of politics. In actuality, knowledge transcends and exceeds politics.

The problem is, intellectualism is hard. It's difficult to parse someone's false argument, and to express it in a way that won't get you fired or earn funny looks at dinner parties. Specialization is also a factor, as every topic seems to be the domain of an expert, and we're all too willing to transfer one brand of expertise to an unrelated realm. (It is this confusion that allows Congress to be gullible when Bill Gates flogs visa programs. He's not an expert in labor, or economics, but our legislative leaders still genuflect, even when he spouts nonsense.)

And we're not a country that likes hard. Our raging infantilization gets in the way of serious engagement with serious topics. When success, for an adult, is measured in mastering level 13 on a video game, rather than trying to figure out how the candidates' health plans will affect them, intellectualism is no longer even in the ballgame. We've elevated emotional interests into core parts of our selves, to the point where we identify ourselves as, for example, Cubs fans in favor of other, more thoughtful roles.

Jacoby finds three essential sources of anti-intellectualism: the mass media, the rise of Christian fundamentalism, and the failure of public education. None of these criticisms is particularly novel, but she does present them skillfully. Anyone who has questioned whether a picture is really worth a thousand words will find much here: "With a perverted objectivity that gives credence to nonsense, mainstream news outlets have done more to undermine logic and reason that could ever do."

I think Jacoby fails to make enough out of the educationism that has infested our schools. While she acknowledges such abominations as the equal presentation of evolution and "intelligent" design, she mostly misses the self-esteem movement, which has elevated personal discovery over the presentation of truth. "Facts are whatever folks choose to believe" is an attitude that comes directly out of the idea that education consists of placing toddlers in a conceptual room full of "resources," letting them crawl around for 13 years, and intervening only to reward them for stumbling across something, no matter how much value it has. Once you have a couple of generations that has been "taught" in this way, you end up with a self-perpetuating system of ignorance.

Jacoby contends that the political roots of anti-intellectualism run deep, that, from the beginning of our nation, there has been a sense in which it was believed that education was opposed to democracy, that anything elevating one person over another was counter to "all men are created equal." This may explain why there is so much controversy about the term "elitism," in which three well-endowed, well-educated people try to make a case for how regular and down-to-earth they are.

One of the most interesting points in the book is the observation that our separation of church and state may have caused the rise of fundamentalism. In other countries where there was an official state church, it was impossible to maintain society based on "true believers" (most attempts to do so, such as the Inquisition, turned out poorly). Anyone who wasn't tended to embrace secularism and, ultimately, rationalism. On the other hand, our pluralism fostered religious thinking. As that became opposed to the rise of science, we ended up with a significant number of people opposed to paradigm-busting rational thought.

Jacoby touches on, too briefly in my view, the way in which credentialism has actually interfered with true intellectualism. Most advanced degree programs are as dogmatic as any American church; try questioning the free market in an MBA program, or multiculturalism in a PhD program in the humanities, and you'll see what I mean. Furthermore, these institutions of "learning" are contemptuous of the auto-didact, even if their ideas are sound, their thinking rational.

The book takes us through the 1930s to 50s, in which intellectuals embraced Marxism and communism, only to be discredited in the Red scare. I found this section laborious, because it didn't really explain why the entire intellectual class was hoodwinked into profoundly wrong thinking, something which likely provided more of the impetus to opposition than Jacoby credits.

Here, we move into a section of the book which is difficult due to the aforementioned lack of a definition for "intellectual." To argue that the Cold War and space race created a new respect for the intellectual life requires us to believe that the new scientists and engineers were seen in that light. In reality, common people made no connection between the soft-science fellow travelers of the '30s and the hard-science technical minds of the '60s and '70s, and neither did the academy. One does not have to spend much time on a campus to see that the science people have not been fully accepted into the "life of the mind" (despite the fact that they tend to be broader and deeper thinkers).

Another problem has been the rise of specialization, as increasing numbers of people in various disciplines have staked out their own patches of turf. As they have grown away from the large ideas, they have sunk into near-solipsism, so it is harder to find an old-style public intellectual.

One of the strongest parts of the book is the chronicle of the so-called middlebrow culture that came of age in the 1950s. Having lived through this time, Jacoby turns an observant eye on this time when even relatively modest families had aims on something better, through such means as the Book-of-the-Month Club and purchases of encyclopedias. I share her confusion as to why this didn't lead to much true intellectualism, though I grant the rise of television had a lot to do with it (though I think she downplays the hostility of the true intellectual class - once again, the dislike of the auto-didact).

It may occur to you when reading this section that we haven't eliminated the middlebrow, aspirational culture. It's just that we have diverted it from self-education to self-help. Oprah doesn't challenge her viewers to test their beliefs, she bathes them in the warm water of self-acceptance and self-love. We're not buying encyclopedias, we're buying books that tell us that wishing will make it so.

Though I liked this section, it fell down a bit in its lack of definition of highbrow as contrasted to middlebrow. If Faulkner and Fitzgerald were included in that ultimate symbol of middlebrow, the Book-of-the-Month Club, that's setting the bar fairly high. What would constitute elevation from that level that would allow someone to move to highbrow?

Jacoby does a good job of taking us through the upheavals of the 1960s and '70s, though I think she minimizes the effect of the mistrust of government that grew out of Vietnam and Watergate had on the desirability of government service as an outlet for intellectuals. I'm not sure we've really discerned what the true lessons of that tumultuous time were, so her contribution is welcome. Her explication of the loss of agreed-upon standards on evaluation of artistic quality is well-done (though she does not do quite enough to extend it to other domains).

The book moves now into a description of our current time; again, it's well-done without presenting anything essentially new. It's depressing to see how little we know, and downright mystifying to see how quickly we moved from hoping the president (Kennedy) was the intellectual he purported to be, to electing presidents who bent over backwards to show us how profoundly "real" they are (the Bush gentleman's C). We are urged to keep our business memos at grade four on the Flesch readability index, so as not to exclude the stupid, and market forces have driven us to offer university courses in TV appreciation (which doesn't seem to need too much training for the modern-day, media-steeped student).

At any rate, take this book for what it is. Do not read it for its proposed solutions; even Jacoby seems resigned to their unlikelihood. It is yet another text that will not be read by those who need it, but by those who already feel that there is something irreversible and frightening looming just under the waters of the American dream. You may see the monster better after reading the book, but that probably won't keep it from devouring you, your children, or your grandchildren.


Citizen Carrie said...

I'm curious, did the author say anything about Puritan influence or (I hate this phrase) the Protestant work ethic? Idle hands are the devil's hands, or however that saying goes?

Androcass said...

Not really. She limited herself to tracing what she feels are the roots of anti-intellectualism in America, but a flaw (that I probably didn't make clear in my review) is that she never gets a handle on how we make intellectuals. That's related to something I did mention, her not defining the concept fully.

As she is a writer, I had the sense that, to her, intellectuals are people who write (and study in preparation for writing). They just spring from the landscape somehow, so the idea that an ethic of work might be something that creates intellectuals is lost (as is the reverse, that the lack of that ethic somehow hurts intellectualism).

Another thing that she didn't really address is the extent to which intellectualism is a luxury afforded by affluence (she has no economic take on this at all, she was just looking at attitudes).

I guess if I were to summarize, she's looking at the demand side, not the supply side; intellectuals just appear, then are either properly respected or unpleasantly disrespected. She only considered the respect/disrespect issue.

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