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The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies by Susan Jacoby

March 24, 2019

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This book opens with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and will never be.” Knowledge isn’t just about being smart. It’s the underpinning of a functioning democratic society.

Plenty of recent studies, articles and books have decried and given reasons for the rising ignorance in America. Here, Jacoby describes this confluence of forces—institutional failings, ideological zealotry, media technology, etc.—some reaching back centuries, some just years, that contribute to a dangerous rise in anti-rationalism, anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism in the United States.

She notes that this isn’t something specific to the Age of Trump. Rather the election of Donald Trump is symptomatic of this anti-intellectual age. He was a “part of a recognizable pattern rather than an aberration.” His declaration at the Nevada Republican primary that, “I love the poorly educated,” was just a more blatant form of what politicians have been doing for decades—adopting an “aw-gee-shucks, I’m just an ordinary person like you” folksiness. It’s, as everyone knows, complete bullshit. Trump may not be intellectually elite, but he’s no peanut farmer.

Anti-intellectualism is just another form of identity politics. By definition, the majority of people are not elite. But “elite” has become, at lease in politics, a slander. “Elite” is synonymous with egg-headed. Privileged. Out of touch. Not like us. We want our brain surgeon to be elite. We want our athletes to be elite. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to who will run our country, Americans want “someone you’d want to have a beer with.” When Trump says, “I love the poorly educated,” he’s embracing one of the key problems in the U.S. today—our failing education system—and turning it into an identifier. He’s not saying, “everyone should have access to good education and I have a plan.” Rather, he’s saying, “It’s great to have uneducated people like you. It’s something to be proud of. Screw those smart people.” It’s not just that he has support among an uneducated base. He literally appeals to them as uneducated by name.

Jacoby’s topic is broader than politics. It’s about how we regard expertise, how we think of education, how we consider views that contradict our own, how we value the institutions that teach us about the world (e.g. our texts, our schools, our media). Many Americans no longer value the opinions of experts (see climate change). They speak of the “ivory towers” of academia as if universities are breeding idiots (because what could a person who’s spent a decade studying a subject possibly know about that subject?). Our textbooks and curriculums and news media—everything that helps us understand how the world works—have become battlegrounds for political and religious zealots. We only believe facts that confirm what we already believe. We opt for entertainment over actual learning. Our media strives for moral outrage and entertainment over accurate information. Everything that an educated populace depends on is currently being eroded by our cultural tribalism, our economic system and our technology.

In order for us to have constructive conversations about how to fix our problems, we have to have a baseline of facts. An agreed-upon reality as a starting point. We don’t. Instead, we have a bunch of people who dismiss information as “fake news” if it doesn’t confirm what they already believe. This could be called “political bias.” But when it comes to facts, it’s more accurate to call it willful ignorance. When you have a President, or media, or internet chat groups, or whatever, telling people things that are flat-out false, then those purveyors of falsehood are literally making people stupid.

Although her politics are evident, Jacoby covers topics from both sides of the political spectrum, calling out anti-vaxxers and New Age crystal wearers, universities that create “safe spaces” (i.e. protecting students from “dangerous” ideas), and conspiracy theorists of all stripes. She covers the rise of fundamentalist religions and junk science (e.g. Social Darwinism). The rise of am talk radio, which later became the politicized TV news media, which later became the wasteland of misinformation websites and social media.

Jacoby strikes an elitist tone (ironically) and weakens her point when she delves into the arts. Not everyone needs to read high literature or watch art house films. It’s okay if most Americans prefer America’s Got Talent to Jeopardy or Harry Potter to Infinite Jest. These are matters of aesthetics and preference. And yes, maybe they signal a preference for light entertainment, but it seems relatively harmless. Likewise, her criticism of the study of pop culture (like Friday the 13th or Stephen King) ignores the clear value such studies might have for a future film director or fiction critic. She also seems like a closed-minded luddite when she dismisses video games and other technology, as if there are no examples of educational games or people empowered by technology. But overall, her points are solid (and unsettling).

This book was originally released in 2008. At the time, The New York Times wrote “there are few subjects more timely.” It was updated and re-released last year, having become only more timely over the ensuing decade. This is not an elitist screed. It doesn’t denigrate the uneducated. But it does make a compelling and important case that the ongoing attack on education, rationalism, intellectualism and expertise are an existential threat to the foundations of our democracy.


Related reads:  Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

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