Jacoby's Unreasonable in 'American Unreason'

Long before the release of MacBook Air, John F. Kennedy ’40 said that “man is still the most extraordinary computer of all.” Oh, how man has fallen. “The Age of American Unreason,” Susan Jacoby’s latest effort, bemoans the dilution of American intellectual ambition and the crippling apathy that has settled in its place.

Using an arsenal of historical analysis, anecdotal musings, and hard-nosed scorn, Jacoby deconstructs American culture to reveal the virus of anti-intellectualism that has penetrated to its core. Her polemical work excoriates modern America as a societal landscape of spoiled heritage and unrealized potential, populated by Americans who are as ignorant and poorly educated about science as religion. Jacoby condemns unsparingly­—objects of her criticism include Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, Katie Couric, and Virginia Woolf—but pins the greater part of blame for society’s anti-intellectualism on religious fundamentalism, media packaging, pseudoscience, and exploitative political pandering.

The book’s argument is intriguing and, given this year’s presidential race, especially well-timed. The focus of the historical analysis, which constitutes the bulk of the work, is the intellectual decline of the American mind. Jacoby faults two forces: religious fundamentalism and mass marketing. She sees them as having hijacked American culture, obscuring and subsuming all distinction and nuance in simplistic generalizations. The result is the wasting away of a “culture of aspiration,” marked by lyceums and FDR’s “fireside chats,” into a culture of passivity empowered by infotainment and a bottom-line corporate mentality.

In this new culture, Jacoby says, scope is sacrificed for sales and science is increasingly drowned amidst the white noise of politicized junk-thought. Even the habit of reading appears increasingly obsolete. The strictly secular, intellectual merit of Jefferson, Paine, and Emerson that founded the country has given way to the lionization of celebrities and the perpetuation of anti-intellectual ideals (namely creationism and gender stereotyping) that most other modernized nations have long left behind. Only a stunting of American culture, Jacoby contends, could possibly account for the election of “a walking testament to unearned privilege” notorious for his public speaking foibles when not half a century ago John F. Kennedy inspired the public by quoting Goethe and Aristotle.

These arguments have the potential to ring true among an American readership weary of the pop cultural status quo, but Jacoby jeopardizes her message by shrouding it in tiresome, digressive analysis that often comes off as pedantic, or, worse, irrelevant. Seemingly eager to show she did her homework, much of the book is occupied by painful, analytic esoterica that sacrifices the reader’s interest for mere chronological adherence. While the cultural shifts that occurred in the mid-twentieth century are undoubtedly important to understanding American’s intellectual landscape, Jacoby’s analysis slogs through these changes in a way so slow and torturous that the actual crux of the history is lost.

Additionally, Jacoby’s argument is surprisingly parochial. While confronting complex problems, she completely fails to acknowledge even the possibility of a multiplicity of causes. She hints that Russian intellectualism was shaped by censorial institutions, but fails to give an institutional explanation for American anti-intellectualism, focusing instead solely on civic trends. Her argument has an especially lopsided focus on religious fundamentalism; she calls the Iraq War, for example, a “foolishly optimistic effort to bring ‘enlightened’ democracy to a nation in darkness” but completely overlooks the country’s ties to Middle Eastern oil. For someone who takes painstaking steps to convey her well-read background and advocates greater intellectual discourse within the nation, Jacoby is woefully ignorant about political science. She omits arguments that seem intrinsic to her claims, most notably Tocqueville’s “tragedy of the commons” and Burke’s trustee-versus-delegate debate.

The final few chapters are actually quite engaging, but can only partially redeem the time spent trudging through the first three-quarters of the book. Only here does Jacoby’s thesis—that American intellectual habits have changed—come across cohesively (and with refreshing humor and humility). However, this is only the last three chapters. For the most part, Jacoby’s argument lacks the very basic tenets—rationality, tolerance, and an openness to discourse—she seems to be trying to encourage in society. Many can sympathize with the gist of her argument, but Jacoby gets bogged down in the insignificant particulars of past. While she means to show the importance of our heritage, Jacoby seems to forget to look to the future at all. Rather than merely name intellectual greats of the past, Jacoby would have done well to use a bit of their advice: “more matter, with less art.”

­—Staff writer Erin F. Riley can be reached at eriley@fas.harvard.edu.