A Nation of Dunces?

There is a lot of pub­lic­i­ty this week around Susan Jacoby’s new book, The Age of Amer­i­can Unrea­son. The new work fits into the tra­di­tion of Richard Hof­s­tadter’s 1963 clas­sic, Anti-Intel­lec­tu­al­ism in Amer­i­can Life. And it seem­ing­ly moves in the same orbit as Al Gore’s The Assault on Rea­son (2007). The upshot of Jacoby’s argu­ment is that “Amer­i­cans are in seri­ous intel­lec­tu­al trou­ble — in dan­ger of los­ing our hard-won cul­tur­al cap­i­tal to a vir­u­lent mix­ture of anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism, anti-ratio­nal­ism and low expec­ta­tions.” As she goes on to say in this op-ed appear­ing in The Wash­ing­ton Post, we’re now liv­ing in a moment when Amer­i­cans are read­ing few­er books than ever, and they know stag­ger­ing­ly lit­tle about the world: Only 23 per­cent of Amer­i­cans with some col­lege edu­ca­tion can iden­ti­fy Iraq, Iran, Sau­di Ara­bia and Israel on a map, even though the US has a tremen­dous amount at stake there. (Source: NY Times book review.) And one fifth of Amer­i­can adults think that the sun revolves around the Earth. This is all pret­ty bad. But what makes mat­ters worse is the “alarm­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans who have smug­ly con­clud­ed that they do not need to know such things in the first place.” Igno­rance has some­how strange­ly gone from vice to virtue.

What are the solu­tions? I guess you’ll have to get the book, or get mil­lions of your friends to read Open Cul­ture (wink).

UPDATE: You can catch Bill Moy­ers’ inter­view with Susan Jaco­by here: videomp3iTunesfeed. This will let you take a clos­er look at Jacoby’s argu­ment. Thanks Muriel for the tip!

Relat­ed Piece:

Amer­i­ca’s Philoso­pher Pres­i­dent

Ideas & Cul­ture Pod­cast Col­lec­tion

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Comments (5)
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  • Muriel says:

    Thought I would share Bill Moy­er’s inter­view with the author, Susan Jaco­by:
    http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/02152008/watch2.html

  • Jude Bloom says:

    Just thought I’d men­tion anoth­er clas­sic in this field, one that real­ly stirred things up when I was a kid — Alan Bloom’s (no rela­tion) “The Clos­ing of the Amer­i­can Mind.” As I remem­ber it, this was the big shot back at the PC-wars and canon-wars of acad­e­mia… but it also caused a ruckus about learn­ing and the decline there­of in gen­er­al.

    Bloom was good friends with Saul Bel­low and in Bel­low’s nov­els you kind of get the artis­tic ver­sion of his argu­ment. And one of Bel­low’s last nov­els, Rav­el­stein, was sup­pos­ed­ly a pret­ty thin­ly-dis­guised por­trait of Bloom.

    I’m always sur­prised these days by how peo­ple only seem to think the good books are the ones — they agree with. Well, I did­n’t agree with every­thing in Bloom’s book — or rather I don’t think he made all of his argu­ments con­clu­sive­ly — but I sure learned a lot. I think it’s a great book.

  • Carol Jurd says:

    Not being Amer­i­can I won­der if this is the fault of the edu­ca­tion sys­tem? Are too many peo­ple miss­ing out because of lack of fund­ing?
    Many Euro­pean & Asian coun­tries have pub­lic broad­cast­ers which at least ensure a few worth­while TV & radio shows, this may help to get some gen­er­al knowl­edge out to the pub­lic, although how much good it does is unsure! Maybe the une­d­u­cat­ed and igno­rant now get more pub­lic­i­ty — they were prob­a­bly ignored in past times!

  • Stephen says:

    I work in Japan with a com­pa­ny that has cus­tomers in most con­ti­nents, includ­ing some in the US. We deal with small and medi­um-sized busi­ness­es, and it is always inter­est­ing (frus­trat­ing) to me how dif­fi­cult it seems to get a typ­i­cal bank branch over there to make a sim­ple bank tele­graph­ic trans­fer to Japan. It often seems that our client is quite pos­si­bly one of the first peo­ple in his area to have done this as the bank employ­ees seem to have no idea. This is not the case with cus­tomers out­side of North Amer­i­ca — even those in so-called sec­ond and third world coun­tries.

    This makes me won­der the fol­low­ing: Out­side of the US, small and medi­um-sized busi­ness have much more deal­ings with over­seas sup­pli­ers or cus­tomers. Per­haps in the US, it is only the larg­er busi­ness­es that have this kind of trade. This means that in the US there are per­haps a small­er num­ber of peo­ple (pro­por­tion­ate­ly) who have direct involve­ment in for­eign trade, and this is why there is a sense of dis­tance from over­seas’ mat­ters among the major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion.

    Just a ran­dom pon­der­ing…

  • Dan Colman says:

    Thanks all for the good thoughts and join­ing the dis­cus­sion. Nice to hear from you.

    Dan

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