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!

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  • Muriel says:

    Thought I would share Bill Moyer’s interview with the author, Susan Jacoby:

  • 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.


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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.