Susan Jacoby‘s name has been floating around several sites I frequent and enjoy, so I thought I’d read up a little on why. Jacoby is a former education reporter for The Washington Post, now an author whose new book, The Age of American Unreason, comes out in a couple of weeks (she wrote Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism in 2004).
Earlier this week, Jacoby wrote an op-ed piece in The Post titled, “The Dumbing of America: Call Me a Snob, But Really We’re a Nation of Dunces. Her thesis is fairly straightforward:
“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.”
In familiar fashion, Jacoby first blames our educational failures on the usual suspects of the shrinking attention span (TV, video games, Internet, et. al.), as well as “the erosion of general knowledge” by calling up the ever-present specter of American centrism. Her arguments are all fine and good (if not a bit rehashed), but she then names the third enemy in the war against (her own) terror: anti-rationalism. She writes:
“There is no quick cure for this epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; rote efforts to raise standardized test scores by stuffing students with specific answers to specific questions on specific tests will not do the job. Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it…It is past time for a serious national discussion about whether, as a nation, we truly value intellect and rationality. If this indeed turns out to be a ‘change election,’ the low level of discourse in a country with a mind taught to aim at low objects ought to be the first item on the change agenda.”
Laura Miller, in a much too-long review of Jacoby’s book for Salon, sees (eventually) Jacoby’s attempt for what it is:
“Rationality has its own ideology, and one of its tenets is the conviction that, if given a fair chance, reason must always carry the day. If you believe that, then you can only arrive at one conclusion, Jacoby’s: It’s not that Americans won’t be rational, but that we can’t. There’s enough evidence of our poor schooling, susceptibility to pseudoscientific hucksterism and general cluelessness to justify that opinion, to be sure. But if that’s really the case, then it really is down to a few brave souls, committing to a doomed battle to preserve that ‘saving remnant’ and fighting the dying of the light.”
Gene Veith, provost and professor of Patrick Henry College (and amazing brain on issues of culture), is less politically-correct in his succinct post on Jacoby’s article:
“It is precisely our intellectual elites–university professors, cutting-edge artists, culturally-in-tune authors–who are denying the efficacy of reason, insisting that truth is relative, and holding onto exploded ideas (such as Marxism and neo-Marxism) against all evidence. Who is training the teachers and writing the curriculum that have gutted our young peoples’ education and deprived us of our knowledge base? Who is denying that there is such thing as truth or goodness? Who is denying the existence of beauty and purposefully making art that defies the canons of classical aesthetics? Most common ‘folks’ (Jacoby’s label for non-‘elites’) have better sense. So I agree with the author in lamenting the dumbing down of our culture. But it’s not just the ‘common people’ but the intellectual elites who need to change their thinking.”
Though obviously writing well before Jacoby’s article was published, Tim Keller, in his new book, The Reason for God, accurately describes the big picture of what’s going on in Jacoby’s (and others’) laments of such so-called “anti-intellectualism” and “anti-rationalism”:
“Broadly understood, faith in some view of the world and human nature informs everyone’s life. Everyone lives and operates out of some narrative identity, whether it is thought out and reflected upon or not. Pragmatists say that we should leave our deeper worldviews behind and find consensus about ‘what works’ – but our view of what works is determined by (to use a Wendell Berry title) what we think people are for. Any picture of happy human life that ‘works’ is necessarily informed by deep-seated beliefs about the purpose of human life. Even the most secular pragmatists come to the table with deep commitments and narrative accounts of what it means to be human.”
It’s obvious Jacoby’s narrative account of what it means to be human has everything to do with how well we are educated by her brand of education – rational and (by implication) religion-less. And yet, this kind of Enlightenment thinking misses the forest for the trees in always demanding that reasonable must be rationale, which if you’ve lived any kind of real life, you know the former is not always the latter – sacrificial love comes to mind, for instance.
(Note: For a much more helpful article in dealing with some of the practical realities of American public education, read David Brooks’ op-ed piece from Tuesday’s New York Times.)