BY JEFF DEENEY Last night Susan Jacoby spoke to a full house at the Free Library about her book, “The Age of American Unreason.” Jacoby is a Pulitzer Prize finalist who over 25 years has contributed regularly to the Post, the Times, Harper’s, etc. Jacoby’s book picks up where late Columbia professor Richard Hofstadter‘s Pulitzer winning Anti-intellectualism in American Life left off in 1963. Fresh off the McCarthy-era, Hofstadter’s book argued that America’s intellectual life was in decline. Since Hofstadter’s day, Jacoby claims, America’s intellectual life hasn’t been in decline so much as it has fallen off a cliff. She feels that we are, “in serious intellectual trouble.”
Jacoby kept a breathless pace, reading quickly from a set of prepared comments. Her objections to the dumbing-down trend (heavily abridged from her nearly 400 page book) started with a rant against “folks,” the ubiquitous populist appeal used by politicians in both parties that Jacoby feels has helped suck the elegance and complexity from political discourse in the last ten years.
“This word is a plague,” she cried, stopping to chuckle along with the audience at her own exuberance. She noted classic examples from FDR’s fireside chats to illustrate how good a presidential speech could be. Then she compared it with some crowd pleasing Bushisms to illustrate the sneering distrust of literacy and worldliness that typifies today’s pandering politicians. Jacoby considers herself to be a “cultural conservationist,” not a “cultural conservative.” Jacoby swears she’s not just another old lady screaming at the kids to get off her lawn despite that the decline and fall of western culture has been predicted as often by scholars as the Rapture has by fundamentalists. She feels that there has been a fundamental shift in the way the “total electronic media” and an endless appetite for “infotainment” have produced an unprecedented wave of “junk thought” that has no need for critical analysis or scientific grounding.
Jacoby pointed out how deficient public schools and universities have produced a growing pool of graduates who know less having earned a degree than the average high school diploma holder from forty years ago. Most adults can’t point to Iraq on a map (a map with country names on it, btw), religion thrives though Biblical literacy does not (most can’t name the Gospels) and a heavy diet of faux-educational video materials are being fed to ever younger consumers (she cited the Baby Einstein series).
To support her “junk thought” idea she pointed to a recent Supreme Court case on partial birth abortion where a justice cited “post-abortion depression” as a primary reason why he had to support the ban. The judge noted that he didn’t have any supporting evidence for the a phenomena, but said that it seemed to make sense since having an abortion is stressful for a woman.
This type of unsupported hypothesizing that eschews real data and analysis is according to Jacoby part of a growing centrist, not extremist, phenomenon. No one feels that documentation, testing and evidence is necessary; today’s public discourse is all about the gut, about what one feels rather than what one thinks, and conventional wisdom triumphs over theory. Our poor political leadership is a symptom rather than a cause; we have lost the ability to make well informed decisions.
I can get onboard with Jacoby’s central message about the deterioration in the American education. I think that much is supported by different standardized achievement measures over the past twenty years. Also, consider the gains in education made by China and India, who are quickly leaving us behind on benchmarks in math and science. Solid points; we agree. However, from there Jacoby dips into murkier waters, emerging with a touch of her own sickness.
Throughout her speech Jacoby referenced “brain wiring.” Talk of brain wiring sets off alarms for me; hard wiring is a very specific idea in cognitive psychology that is often appropriated by rhetoricians who use it without any real knowledge of the discipline. I didn’t get a sense from listening to Jacoby that she has much of a background in cognitive psychology (she’s a lifelong journalist who holds only an undergraduate degree from Michigan State), but she nonetheless seems comfortable wielding its nomenclature.
For instance, she contends that feeding a steady stream of video content to 6 month old children “wires their brains” for video driven learning. This eventually detracts from their appetite for books and increases their appetite for “infotainment.” That sounds great; its premise follows to a very logical conclusion that is cognitively consonant with her other ideas. However, Jacoby didn’t cite any research to support her contention that watching video impacts the brain hard wiring of children, and I think that such a hypothesis is testable.
Does playing video for a toddler impact neural formation? If so, to what degree? Can that influence be traced to learning patterns later in life? These are big, big questions; without actually testing this hypothesis before drawing a conclusion hasn’t Jacoby essentially engaged in the same behavior as the Supreme Court judge she just called out?
I had other disagreements with Jacoby. By concentrating so narrowly on the past 20 years in education
Today, women and minorities have access (perhaps not equal access, but access) to advanced education, whereas 150 years ago they did not. 250 years ago only white men who owned land had this access. When taken in this
By taking such a narrow focus Jacoby’s able to make a better argument that the end is neigh for the intelligent American. However, I honestly believe that the current downtrend is more likely a temporary one that will reverse as social, economic and political trends shift back towards a greater demand for better educated, more highly skilled citizens. Jacoby says that families and not politicians are where the solutions lie. I think evicting one especially dim bulb from the White House next year will be a major part of the solution.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture.