The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby (2008)

JacobyAgeUnreasonJacoby uses the term “intellectual” frequently, so it wasn’t long before I began to realize that she was using it to refer to what I would call an intellectual snob. That is, I am one of those people who wish to distinguish between “intellectual” and “smart person.”

I grant you that she has accurately explained the general dumbing down of America, and includes many subtle aspects that other authors have avoided. Most other authors want to promote a particular villain, implying a relatively simple cure: If only we could fix this one problem [low expectations in public schools, the over-use of electronic media, the decline in book reading, especially once the required book lists of school are behind one, and a host of others], we’d cure the penchant for unreason in American society. My own pet villain is religious education, which offers legitimacy to non-rational explanations for all sorts of things.

But the fact is, what snobbery was current when I was young, having to do with what great books you have read, what authors’ names you recognize, how much you like (or at least tolerate) classical music — none of that is current snobbery. Today, it’s almost exclusively directed at computer literacy. And Jacoby has failed to convince me that this is a bad thing. It’s quite different from a generation or two ago, but different is not automatically equal to bad.

Still, the book is quite useful from a historical point of view. Indeed, if you have a hard time calling Jacoby a sociologist or cultural critic, or whatever, you might agree with me that what fits her best is “historian.” The three stars I am giving her are for cultural history, and one more for being very well in command of the English language, which makes the book quite readable. She has demonstrated to me that I don’t have to agree with an author all that much in order to take pleasure in reading her work.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.