Attacking American Unreason


You’re dumb. It’s a message you can hardly avoid lately, unless you’re doing the very thing that’s making you dumb: not reading. Georgetown’s already told you so, in the form of a 72-page Intellectual Life Report that says you study less, drink more, and “earn” good grades more easily than your historical counterparts did. Your degree, it seems, will be a testament to an intellectual odyssey through a University in a “crisis stage.”

Now author Susan Jacoby has indicted you on another charge of cretinism: being an American. Her new book, The Age of American Unreason, and a subsequent back-and-forth in the Washington Post’s Outlook section, calls out our nation’s population not only for its lack of general education, but also for its arrogant disdain for everything “elite,” which in Jacoby’s lexicon is interchangeable with “smart.” Equipped with a small but sensational array of statistics (over 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a book for pleasure last year), a few anecdotes about idiots, and a serious disdain for “folksy” political discourse that she somehow thinks would shock the same Orwell who invented Newspeak, she lines up the usual suspects—“video culture” (et tu, YouTube!), religious fundamentalism and declining academic standards—puts them in the stocks, and takes aim.

Critical response to the likes of Jacoby and Lee Siegel, the disgraced New Republic blogger who rails against blog culture in his new book Against the Machine, has largely labeled them cranks and come to the at least superficial defense of the no-time-for-paper generation. It’s intriguingly similar to the justified popular response to the Georgetown report, although Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ Post-published argument that the open-source ‘cyclopedia represents a new apotheosis of human knowledge is just ludicrous. And one common line of argument even points to a “new literacy” that involves proficiency in new forms of communication technology and their conventions (say, the ability to produce a YouTube video or even write a shorthand e-mail), a theory vaguely reminiscent of Neil Postman’s 1970 polemic “The Politics of Reading,” which declared traditional reading a relic and hailed the advent of the multimedia classroom in a vision almost as high up there in the clouds as Wales’ YouTube-centric mind.

Let’s not give Jacoby the hook too quickly in the service of our young egos’ well-being. Just a few months away from graduation, a recent trip through Alfred Kazin’s An American Procession—an author-by-author take on the giants of American literature between 1830 and 1930—recently reminded me of how short my education has fallen of touching just those authors we’d consider essential to our national letters. If it weren’t for a term abroad in Argentina, I never would have had to touch Herman Melville or Henry James, the father of American literature and its preeminent realist (who is perhaps Kazin’s most oft-quoted theorist), respectively. So while there are those of us who still read (and around here, we’re probably pretty numerous), we’re not building a basis for common understanding, not joining an intellectual club with shared terms and no need for explanations, and that’s something the longest blog roll can’t make up for. I would never assume someone else had read The Wings of the Dove. Who reads Henry James anymore?

That said, the culture curmudgeons have hardly built an intellectual citadel for their jeremiads. The idea that rapidly-accessed information and the ability to shift sources in a moment hinders the ability to understand a complex argument seems a little short-sighted in an age when essay-length arguments are parlayed into full-length book deals, a la Malcolm Gladwell. Maybe Wikipedia and the like are brief informational supplements to reading already being done, a less expensive version of the idyllic past when Americans brought out their maps to locate the sites of World War II battles while FDR described them on the radio (a past Jacoby bewails as lost).

And it’s not as if there were ever an era when the vast majority of Americans, or citizens of any other country, were hyperliterate philosophers, even when reading statistics weren’t such a convenient klaxon for alarmists like Jacoby. Literature’s enlightened messages are so easily perverted, as exemplified by a New York Times article headlined “Gatsby’s Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers,” about the dreams that motivate immigrant children in school and their identification with the dominant symbol of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel (“My green light is Harvard,” proclaimed 14-year-old Jinzhao Wang). Neither the students, nor the teachers, nor the reporter mentions that the green light represents a hollow, unfulfilling dream whose achievement was the greatest disappointment of Gatsby’s life.

The natural need to be somehow informed will be fulfilled no matter the medium, although perhaps not equally well. Jacoby’s message that remaining willfully uninformed is dangerous when it reaches the highest levels of government, as it has in the past eight years, is well taken (she quotes one unnamed administration official as saying that the government can ignore reality in order to create its own). And perhaps it’s sad that there is no such thing as intellectual celebrity in the states, although the fanfare that accompanied her book in the Post proves that somebody’s paying attention. But like all prophets of the apocalypse on the precipice of change, the old-culture crowd will likely find that the old knowledge hardly dies in the new world, at least for those numerous souls who, encouraged by education, still seek it out.

And so Susan Jacoby beats on, boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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Mike Stewart

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