Dumbing down America

Art Winslow, a former literary editor and executive editor of the Nation magazine, writes frequently about books and culture.

Half a century ago, the political historian Richard Hofstadter wrote: “The widespread distrust of intellectuals in America reflects a tendency to depreciate their playfulness and distrust their piety. Ours is a society in which every form of play seems to be accepted by the majority except the play of the mind.”

Hofstadter expanded that theme in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1963 book, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” which ranged across education, politics and religion. In documenting a majoritarian and nativist bias, it became what Hofstadter biographer David S. Brown termed “one of the most troubling criticisms of American democracy ever written.”

What we have in Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason” is an attempt to update Hofstadter. He had concluded that intellectuals “have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces,” and in many ways Jacoby’s book concentrates on that vulgarization. She decries junk thought and junk science, youth culture, celebrity culture, degradation of the language, television, screen technologies for infants, innumeracy and other forms of cultural illiteracy. A particular concern -- not as vulgarization but as an overweening, deleterious influence on public policy -- is religious fundamentalism.

“During the past four decades,” Jacoby writes, “America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic.”

The confluence of disparate forces, she argues, is “at odds not only with the nation’s heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge,” propelling “a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics.” Aware that much of what she has to say could leave her labeled a cultural conservative, a term “hijacked by the religious right and propagated by the media,” Jacoby identifies herself as a “cultural conservationist” instead.


What are the markers of anti-intellectualism? Not even Hofstadter worked that answer out fully, since it includes questions of elitism (both as a magnet of resentment and as an attitude held by some intellectuals), overlaps with questions of cultural ignorance (related but not interchangeable) and, in the postwar period particularly, was wrapped up with anti-Communist fervor (because socialist or communist ideas were attractive to many intellectuals at the time).

Taking her cue from William Jennings Bryan, who railed against a “scientific soviet” that was “attempting to dictate what shall be taught in our schools, and, in doing so, to mold the religion of the nation,” Jacoby identifies three enduring features of anti-intellectualism: the portrayal of experts as alien to the American polity; viewing the educated minority as an overclass bent on imposing its views; and identifying this class as an enemy of religion. She asserts that two anti-rationalist components remain “largely unchanged since the 1890s”: treating higher learning as an opponent of religion and accepting pseudoscience “which Americans on both the left and the right continue to imbibe as a means of rendering their social theories impervious to evidence-based challenges.”

The historicism in “The Age of American Unreason” drags its focus backward more often than not, which is effective in explaining the origin and continuity of ideas but stands out as a distinct liability whenever Jacoby deploys sharp insight on our present straits. She observes, for example: “Unlike its predecessor in the twenties, the current anti-rationalist movement has been politicized from the bottom up and the top down, from school boards in small towns to the corridors of power in Washington.” That statement comes in a discussion of intelligent design -- creationism by another name -- and one can see the candle burning at both ends. The journalist Bill Moyers, often attacked for the pro-science, pro-rationalist content of his television programs, may have the best line here, quoted by Jacoby from a speech he delivered about Revelations-based “end time” beliefs: “One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal.”

The culprits Jacoby fingers, as suggested above, are eclectic but to a great extent include the usual suspects too. Her documentation varies from the fairly thorough (on junk science) to the somewhat thin (in lambasting the media). She applauds postwar “middlebrow” culture for its ethos of self-betterment, its secularizing influence and its aspirations to the high arts, but her effort to track the erosion of print culture is like trying to take on the fall of the Roman Empire. In a book that seeks to trace the convergence of several cultural trends, such an attempt is bound to be spotty. (On that topic, incidentally, Jacoby discusses a 2002 study on reading conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts. Readers should be aware that last November, the NEA released a new study, available online, even more dire in its findings than the one Jacoby cites. The 2007 study, which NEA Chairman Dana Gioia termed “alarming,” found “reading proficiency rates are stagnant or declining in adults of both genders and all education levels,” and that, as of 2005, scarcely more than a third of high school seniors read at or above the proficient level.)

Jacoby manages to step on toes across political and cultural spectrums in “The Age of American Unreason,” and whether by accident or design it is hard to determine. She questions the residual damage done by McCarthyism, for example, which is bound to raise hackles on the left; her main point is that the rapid acceleration of new protest movements (such as the civil-rights campaign) argues “against overstating the overall cultural impact of the postwar hunt for Communists.” She accuses right-wing attacks on the 1960s of being “essentially a political indictment masquerading as a defense of Western culture.” Yet, she has her own cavils about the period, maintaining that “the fusion of video, the culture of celebrity, and the marketing of youth is the real anti-intellectual legacy of the sixties” and that everyone took rock ‘n’ roll “too seriously.”

Darwinism (read: validated science) and its religious opposition occupy much of Jacoby’s discussion and form the perfect paradigm underpinning her book. Approximately 45% of those with no education beyond high school believe in the literal truth of the Bible, she reports, and in a 2006 survey by the Pew Foundation, 60% of white evangelical Christians contended that the Bible, not popular representation, should shape U.S. law. Citing educational deficits in the South (another set of toes!), Jacoby notes that Southerners are more likely than other Americans to have a fundamentalist faith, a general point she belabors more than once. “Of all the cultural phenomena slighted by the contemporary media and academic community, the rejuvenation of fundamentalist religion was unquestionably the most important,” Jacoby insists, noting its adherents’ belief “that it is both a right and a religious duty to institutionalize their moral values.”

Jacoby posits a hatred of secularism at work: That’s probably an overstatement as a general proposition, but it seems pointedly true when applied to educational and scientific arenas. The great social thinker Jane Jacobs wrote a book not long before her death titled “Dark Age Ahead,” voicing an equally diffuse set of cultural complaints, but in which the abandonment of science figured as a major concern. Science “isn’t a thing but a state of mind,” Jacobs wrote. Noting that science is mistrusted by those who “don’t like its discoveries for religious, political, ethical, or even esthetic reasons,” she spoke of a rot of bad science and asked, “Try to imagine how demoralizing that deterioration will be.” Jacoby offers no specific alternative to the path she says we’re on. Contending that “every shortcoming of American governance, in foreign relations and domestic affairs, is related in some fashion to the knowledge deficit of the America public,” her book suggests that this demoralizing state is already here. But don’t tell that to Beavis and Butt-head.