Junk Thought

The Age of American Unreason
Susan Jacoby
Pantheon Books, $26, 384 pp.

I remember when I first tried it. I said it would be a one-time thing, but I soon became a daily user, unable to resist the promise of a brief escape from the pressures of graduate school. It started with just one episode of Desperate Housewives on ABC.com and has quickly become a two-hour-a-day Internet-video habit. Each whirling trip into cyberspace takes me from the highs of pseudointellectual infotainment to the lows of the most vacuous YouTube clips. When I’ve finally had enough, I walk away in bleary-eyed self-loathing, knowing that once the haze clears, I’ll be back for more.

Into this den of virtual opiates steps the journalist Susan Jacoby, with her eighth book, The Age of American Unreason. Part cultural-conservationist polemic, part intellectual history, Jacoby’s new work inveighs against America’s current addiction to the drugs of antisecular ideology, antirational “junk thought,” and anti-intellectual pop culture. Jacoby thus continues the tradition of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). She wants to alert us to “an intellectual disaster as grave as the human and natural disaster unfolding in New Orleans.” To this end, she offers several examples of the steady decline in public intellectual life and basic civic education in America; her favorite is the reemergence of debates about evolution and creationism in several public-school districts. But American unreason is not a new phenomenon, Jacoby argues. It has been present in one form or another throughout our nation’s history.

Jacoby paints an idyllic picture of America’s beginnings. The philosopher-warriors of the Revolution set the country on a course of progress; they promoted and exemplified the free exercise of reason unfettered by religious dogmas. But there was trouble in paradise. According to Jacoby’s conveniently dualistic account, religious fundamentalists in the South were a perpetual thorn in the side of the intellectually rigorous Christian denominations of the North. The South’s influence culminated in the Second Great Awakening at the turn of the nineteenth century, and this “resurgence of antirational fundamentalist faith” set the stage for the Civil War. The North’s victory in that conflict eventually brought about a revival of intellectual life, as the iconic image of the self-taught Abraham Lincoln largely replaced the example of the aristocratic Founding Fathers.

The author is ambivalent about the celebration of Lincoln as the people’s scholar. The idealization of the self-made man in the American imagination seems to have increased our country’s mistrust of formal education and expertise, a mistrust that has often hampered our public-school system. While there is a respect for learning among Americans, Jacoby argues, most of us believe the best, most virtuous education is obtained “in the absence of a formal structure provided by society.” This deep-seated cultural prejudice is reflected in George W. Bush’s lack of regard for academic experts, and his contempt for their “facts.” One can also detect it in the conspicuous absence of real proposals for federal education reforms in the platforms of most of this year’s presidential candidates. The public’s indifference to the intellectual qualifications of our politicians—think of the current president’s academic record—is evidence that we are still ambivalent about the importance of formal education.

Jacoby is very fond of what she terms the “middlebrow culture” of the 1950s; she considers it the last period of our history when intellectual virtues were properly esteemed. But in this part of her discussion a dubious nostalgia gets the better of her. She begins to lace her argument with wistful anecdotes from her own childhood in a highly literate home, where those committed to self-education eagerly awaited the next installment from the Book-of-the-Month Club. These personal stories often seem too idiosyncratic and self-congratulatory; together they function as a kind of apologia not for rationality or secularism as such but for her own bourgeois and highly contingent values, which privilege learning through a prescribed and neatly prepackaged curriculum designed by a bien pensant elite. She also praises her own precociousness as a student a few too many times. At the wise age of eleven, Jacoby tells us, she encountered an abridged volume of Thomas Aquinas from Mortimer J. Adler’s popular Great Books project. After reading a “handy chunk of the Summa,” she discovered the unavoidable truth of atheism. “That there is virtue in making knowledge readily available, even in a dreary, pretentious, highly selective format, is a truth that many satirists of middlebrow culture failed to grasp,” she writes.

In view of the theological sophistication Jacoby showed at such an early age, it’s surprising that her analysis of religion throughout this book is so lacking in nuance. Jacoby believes that rationality and serious intellectual thought are naturally at home only in the secular sphere. The religious sphere, by contrast, seems to be a harbor for antirationality (which Jacoby defines as thinking only within a closed system) and anti-intellectualism (defined as lack of regard for logical argument). But one could argue that this two-sphere approach to religion and secularism is one of the things that has arrested the intellectual development of American students, who are taught, both by their secularist teachers and many of their religious leaders that religious faith means not having to think too hard.

Jacoby’s own analysis seems to suggest that the categories of religious and secular should be understood, not as mutually exclusive alternatives, the one replacing the other as civilization advances, but rather as the defining foci of an ellipse that describes the unity of our public discourse. Nothing illustrates the instability of Jacoby’s view more clearly than her peculiar suggestion that a “spokesperson for secular values” should have been included in the post-9/11 ecumenical prayer service at the National Cathedral. This invites an obvious question: What kind of prayer is possible for a secularist? If prayer is really possible for the secularist, then perhaps the secular is not so far removed from the religious after all, even though elsewhere Jacoby describes religious faith as the gateway drug to unreason.

She is at her best when pointing out the abysmal state of American public education. The second half of her book makes a compelling case for reversing the decay of cultural memory and intellectual knowledge by means of educational reform. Given what Jacoby’s many statistics say about the population’s average level of historical literacy, most voters probably were unable to follow the references to the legacies of Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, and John F. Kennedy by many of this year’s presidential candidates. Most young people know little about these historical figures beyond a few hackneyed media sound bites. Jacoby is surely right to argue that the future of our public discourse, and with it our political future, depends on our ability to educate ourselves as citizens.

In the end, though, Jacoby’s proposals are overshadowed by her unrelenting nostalgia. She bemoans the transformation of state universities into vocational schools “after the Second World War, when the G.I. Bill made it possible for millions of working-class veterans to become the first members of their families to attend college.” She evidently believes that if everyone had the kind of education she had, everyone would agree with her middlebrow contempt for religious thought. Finally, her confidence in general education is not enough to confront the bleak cultural condition she laments, nor is her recommendation that we turn off the television and pick up a book (though that might be a good start). There will be little improvement in our public discourse until both secularists and believers agree that the best kind of religious faith not only permits rationality and intellectual curiosity, but requires it.

About the Author

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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