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Can You Read This? Don’t You Wish You Couldn’t?

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Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Pantheon, 356 p., 2008)

A couple of decades ago, back in the 1980s, a friend of mine in Vancouver displayed a jokey bi-lingual poster on his front door that said in big letters: “Fin de lire” (“The end of reading”). At the bottom of the poster, in small print, its punchline asked, “Can you read this? Don’t you wish you couldn’t?” I.e., wouldn’t you like to be as dopey as everybody else?

Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason suggests that today, in the United States (and no doubt elsewhere), that old poster’s hiply expressed qualm about the decline of literacy is no joke. It’s not that people are unable to read, but rather that they’re not very interested in serious reading or much else of substance, and they’re too distracted to care whether or not it’s a problem.

For Jacoby, a former Washington Post journalist and the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004), the decline of intellectual engagement is not simply a matter of reading; rather “the inescapable theme of our time is the erosion of memory and knowledge… Anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism flourish in a mix that includes addiction to infotainment, every form of superstition and credulity, and an educational system that does a poor job of teaching not only basic skills but the logic underlying those skills.”

American Unreason, whose title plays on Tom Paine’s late 18th century polemic, The Age of Reason, but more directly draws on Richard Hofstadter’s groundbreaking Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and such other mid- and late-20th century social critics as Paul Goodman and Neil Postman, is an important and timely attempt at assessing the present situation, especially in light of the forthcoming 2008 American presidential election. It says what a lot of people (including me) believe about the public state of mind, even though those of us holding that view are admittedly a minuscule, beleaguered minority.

Jacoby writes in a straightforward, non-academic style—her book is intentionally rather “middle-brow” in its appeal to a general readership—but my fear is that, insofar as she receives much notice at all, she will either be shrugged off as merely alarmist (the “oh, come on, things aren’t that bad” line), or rebutted by techno enthusiasts who tout the wonders of the Internet’s cornucopia of infinite information (the “it’s all there, you just need to know where to look and have the will to find out” defense). Both of those ploys against Jacoby’s thesis strike me as woefully wrong-headed.

American Unreason begins with Jacoby’s sketch of the current situation, as a prelude to tracing the historical sources of a gathering intellectual darkness in recent decades. “It is difficult to suppress the fear,” she says, “that the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to functional democracy. During the past four decades, 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.”

Jacoby examines various strands that make up the present cultural context, several of which have a particularly American tinge. They include a three-decade resurgence in fundamentalist Christian religion, coupled with a propensity to hold nutty paranormal beliefs. As well, there’s a media system that dumbs down public events to soundbites and sensationalism, and for the rest of prime time ensures that we’re “amusing ourselves to death” (to recall the title of Neil Postman’s 1985 book). Add to that a national Attention Deficit Disorder fuelled by a cascade of gadgets that makes sure there are no idle hands, eyes, or ears (because we’re kept busy pushing cellphone buttons, clicking computer mouses, and pouring iTunes into our heads, often all at once). Finally, there’s the decline of reading and writing, and the erosion of what was once a functioning mid-level culture.

All of this is institutionally underpinned in the U.S. by a system of local school boards without effective national (or state) standards. It’s a school system that reproduces educational poverty and backwardness in the worst school districts, and allows flaky school boards to drop such topics as evolution or sex education from the curriculum if it offends the school trustees’ religious or ideological beliefs.

Of the various “endemic anti-intellectual tendencies” afoot, Jacoby cites anti-evolutionary dogma as emblematic of the situation. “Americans are alone in the developed world in their view of evolution by means of natural selection as ‘controversial’ rather than as settled mainstream science,” she observes. “The continuing strength of religious fundamentalism in America (again, unique in the world) is generally cited as the sole reason for the bizarre persistence of anti-evolutionism…” and there’s no doubt that Biblical literalism plays its part in recent squabbles over such matters as “intelligent design.” But Jacoby suspects that the problem may be deeper. “The real and more complex explanation may lie not in America’s brand of faith,” she suggests, “but in the public’s ignorance about science in general and evolution in particular.”

Jacoby cites a range of recent surveys showing that only about a third of the American population has any idea that evolution is a well-founded scientific theory, and that even the minority that thinks it is science believes that it is a process guided by the hand of God. Half the population is content with the Genesis version that human beings were created by divine intervention more or less in their present form and it all happened relatively recently, rather than the scientific view that humans have gradually developed through changing forms over a period of several million years. (If you need a reference for any of this, see www.CBSNews.com, Nov. 22, 2004 confirming the results of a 2004 Gallup poll.)

Beyond the evolution conundrum, Jacoby reels off a string of statistics indicating that masses of Americans also have problems with everything from whether the sun revolves around the earth to the function of DNA. There’s a temptation here to reprise all the gory details and stats of her case, but an “executive summary” of her argument is precisely the opposite of what her book invites, namely, a contemplative reading.

Her thumbnail historical survey stretches from the American Revolution, led by such Enlightenment-era founding fathers and intellectuals as Jefferson, Franklin and Madison, to the present digital moment, which tends to be led by by software moguls, talk show hosts, and self-help gurus. Jacoby has some particularly interesting things to say about her own mid-20th century experiences growing up in small-town Michigan, when there was still a fairly vibrant and cohesive “middlebrow” culture available in the 1950s.

She’s also thoughtful about the subsequent turbulent era of the 1960s, which has been retrospectively transformed by conservatives into the source of all present-day evils. Jacoby was for part of the decade on an extended journalistic assignment in Moscow that buffered her from the available enthusiasms of a radical counterculture, and that gives her a balanced perspective on the period that is neither nostalgic nor inclined toward “blaming it on the Sixties,” as she titles one chapter. It also allows us to see that there was what she calls “the Other Sixties,” which featured born-again religious fundamentalism, the Campus Crusade for Christ, the birth of neo-conservative thinktanks, and the election (and re-election) of the Nixon administration. Jacoby astutely points out that the 1960s wasn’t all campus radicalism, anti-Vietnam War protests, and the rise of modern feminism, but insofar as it was, she ably defends a good deal of it.

One crucial focus of Jacoby’s critique is the issue of reading and writing. She offers at least two cheers for the “middlebrow” American culture of the 1950s which has long since collapsed. Although we now think of the 1950s as a conservative and conformist era, Jacoby recalls that it was also a decade of burgeoning American symphony orchestras, community art museums, a substantial market for recordings of classical music, “art” movie houses, encyclopedias, Book-of-the-Month clubs, and “the years of the paperback book revolution, a development of fundamental importance to middlebrows because middlebrowism was, above all, a reading culture.”

In examining the present “culture of distraction,” Jacoby makes the point that “the willed attention demanded by print is the antithesis of the reflexive distraction encouraged by infotainment media, whether one is talking about about the tunes on an iPod, a picture flashing briefly on a home page, a text message, a video game, or the latest offering of ‘reality’ TV.” The ability of all these sources to simultaneously engender “distraction and absorption accounts for much of their snakelike charm.”

But what about the “reasonable-sounding proposition that all we have to do to control the influence of the media in our lives is to turn off the television set, the iPod, the computer” and turn to more substantial materials? Jacoby notes that it’s not so easy to turn off media “that make up, as a once ubiquitous television commercial for cotton clothing proclaimed, ‘the fabric of our lives.’” Here, Jacoby is pointing to the crucial notion of a “cultural context.” You don’t just click the power button off if you have nothing in your cultural context to give you a reason to do so, and everything encouraging you to cheer on the contestants of “American Idol,” the last Survivor, or Britney’s or Lindsay’s or whoever’s latest bout with detox and rehab. This is one of the arguments that philosopher Herbert Marcuse made in his critique of One Dimensional Man in the 1960s when he emphasized the all-enveloping nature of a cultural box that didn’t allow one to think outside of it. Or, as Jacoby puts it, “The more time people spend before the computer screen or any screen, the less time and desire they have for two human activities critical to a fruitful and demanding intellectual life: reading and conversation.”

Jacoby could have said more about what the difference is between reading as an act of thought and mere consumption of visual infotainment, but with respect to current arguments about whether there is a decline in reading, she leaves little doubt. “There is really no need to make a case for the proposition that video watching displaces reading,” she says. “When four out of ten adults read no books at all (fiction or non-fiction), the facts speak for themselves,” and in case they don’t, she cites the details of the National Endowment for the Arts survey documenting the case.

“These recent statistics are particularly important because they document the decreasing popularity of books in a largely literate society,” Jacoby adds. “Even if such figures had existed two centuries ago, it would be pointless to compare the proportion of readers [today] to the proportion in 1800, when only a small minority of the population could read at all.” That is, the issue isn’t whether there was or wasn’t a Golden Age of Reading in the past, but that the proportion of readers has diminished since the middle of the last century despite the vastly increased technological and institutional opportunities for reading today. What’s taking place looks more like an intellectual paradigm shift than mere disaffection with Gutenburg’s printing press.

Not only is there less reading, but there are corollary side effects: published writing tends to be shorter and more superficial; book reviewing is in decline across the U.S.; and even conversation and letter-writing have given way to talk shows and text messages. And if you’re wondering about writing skills in the school population at large, a recent New York Times story reports that only “about one-third of America’s eighth-grade students, and about one in four high school seniors, are proficient writers,” according to the results of the latest nationwide test (Sam Dillon, “Students Lack Writing Skills in Test,” New York Times, Apr. 3, 2008). Since the proficiency level of the test was a grade of about 55 per cent, not exactly a high hurdle, that means 75 per cent of America’s high school teens are failing. They’re also failing when it comes to matters of history, geography, and the structure of government—not a good sign for sustaining a democratic polity.

The response to Jacoby’s mild-mannered jeremiad has been mixed at best. It was faintly praised by lead reviewer Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times as “smart, well researched and frequently cogent,” but faulted for “failing to pull these observations together into a coherent, new argument.” More typical perhaps is the Philadelphia Inquirer’s resident academic reviewer Carlin Romano, who wonders, in a sort of “what, me worry?” Mad Magazine style, if there’s even a problem out there. In his best Junior Chamber of Commerce manner, Carlin cites as counter-evidence international elites who send their kids to elite American universities; the preponderance of U.S. Nobel Prize winners in various fields; and foreign book publishers who furiously compete for rights to American books.

Carlin suggests that Jacoby “needs to get out of her apartment” and secure a professorship. “Ensconced at a first-class university or college, she’s likely to find that her ‘Age of American Unreason’ never happened.” Leave aside Carlin’s insufferably smug tone. I don’t know if the place where I teach is first-class, but as someone “ensconced” in a college classroom, I can assure Carlin that Jacoby’s description of our intellectual ills is pretty much spot on. More important, the issue is not whether there’s an intellectual pulse in elite educational institutions, but the state of mind of the 60 or 70 per cent of college age youth who are not in post-secondary education at all, first-rate or otherwise. They’re the generation that will be faced with the maintenance of a venerable republic. Jacoby’s doubts that they’re up to it are not, um, unreasonable.

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Berlin, Apr. 7, 2008. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in North Vancouver, B.C. His most recent book is Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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