Ben Babcock's Reviews > The Age of American Unreason

The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby
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May 31, 08

bookshelves: own, non-fiction, culture, politics, via-colbert, 2008-read
Read in May, 2008 — I own a copy

I heard of Susan Jacoby's book (and Jacoby herself, I might add) through her interview on The Colbert Report. The topic struck a chord with me. I suppose I could describe myself as an intellectual even though I am only a teenager/young adult--I read for pleasure, as my membership on this site would indicate, and I regularly engage in thought and discourse about matters that may be labelled intellectual. As a result, a book about anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in America piqued my interest (I may as well note at this point that I am Canadian).

My overall impression of Jacoby's book is that it is extremely well-written. Whether you agree with her arguments or not, to any degree, the book is a worthwhile exploration of the subject it discusses. Jacoby charts the American attitude toward intellectualism, learning, religion, science, and more, throughout its history, from its founding to the present day. She does this in a lively, thought-provoking manner, providing quotations and statistics to back up her assertions. I found the trip through history alone quite pleasant; I enjoy books that link their subjects to historical and social contexts, thereby increasing my awareness of how the past influences our present day actions.

What of Jacoby's thesis? Well, I can't say I agree 100% with her. The great thing about living in a free country and being intellectual is the capacity to read and respect another's opinion without totally agreeing with it, of course. I share Jacoby's worries about how infotainment is crippling our children and our culture. I despise the plague of reality television and daytime TV such as Dr. Phil or Oprah. The fact that more people turn to that medium for their relaxation and entertainment--especially people may age--than read a book saddens me. I enjoy my books.

As a technophile, I can't fully support Jacoby's attitudes toward technology's role in this matter. I definitely agree that the public too often tries to find technological solutions to what are essentially social problems--as a programmer, I lament this fact daily, because it makes it harder for me to program when people constantly insist I add a feature designed to restrict something that should be common sense. I love technology; I really do. But that's because I use it responsibly. I spend what may be an unhealthy time on the Internet, I admit, but I do read books. I talk with friends, try to prod them into a vaguely intellectual discussion. I do my part.

The Age of American Unreason is a welcome break from the polarized polemics of political pundits obsessed with the upcoming American election. Jacoby may be a secularist and an atheist, but she gives the right its dues and criticizes the left when appropriate. She is emphatic and resolute in her opinions, but at the same time, Jacoby is humble--in her conclusion, she notes, "I too am nibbling at the edges. . . None of these suggestions addresses the core problem created by the media--the pacifiers of the mind that permeate our homes, schools, and politics" (315). To me, this combination makes her an effective author.

Her remarks remind me of Douglas Coupland's novel Girlfriend in a Coma, in which the main characters go through the apocalypse in order to be reminded of the most important aspects of life: to challenge everything. To question everything, to constantly seek answers and explanations. Exploration has been a constant driving force of humanity. Just because we've mapped the Earth doesn't mean exploration needs to stop. It simply means it must metamorphose into a mental exercise; we must continue to explore the nature of humanity. But we can't do that if we continue to ignore it by becoming slaves to television or shooting down opponents with ad hominem attacks. We must challenge everything we think is right, because so often, history has proven we've been wrong. And if we are right, then our efforts to prove ourselves wrong will merely make our conviction stronger.
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