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The Age of American Unreason

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  2,978 ratings  ·  489 reviews
Combining historical analysis with contemporary observation, Susan Jacoby dissects a new American cultural phenomenon—one that is at odds with our heritage of Enlightenment reason and with modern, secular knowledge and science. With mordant wit, she surveys an anti-rationalist landscape extending from pop culture to a pseudo-intellectual universe of "junk thought." Disdain ...more
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published February 12th 2008 by Pantheon
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Bill Kerwin
Apr 28, 2008 rated it liked it

This thoughtful exploration of anti-intellectualism in America was originally published in March of 2008, six months before John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate. In it, Jacoby alerted us to an America already sick with "a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism.” Now, a little more than ten years later, Donald Trump is the President of the United States, and--if the economy holds--may be elected for his second term. Jacoby's boo
Skylar Burris
Feb 17, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: politics
Because I am a product of the Age of American Unreason, I’m going to begin reviewing this book before I’ve finished reading it. Besides, I don’t have time to read the entire book. I have to watch all the re-runs I’ve DVRed of America’s Biggest Loser and Bachelor, and then I need to fantasize about the end times when everyone who disagrees with me gets theirs, and I’ve also got to spend a few minutes irrationally doubting whether macroevolutionary theory is a fully sufficient explanation for the ...more
Dec 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
Once upon a time, and a very good time it was indeed, there was an America that proudly stood as the intellectual beacon of the world, the light on the hill which shone and illuminated even down into those darkest of places the light of reason and hope. Because reason and hope are sisters and hand-in-hand they can transform the world.

Then one day one of these sisters got lost in the woods, lost in the dark and impenetrable woods of ignorance and stupidity and aggressive ignorance. And hope calle
Scott Rhee
May 31, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics, sociology
Society is going to Hell in a handbasket. That seems to be the general consensus regardless of one's political leaning.

In Susan Jacoby's immensely fascinating book "The Age of American Unreason", Jacoby explains the history of how and why we arrived at this sad state of affairs. It is a fascinating history that starts with a group of extraordinary gentlemen who, in 1776, were able to put aside their differences and collaborate on the creation of an extraordinary document, one that still continu
Apr 14, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: everyone, but take it with a grain of salt
Recommended to Kristine by: Katie Schreiner
If you agree with everything Jacoby says, you're not paying enough attention. She's out to diagnose all the reasons why Americans are falling behind the rest of the world intellectually. I think she's right about a lot of what she says, but she blames quite a bit on conservatives and on religion that I don't agree can be laid on those particular doorsteps. At the same time, it's fascinating to read her take on the 60's--particularly given that my in-laws were definitely part of the counter-count ...more
Ivonne Rovira
Aug 30, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: thinkers
Shelves: favorites
How did America get to this point, a point of hubristic anti-intellectualism, of a mocking dismissal of science, a point at which Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s main advisor, could say — in all seriousness — to author Ron Suskind, as he did in 2004,
that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” ...

“That's not the way the world really works anymore,” he
Apr 29, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: own, non-fiction
I know I vowed in my previous reviews not to read any more of these particular sorts of books, more liberals explaining the mind of those crazy conservatives, and how unsatisfied I inevitably am with their explanations. Yet surely Susan Jacoby will be different, considering how much I loved her Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Sadly, no. While the book starts out on the right track towards the end it veers wildly off course. Perhaps my two star rating is me taking my frustration w ...more
Mar 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This book is thoroughly researched, logically organized, eloquently written, and incredibly significant for the real problem it points out: the severe dumbing down of America that has occurred in the past forty years. With wit and wisdom, the author puts this troubling phenomenon in the larger historical context of the history of this country, and traces the strong and virulent forces that coalesced to set us on the path toward the bleak future sardonically portrayed in the 2006 film Idiocracy ( ...more
Steven Walle
Sep 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was a very well written book. It was very well thought out and researched. I recommend it to all. It explains how the American culture is going down the tubes.
Enjoy and Be Blessed
Justin Evans
Aug 07, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: essays
Ah, a left-wing version of Alan Bloom's 'Closing of the American Mind.' Just what we need.
There are good things about this book, specifically, the history of the early and mid-twentieth century. The opening chapters and the closing chapters, however, are mind-boggling. If one takes it upon oneself to defend 'reason', it is best to be rational in the task. Jacoby can't do it. I'm glad she pointed out that the worst instance of irrationality is our general inability to distinguish between causati
Nov 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: societies
If you already think civilization is going to hell in a handbasket, this book will not change your mind. Anti-intellectualism in the United States is not a new phenomenon, as the author shows. However, it used to be held in check by economic and social forces, so that prideful dumbassery stayed on the fringes of society. Not anymore. The crazies are front and center and are running the show.

There are multiple explanations for what happened, but in essence the previous culture of deliberative, ob
Jan 13, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Terence by: Jacoby interview on Bill Moyer's Journal
The Age of American Unreason is another road-trip audio CD adventure so I couldn't take notes, I got distracted on occasion, and I can't review the text as I write this. Consequently, this review will be brief (perhaps blessedly so) and lacking in much detail but, for what it's worth, here it is:

Jacoby traces three streams of American culture: A low-brow, ignorant-and-proud-of-it tradition that's wary of education and distrustful of the educated; a high-brow tradition of educated elites, who hav
Paul  Perry
Jan 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, society
An excellent and timely book on the decline of intellectualism in the USA, which is also relevant to the rest of the developed world. While I personally believe that Jacoby overplays her hand in the latter chapters on the malign influence of screen culture (the ubiquity of TV and now computers), the thrust of her argument is well written and undeniable. If we do not respect intellectualism and aspire to it for ourselves and our children, if we do not educate ourselves by reading broadly rather t ...more
Mar 19, 2008 rated it really liked it
This book has been hyped with a lot of articles in newspapers, esp. a big one in the New York Times and sounded interesting. I found that the sections of the book where she laid out the historical foundations of American anti-intellectualism were not as interesting as the sections towards the end where she starts cataloging all the junk science, junk thought, obsession with celebrities,technological distractions, and 'us folks' relativism that have taken over society today. Some of it approaches ...more
Charles Clark
Apr 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: awesome
Possibly the best book I've ever read. ...more
May 06, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommended to Sally by: Andrew Baird
Ultimately, this book did its job, or a job, because I feel strongly enough about it to write a review. Jacoby's broad intention is, I think, heartfelt and needed. And many of her subarguments are coherent and compelling. It is her own emphasis on high intellectual standards that invites criticism of otherwise minor points. She demands rigor in American thought, so I shall apply rigor to my evaluation of her book.
Her willingness to express not just amusement but alarm at the inability of Presid
Feb 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

“Public opinion polls conducted during the past four years have consistently found that more than one third of Americans believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, while nearly six in ten believe that the bloody predictions in the Book of Revelation—which involve the massacre of everyone who has not accepted Jesus as the Messiah—will come true.”—page 30

Irrationality is always deeply disturbing; but willful anti-rationalism really scares the bejeezus o
Rod Hilton
Sep 26, 2008 rated it it was ok
For a book that laments the decline of reason in American culture, this book sure does manage to avoid it's use when making arguments.

Essentially the book's real premise is this: Americans are increasingly anti-rational, largely due to the fact that they are reading fewer books. Considering this is coming from a book author, it's hard not to face this argument with some skepticism. Indeed, Jacoby never really provides much in the way of evidence, assuming her claims to be self-evident to the rea
Feb 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Dismayed by the rapid decrease of reading, writing and intelligent discourse in America, Susan Jacoby has crafted an engaging, at times humorous, often depressing and always thought provoking book on the present, past and future of intellectualism in America.

I came into this book thinking that the author would be "preaching to the choir" and was surprised to come away looking hard at my own life for ways to change. Although I am an avid reader and consider myself, probably quite pompously, to be
Aug 22, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, book-club
Broader in scope than Al Gore's The Assault on Reason (2007), the Age of American Unreason (2008) attempts to trace the history of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow culture and thinking in America, comparing past ages to the present age, digging particularly into the influence various factors -- religion, popular culture, consumerism, the press and electronic media -- have on the quality of public discourse and what passes for reason in America.

But after the first chapter, I began to feel I was
Daniel Solera
This took a while to get through. Not only does each of Jacoby's sentences sound like it deserves its own dissertation, but a lot of ground is covered in its 300+ pages. As a seasoned journalist, Jacoby tackles the prevailing anti-intellectual sentiment that has infiltrated every aspect of daily life, from the media, to pop-culture to civic and political figures.

Jacoby devotes a lot of time to the history of this sentiment, dating back to the pre-Civil War ideological split in the nation. She no
Mouldy Squid
Jun 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People interested in politics, culture, education, religion and higher-learning.
A lot of people really dislike this book. They accuse Jacoby of being a Luddite, attacking only straw men, using unreasoned arguments, being a snob and other less kind things. These comments more or less prove her point.

Jacoby details not just the anti-intellectualism of the past forty years, but the strain of anti-intellectualism present throughout the entire history of the United States. Of particular focus is the conservative political movements and fundamentalist religion. Modern popular cul
Brian Stillman
May 04, 2008 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Readers that like books written by people that resemble self satisfied ducks
Shelves: read-2008
I'm betting Jacoby self-identifies as an intellectual.

She bashes chick lit. She bashes Stephen King. She has no idea why college students wouldn't want to hang with the "real writer" forced to crash at their dormitory on her whirlwind book tour. Probably because the "real writer" looked desperate to dispense intellectualisms into young ears.

The way it works is if you've read a book by Stephen King, John Grisham, Danielle Steel, Sophie Kinsella, Patricia Cornwell, etc., and it sucked, you've eve
Nov 30, 2016 rated it liked it
I wanted to make sense of the 2016 election. I understand more about USA voter motivations now, but I'm even more disgusted and depressed. This book demonstrates that we're a bunch of no-reading, tv-addicted, science-ignorant fundamentalists who vote for buffoons because we have a culture that despises the intellectuals who should be leading us. Great. Just great. Thanks for the eye-popping backslap while I'm hanging over the abyss. ...more
Apr 15, 2012 rated it liked it
Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason is a book that might be substantially improved by a serious printing accident. While the first five chapters provide an excellent overview of American engagements with anti-rationalism through the mid-twentieth century, the latter half is characterized by a strange combination of shrillness (on the subject of culture) and placation (on the subject of religion), and offers few solutions to improve the intellectual situation of a country where, as Jacoby ...more
Jun 10, 2008 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: Liberals who like to look down on others in snobby fashion
Recommended to Heather by: The internet... bad, bad internet
If goodreads had any intention of fixing their broken code so I could rate this book, I would give it the "I HATED IT" rating.

Jacoby presents her book in a chronological order. So, I thought I really liked the book up until she started talking about present day stuff. Then her bias became so unbelievably clear to me that I no longer trust any of the things she said about the past and I realize I only accepted her view because I didn't really know much about the things she was discussing.

Before y
Jul 25, 2008 rated it liked it
Irritating, and not even that good a screed. Jacoby's history of why people believe dumb things, or don't believe in reason, is pretty solid, but after the 60s chapter, which has a nice balance, it starts to feel more and more like a scattershot attempt to rewrite The Closing of the American Mind, except this time by someone who has actually stepped outside the classroom in the last 30 years.

It's not entirely successful. Parts of it feel like journalistic pieces plopped in where they fit (Baby
James Perkins
Jul 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Lots of us like to poke fun at stupid Americans; this book provides the reasons behind why we (non-Americans) think America is so dumb. American academic, journalist, and social critic Susan Jacoby tracks the intellectual history of the United States from the time of the Constitution to the present day, explaining how the dreams of the well-educated "founding fathers" have been dashed on the rocks of pop culture, infotainment and religious fundamentalism. The chief culprits in spreading these in ...more
Oct 11, 2020 rated it liked it
It’s amazing how irritated I was by this book, considering I agreed with her a majority of the time. The irony to me is that despite her defense of intellectualism, she very much promotes what she herself identifies as middlebrow. I’m most familiar w the culture wars as a subject, and I found her comments about women’s and Black studies departments among the stupidest (I struggled a lot for that word, but that’ll do).

She brought up obesity, too, seeming disbelieving that anyone could complain a
Mar 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Originally read and reviewed in 2008, re-read and re-reviewed in November 2016:
An occasionally brilliant account of growing American anti-intellectualism. Some parts are a bit dry, but the more brilliant bits more than make up for them. Chapter 11, "Public Life: Defining Dumbness Downward" is a must-read. I find it even more relevant at the dawn of the Age of Trump than I did in the twilight of the Age of George W. Bush.
A quote of which I am especially enamored:
"The job of higher education is no
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Susan Jacoby is an independent scholar and best-selling author. The most recent of her seven previous books is The Age of American Unreason. She lives in New York City.

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Why not focus on some serious family drama? Not yours, of course, but a fictional family whose story you can follow through the generations of...
156 likes · 58 comments
“This mindless tolerance, which places observable scientific facts, subject to proof, on the same level as unprovable supernatural fantasy, has played a major role in the resurgence of both anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism.” 50 likes
“The specific use of folks as an exclusionary and inclusionary signal, designed to make the speaker sound like one of the boys or girls, is symptomatic of a debasement of public speech inseparable from a more general erosion of American cultural standards. Casual, colloquial language also conveys an implicit denial of the seriousness of whatever issue is being debated: talking about folks going off to war is the equivalent of describing rape victims as girls (unless the victims are, in fact, little girls and not grown women). Look up any important presidential speech in the history of the United States before 1980, and you will find not one patronizing appeal to folks. Imagine: 'We here highly resolve that these folks shall not have died in vain; and that government of the folks, by the folks, for the folks, shall not perish from the earth.” 16 likes
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