Susan Jacoby – The Age of American Unreason

June 13, 2008

Susan Jacoby is the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. A prominent public intellectual, she frequently appears in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Free Inquiry. Her latest best selling book is The Age of American Unreason.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Susan Jacoby explores recent trends that she argues have led to the “age of American unreason,” including religious fundamentalism, mass media consumption and “video culture,” and multiculturalism. She addresses how fundamentalism feeds anti-intellectualism in America, and how not only fundamentalism can be blamed for it. She details both the upside and the downside of the internet, the perils of too much TV viewing, and the effect of such over-consumtion on the cultural literacy of average Americans. She addresses criticism that she is merely “elitist” or a “luddite,” and ends with specifics on how people can work to challenge the Age of American Unreason.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 13th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries. The radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to Susan Jacoby, here’s a word from Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

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I’m really happy to have Susan Jacoby back on point of inquiry. She’s the author of Freethinkers A History of American Secularism, which has had multiple hardcover printings and is also out in paperback. Freethinkers was hailed in The New York Times as an ardent and insightful work that seeks to rescue a proud tradition from the indifference of posterity. Susan Jacoby joins me to talk about her new book, The Age of American Unreason. Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Susan Jacoby. 

Oh, I’m very happy to be here again. 

Susan, I’m glad you’re back on the show. We’re talking about today, your book, The Age of American Unreason. As disturbing as this book is, I should say, I loved it. One of the best books I’ve read all year in this book, you’re really arguing that the life of the mind in America has really gone to pot. But here’s the question. Haven’t people been saying this same argument for generations? Do you really think it’s gotten worse than when Hofstetter wrote his book in the 60s decrying anti intellectual ism in America? 

Well, actually, Hofstetter wasn’t saying the wife of mine gone to pot. What he was saying is that there have been anti intellectual factors in American life really since the beginning. 

And that is something that people have been saying for generations because it’s true for generations. One of the things Hofstetter name, which I do in my book, was also something that’s been always a paradox in America, our attitudes about education. On the one hand, no country has believed more passionately in education as an instrument of social mobility. No country democratized education earlier than America. On the other hand, we’re very practically oriented. We’re very suspicious of too much education, of education. That doesn’t seem to come directly to the point of getting a better job at making more money. So those two things have always coincided. Same thing with religious fundamentalism, which is a strongly anti intellectual force, always has been. On the other hand, as Hofstetter pointed out, banning intellectual ism. That’s part of fundamentalism, meaning a literal interpretation of sacred books also coincided with fundamentalism and evangelicalism as emphasizing a personal relationship between God and man rather than ecclesiastical hierarchy. So there are many factors in American yanai intellectual ism that have always been there. What is different today is what Hofstetter could not have emphasized or discussed in his book is the 24/7 domination of our culture by the infotainment media, which was something that hadn’t happened in 1963. 

Right. I want to get both to that. And you’re taking on religious fundamentalism and even this this tension that you’re that you just identified between people wanting to be practical, kind of just their education is just training to get a job versus education to edify a life. We’ll touch on all of those. But let’s start off with just the obvious. Isn’t it easier for people to know stuff today than ever before? Don’t people know more today because information and knowledge is so much more easily available to everybody? Give me a specific example, in other words, of how bad you say it is. 

Well, first of all, people ought to know more today. In other words, information has never been easier to get via the Internet. If, you know, if you and I were to be discussing some obscure date that neither of us knows, all we’d have to do is point and click on Google and we could find out what the answer is. 

One of the statistics I often cite is that a majority of Americans don’t know they’re nine justices on the Supreme Court. Americans under 40. The majority of them can’t name the three branches of government. Fully 30 percent of Americans can’t name a single right enumerated in the First Amendment. Now, I got an e-mail from a guy about this. I cite these statistics in my lectures very often, and they’re from book. And he said, you don’t need to be able to know the Bill of Rights now because you can look it up on the Internet. Well, true, but you have to know that there is such a thing as a Bill of Rights to know what to look for on the Internet. And that’s the point. That information itself, the ability to retrieve it, is useless if you don’t already have a framework of knowledge to fit it into. And if you don’t know what you’re looking for, garbage in, garbage out. 

And so the great volume of information is actually a trend in the wrong direction. You think because it’s hard to sort through it, figure out what you should know versus what you don’t need to know? 

No, it’s not the volume of information that’s the problem. It’s the lack of basic education and reading that enables people. There’s no problem sorting through the volume of information. If you know what you’re looking for, but you can’t know what you’re looking for. If, for example, half of Americans under 40 never read any book by any book, I mean any book. I don’t mean classics. I don’t mean difficult scientific books. I mean, half of Americans under 40 don’t read any book. If you don’t read it all and you have a poor basic education, then you can’t sort through the information. That’s what I’m saying, is it’s not the volume of information itself. It’s the lack of a basic underlying education that enables you to have some ideas about what information you’re looking for. 

Let’s get into this tension between practical concerns and education in general. What’s the payoff, Susan, for the average American who’s worrying most about gas prices or mortgage payments to know the basics of astronomy or evolution or American history? For most people I know, cultural and scientific literacy is something that you only worry about after you get your basic needs met. And even then, for a lot of people, it’s only going to get a more gold stars at a cocktail party or something. So here’s what I want to ask. 

Isn’t the idea of an event on how stupid people have become? Okay. Point taken. And maybe I need better cocktail parties, don’t we all? 

Susan, isn’t the idea of you as an intellectual decrying anti intellectual wisdom in America a bit like plumbers or something, decrying the fact that most people don’t know plumbing? I don’t need to know plumbing. If I need a plumber. I’ll just call a plumber if if you need to figure out something in American history. Call a historian. 

Well, personal plumbing and history aren’t quite the same thing. We don’t need to know plumbing to live our lives. As you say, we call a plumber. We do need to know something about American history to make the ordinary judgments. And getting back to your question about gas prices. We need to know something about American history to make the ordinary judgments that are all required of us as citizens. For example, you talk about the ordinary guy or ordinary gal who’s paying too much for gas. Well, I would say that one of the reasons that we’re in this pickle we are right now is, is that people in general have not given much thought to the consequences of the assumptions upon which our economy has always been based. That there’s no problem with buying cars that only get five miles to a gallon when gas is cheap. Buy your SUV. You only think about fuel economy at a time when gas prices are high. Suddenly, things like gas prices and global warming and everything that’s both ordinary and extraordinary as it touches are alive. Knowing something about it is important. Talk about something like paying your mortgage and mortgage defaults of American 15 year olds ranked almost dead last from the bottom in mathematics in comparison to students in other countries. Now, a lot of reason why people got into trouble with loans, with credit in America is a country that is basically it has gotten in trouble by use of bad credit. One of the things that enables you to use credit well, is understanding interest rates and what they mean, which requires understanding fractions and percentages. Now, whether you have the discipline to use that knowledge is one thing. But if you actually don’t know what an interest rate of, say, 20 percent means, if you’ve got a mortgage on which you’re paying 20 percent interest, then you’re going to make bad decisions. That’s why the idea that there’s some opposition between knowledge and practical knowledge is wrong. And by the way, speaking of the plumber, I would argue this. It’s very funny. I got an e-mail from a guy who said something similar, but what he said was, why do I care? Half of Americans don’t know where Iraq is on a map. I don’t care. Said of my mechanic knows where Iraq is on a map. I only care that he knows how to fix my car. Well, first of all, I would argue that that is the truly elitist position. Why should anyone think that just because someone is a mechanic or a plumber, they they are capable of knowing where Iraq is on a map. And it may not matter as far as the plumber fixing your plumbing goes, but it certainly matters when he goes to vote and the votes of a plumber are equal to the votes of an intellectual, quote unquote. So the idea that there should be classes of people to whom certain kinds of knowledge are irrelevant and shouldn’t matter. That’s the truly elitist idea that people calling someone like me an elitist to run. What I’m saying is these are things everybody who goes to high school should know. You don’t need to be a graduate of Harvard or Yale to know these things. 

Right. Some critics dismiss your whole argument as just being one more elitist diatribe, as if what you’re pushing is against the very fabric of our culture, of the everyday Joe who works hard, doesn’t need a fancy education to make it in the world. You’re saying, yes, you are an elitist, and that’s good. 

What I’m saying as I. In a piece in The New York Times is the word a lead has been politicized and misused just means the best and the best of the best. I assume that if you want a plumber, you don’t want a schmuck. You want an elite plumber getting an operation. You want an elite surgeon, meaning the best of the best. The demonization of the word elitist as though it means something special elite just means the best. True elitism is a philosophy of government that believes in government by the few. In that sense, I am not an elitist, but I certainly believe in elite achievement, in elite education. And I believe that these things should be available to anyone and more important, at a higher level of education. By that, I don’t mean higher education. I’m in better education at all levels should be available to everyone. There was a great piece in The New York Times the other day by Bryan Green, who is that? Columbia, who organized the World Science Festival. And what he was talking about is about how lots of kids get the idea that science is boring because they’re given the little picture instead of the big picture. You know, what he was saying is we’re all born with a desire to know things. And one of the things that science education in elementary school is give people an idea. Give kids an idea when they’re looking at the stars, what those stars really mean, that they’re not like diamonds twinkling in the sky, that they’re centers of universes and sources of light. And here’s to where we come from. Maybe. And these things are available to everybody and they should be available to everybody. And the idea of the founders of this country was not that only a leader could be educated. It was that it was within everybody’s power. Obviously, there are differences of ability, but we aim so low. That’s what my book is, that we aim so low for everybody. 

Right. You mentioned the founders having an idea that education should be open to everybody, not just the not just people like them. 

Right. Not just the way they were in elite. Right. 

Hasn’t that dream been realized today because of technology? And this is the main thrust of your book. You’re arguing against kind of a video culture. We’ll get into that. But hasn’t technology finally made it possible that everyone has access to a quality of education that before was only open to those elite that you just mentioned today? Susan, you have podcasts. You have amazing educational programing on cable and PBS. There are wonderful companies out there like the teaching company that actually make good money selling people college lectures. Yeah, they sure do have editors, pro science, pro reason, grassroots movements like Center for Inquiry. Seems like these trends show that reason is alive and well in America. 

Reason is not alive and well in America. And as as much as I hate to admit it, being associated with the Center for Inquiry myself and by the way, and I would have been clued in this, a lot of what is called educational programing is all preaching to the converted. It’s wonderful stuff, but it doesn’t address itself to what are the basic problems of our lowest common denominator video culture. And these are problems. I think even talking about them at the college level is wrong. 

They are problems that begin early in homes. One of the things that’s a serious problem when kids come into elementary school is they’ve already been programed to to be entertained. I call it infotainment by using video all the time. Parents telling themselves it’s educational. 

This is nonsense. It’s not nearly as educational as reading to your kids and talking to them is. And I am not one of these people, by the way, who sees anything wrong with watching video or television for a moderate amount of time. You come home. You’re a parent. You have a kid. You want to have an adult conversation. There’s nothing wrong with putting the kid in front of a video for an hour. What is wrong is when the hour, as it does in the vast majority of American families, stretches of the two, three, four, five. The average household video watching time of seven hours a day. This is not education. It is absolutely passive training. And there is no worse training than video. At an early age for learning how to think because it’s very powerful, it overwhelms. You’re not filling in gaps that overwhelms your imagination. So when kids come into school and they start to learn to read, they’re already programed to think that books are boring and it’s only video that they want to look at. And the fact that there are things available through technology to everyone that weren’t available before doesn’t mean that people take advantage of them. You know, I submit to you that that a lot more people are watching people throw up on YouTube. They’re listening to the Center for Inquiry podcast. 

OK. Point taken. This line of argument that you just shared with our listeners are kind of against. 

Culture, TV shows and movies, the Internet, video games, not against it, against using it exclusively, which is largely what we’re doing right against the overconsumption. 

It sounds a lot like arguments that social conservatives make, especially coming out of the homeschool movement or something. But you say you are not a cultural conservative. You are what you call a cultural conservationist. 

Yeah. Well, cultural conservative, you know that that’s a term that’s been hijacked. That means, you know, people who are concerned with with abortion and with gay marriage hating gay marriage or the culture war issue. Yeah, they call it cultural, a cultural. Conservationists, like all conservationists, is concerned with preserving the best, best of the past and fuzing it with the best of the present. I think that one of the things that’s really wrong, and I think this is what the left has been responsible for, I’ve gotten a lot of criticism from both the right and the left for my book, and I’m perfectly happy to accept it. One of the things that the left has been responsible for is setting up an idea that there is an opposition between, quote, elite knowledge and a larger, more encompassing knowledge, that there’s no opposition between sort of, let’s say, learning about history and literature on a grand scale and learning about the history of specific cultures. There’s no reason there has to be an opposition between these things. These things can all be incorporated, a decent education, but not if you think it can be done by putting kids in front of video games and videos. 

Right. And when you were speaking about the left, you criticize what you call the ghettoizing of knowledge, where there are women’s studies departments or gay studies or or multicultural programs that just focus on one ethnicity or one racial or sexual minority and their contributions in the history. Right. 

Well, I was present at the creation of this, and I don’t criticize these programs. For example, there are a lot of people who want to go farther with them. These departments can offer things that you wouldn’t get in the core curriculum. What I think is, is that the basics of these things should have been incorporated into the core curriculum so that there shouldn’t. I am stunned. I was I was first a college student and now a young reporter for The Washington Post when these separate departments were established and it suited the needs of both the right and the left very well. First of all, the creation of the multicultural studies ghetto. It made the left happy because it created a whole lot of new tenured jobs. What’s not to like? And it made the right reactionaries happy because they weren’t required to incorporate knowledge about women’s history and literature by women and African-American history and and and things written by African-Americans. They basically could go on teaching their white horses the white European culture courses the way they always had. So it was a it was a very bad bargain. And why? Because it is still possible for most universities. Not at all. There’s some like there’s some excellent ethnic studies program at Harvard, for example, which have lots of students from, you know, from all races. And that’s great. But that’s not the case on most campuses. I gave a lecture in Southern California a few years ago and a great book by the great African-American historian John Hope. Franklin had just come out and he’s a national treasure because he was born in 1915 and is a great historian. And so it’s his book. His autobiography is almost the history of 20th century race relations, written by a black man and a great professional historian. Well, I mentioned this book. A Vietnamese girl came up to me afterwards and said she’d had to read that in her black studies class. And I asked her how many nonblack students there were in her class. And she said to her, another Chinese guy. Well, now this is a book. John Hope Franklin book that doesn’t belong in a special black studies class. It belongs in an American history class because it’s American history. So my objection is not to having more African-American women’s history is that it’s still possible for a large majority of white students to get through school knowing as little about African-American history as I did when I graduated from college in 1965. And it’s not good, by the way, for students who major in the multicultural studies ghetto either because the only thing they’re fit for a jobs in the multicultural studies ghetto. What’s worthwhile in multicultural studies? Everyone should know. 

So you’ve identified just now a problem coming from the left that is part of this age of American unreason. 

Well, it came from the right to Jim Underdown because the right one of those studies getaways. So it didn’t have to deal with them. 

Right. You identify other causes in the book other than TV, movies and the Internet, which we’ve talked about. And this compartmentalization. Or departmental ization of knowledge in these programs at various universities, you also talk about fundamentalist religion as being one of the biggest culprits in the age of American unreason. 

Oh, yes and no. 

I think fundamentalist religion has been too easy for liberals to blame for everything. Let’s talk about the evolution battle, which is dear to the heart of all of us. The Center for Inquiry. A third of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. It is understandable, but the Earth was created in six days. It’s understandable why they could never accept evolution. You can’t believe the Bible is literally true and accept evolution. But that leaves the other two thirds. And the fact is, is fully two thirds of Americans say that both creationism and evolution should be taught in public schools. And they say they reject the idea of even evolution guided by God. Now, of of that two thirds, a third of them aren’t fundamentalists. So what explains their views on evolution? Yeah, you can’t blame it on fundamentalism, which you can’t blame it all on fundamentalism. You have to blame it on basic scientific ignorance. Now, fundamentalism plays into that through our educational system, in that the third, who are fundamentalists, exercise a disproportionate influence on schools at the local level. And we have basically local control of schools in America and Italy. If the cultural values are different in Sicily and Milan, doesn’t matter if you go to high school in either Naples or Milan, you learn the same thing about science. But in America, that’s not true. In the schools of New York City and the schools of Okolona, Mississippi, you don’t learn the same things about evolution. 

And that’s because local Christian activists have seized power of school boards, etc.. 

And and also, in many cases, I think this is beginning to change the science. People are fighting back. Look what happened in Dover, Pennsylvania. I think it’s beginning to change. What has happened the past? The fundamentalists care so much more and the other side is more disorganized and and always the side that cares more and organizes better wins. 

So you can’t pin fundamentalist religion for all of the problems in this age of American unreason. But they do deserve some of the blame. 

Yeah, because first of all, there isn’t any other developed country in the world in which a third of the people actually believe in a literal interpretation of a sacred book. Right. This is not something that exists anywhere in the developed world. It’s one of the differences between America and Europe and America and Japan. 

So if fundamentalist religion deserves some of the blame, what do you think about the fact that today more people than ever seem to be skeptical, kind of avowedly skeptical of that kind of religion? There’s the success of books like The God Delusion. And your book Freethinkers The History of American Secularism before that. Do you think it follows that as more people get critical of religion, that more people will prize learning and education like you suggest they should? In in your new book, what I’m getting at is would you say that the new atheists are a step in the right direction when it comes to the problems of anti intellectual wisdom that you identify in the age of American unreason? 

Not necessarily the new atheists. I would say that in general, a more skeptical attitude toward fundamentalist religion is very good for learning. And you don’t have to be an atheist, which I am. But you don’t have to be an atheist to be skeptical about fundamentalist religion. One of the things that was really interesting just a couple of months ago is a new poll released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that huge numbers of Americans, more than half have. The unchurched is the largest growing segment now in American life. 

That’s not atheist or agnostics, just people who know. 

But. But when people drop out of the religion into which they were born and don’t join another one, what it shows is, is that Orthodox religion has a lot less control over their mind. So that I think in the sense that religious skepticism has always been associated with learning. And we know this. The fact is, it’s fundamentalism is strongest in areas of the country where education is weak. People are much more likely to be fundamentalist if they have only a grade school or a partial high school education than they are if they have a college education. That’s just bad. 

Do you see that as more of a cause or an effect? 

Both. Both. But I think obviously the less education you have, the more credulous you are. One of the reasons why the Christian Right organized schools from kindergarten through college is they don’t want their kids exposed to secular education at any level because the more people are exposed to more secular education, they are much more likely to question rigid and orthodox religion. 

And that’s not. But just education in general? 

Well, we’ve touched on these really three trends that you’ve addressed in your book as of being responsible for this age of American unreason. You know, the fundamentalist religion, you can’t pin it all on that. These trends from the left and also the video culture, which I’m a big fan of. In fact, I I think I’d know a lot less about the world if if I weren’t Googling everyday, if I weren’t surfing the net every day. 

You’re you’re comparing yourself to a little kid who is exposed to a constant stream of video. The video culture and the Internet culture are great for those of us who already know something, who are already educated. They’re a tool. But what these things become is a substitute for active learning when too much of them is imposed at too young an age, unless it’s very wrong to compare ourselves, adult people who also have a traditional education and read to a little kid who thinks that a cartoon character is what learning is all about. 

Now all of it’s about, okay, ICN, I understand that point. So the criticism isn’t just in the overuse of video culture as Americans in general, but especially young children and their overconsumption. 

Yeah, well, but I do think adults can overconsume it too. Right. 

Right. Well, as my spouse criticizes me for doing sometimes too. 

We all lie to ourselves. I say this in the book, too, about how much video consumption we do. Mm hmm. I used to say I never watched much TV until I did a TV turn off week and I found out that I watched. In fact, a lot of TV. I just had a book in my hand at the same time. And when I had the TV off, I was getting a lot more out of the book. So I was reading it with the TV on. 

But you’re not one of those intellectuals who say, hey, if you’re really going to be a smart cookie, throw away your TiVo. 

Of course, that we all have to live in a world in which we live. The idea that what you should do is never look at the TV, never look at a video. That’s ridiculous. 

Yeah, that’s like saying we shouldn’t have running water or something. Water from the creek is bad. Nora Hurley. Yeah. That’s genuinely Luddites. And you’re not that I’m not. 

But but I’ve been accused of it because as far as I’m concerned, the Internet, the web, there are wonderful tool. That’s it. They’re tools. They’re not God like independent sources of anything. 

OK, so we’ve talked about these trends of unreason. What do you propose we do about it? Do you have some action plan that our listeners can say, okay, I’m persuaded. Let’s get in there and fight against this age of American unreason? 

Number one, people who are skeptically minded and educated really have to be after their local schools about everything. We have to be after them in the same way that fundamentalist Christians have been after their schools for more than a generation. The second thing I think we have to do is indeed stop kidding ourselves. 

But the impact of video on kids. I think that parents have to have to also set an example with their own behavior. If kids see vegging out in front of the TV set for five hours a night, why should they do any different? I mean, people model their behavior, little kids model after what they see. And I don’t make any apologies for it. Books are a better source of learning for the young than video. And if what parents do is they make they make books seem like spinach and videos seem like dessert, and they act that way themselves. They’re passing on those values to kids. 

Thank you very much for this discussion, Susan Jacoby. 

Thank you, D.J.. It’s real pleasure to have been on point of inquiry. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.