Age of American Unreason, The

Susan Jacoby
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 for logic and evidence defines a pervasive malaise fostered by the mass media, triumphalist religious fundamentalism, mediocre public education, a dearth of fair-minded public intellectuals on the right and the left, and, above all, a lazy and credulous public.Jacoby offers an unsparing indictment of the American addiction to infotainment--from television to the Web--and cites this toxic dependency as the major element distinguishing our current age of unreason from earlier outbreaks of American anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism. With reading on the decline and scientific and historical illiteracy on the rise, an increasingly ignorant public square is dominated by debased media-driven language and received opinion.At this critical political juncture, nothing could be more important than recognizing the "overarching crisis of memory and knowledge" described in this impassioned, tough-minded book, which challenges Americans to face the painful truth about what the flights from reason has cost us as individuals and as a nation.

Reviews

Reviewed: 2019-09-02
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 reader.

Much of what she states as unquestionably true are things that, frankly, are questionable, so the fact that she makes no attempt to truly justify her beliefs is troubling.

In the end, Jacoby comes off as an anti-technology luddite, hating technology, television, the internet, and other forms of modernity because they decrease the amount of precious time people spend reading books. She even goes so far as to whine about the decline of reading poetry and fiction, though she makes no evidence whatsoever that these styles of writing contribute in any way to intellectualism.

This book is infuriating to read because there's nothing I hate more than an extremely poor argument in favor of a position with which I agree. Much of what Jacoby says is agreeable, and some of it even intuitive. But she often shifts from the intuitive to the extremist in her belief set, never providing powerful rationale for opinions being espoused from either area.

My 'favorite' part of the book was when Jacoby rambled on about the Harvard president that supposedly claimed that the reason for few female professors could be genetic. Jacoby is infuriated by this claim, and the feminist in her takes over the chapter that discusses this matter. I found this entertaining primarily because it was also discussed in the last book I read, 'Super Crunchers', which explains that the vast majority of people didn't understand the president's real claim because people don't understand the difference between average and standard deviation. Super Crunchers discusses this issue at length, explaining what the president ACTUALLY meant and providing citations of studies which back it up. It turns out there's nothing sexist or demeaning about the statement that the president actually made, but the public's grasp of statistics (Super Cruncher's main focus) is so weak that it has been misunderstood by many.

Having just read that, reading Jacoby rant on about how offended she was by his claim, revealing that she belongs in the "bad at math" category, was nothing short of hilarious.

This book is downright embarassing, I've lost nearly all respect I gained for Jacoby while reading Freethinkers.
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