"The Age of American Unreason" combines author Susan Jacoby's elegant historical analysis with ample references to modern American culture in making an excellent, often persuasive, case in explaining how and why American culture is literally at its nadir now. And yet, her fine book doesn't have the polemical logic and focus found in two other books published this year, Kenneth R. Miller's "Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul", and Robert S. McElvaine's "Grand Theft Jesus". I strongly suspect that this may be due to the vast scope of Jacoby's book, which covers everything from the rise of scientific illiteracy and the advent of pseudoscientific nonsense like Intelligent Design and other flavors of creationism, to the political alliance between Fundamentalist Protestant Christian zealots and the conservative wing of the Republican Party. It may also be due, alas, to Jacoby's penchant for relying upon anecdotal memories of her youthful past in the 1960s, which, when compared and contrasted with her elegant historical analyses of American culture in the mid and late 19th Century, doesn't seem as persuasive.
Jacoby mourns the passing of a "middlebrow" culture which manifested itself in the forms of popular lectures on science attended by hundreds in the late 19th Century, to the publication of Will Durant's "The Story of Civilization", and the airing of classical music broadcasts by major radio and television networks. Instead, it has been replaced by a "lowbrow" culture noted for its corrosive effects on American culture. This includes not only the advent of rap music, but perhaps, more importantly, the de facto "segregation" of American studies into ethnic and gender studies which promote, not discourage, exclusion in American college and university classrooms. A "lowbrow" culture that has also embraced junk thought, ranging from, of course, the popularity of so-called "scientific" creationism, especially Intelligent Design, to those who have been advocating against mandatory immunization of children for measles. A "lowbrow" culture that is more widely disseminated than before, due to the rapid rise of the Internet, which Jacoby, not surprisingly, is quite critical of.
So, the reader may ask, what should be done to stem the rising tide of ignorance? In an all too brief closing chapter, Jacoby argues on behalf of "cultural conservation". Cultural conservation will succeed only if Americans turn away from a "culture of distraction" and embrace instead, concepts and facts that are firmly rooted in reality (For Jacoby one recent notable example of this is Judge John Jones' ruling at the conclusion of the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District Trial, in which he noted explicitly how and why his decision critical of both the school district and Intelligent Design creationism was based upon expert testimony from scientists like Brown University cell biologist Kenneth R. Miller and University of California, Berkeley paleobiologist Kevin Padian, among others.). And yet, Jacoby notes, her plea for "cultural conservation" may be too late, simply because the United States has become so firmly entrenched in a "culture of distraction" that is noted more for its obsessive worship of celebrities than for trying to adhere at all to any semblance of rational thought. Jacoby's massive tome is bound to provoke liberals, as well as conservatives, for its dire analysis of the present state of American culture; whether it will be as persuasive as other, earlier works like Richard Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life", remains to be seen.