Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby

Age of American Unreason

The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby is a book that explores the phenomenon of anti-intellectualism in America. The author argues that America is suffering from a powerful mutant strain of ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism.

She examines the causes of this phenomenon, situating it in historical context.

Jacoby identifies several key reasons for the resurgent American anti-intellectualism of the past 20 years. These include the upsurge of religious fundamentalism, the failure of public education to create an informed citizenry, and the culture of distraction created by television, video games, and the internet.

The book is well researched and frequently cogent, particularly in looking at the causes of American anti-intellectualism, past and present. However, the material is often overly familiar, blandly reprising arguments made by other studies, while failing to pull these observations together into a coherent, new argument.

Useful takeaways from the book include:

  • The dangers of anti-intellectualism for any country, but especially for a democracy.
  • The importance of reading and conversation for a fruitful and demanding intellectual life.
  • The need for national education standards to combat ignorance.
  • The role of religious fundamentalism in the upsurge of anti-intellectualism.
  • The impact of the culture of distraction on attention spans and intellectual life.

What I Liked

Smart argument, excellent sourcing, and well-written.

What I Did Not Like

Ohhh…bless this book’s little heart. I read this back in the quaint little world of 2007. This book was right on, but had no idea the scale of the absolute crazy nutcase world that was about to begin.

Also, the book doesn’t do enough to acknowledge that this thread has always been a part of American culture. I mean in the 1850s, there was literally a major party called the Know Nothings.

The book is basically too focused on the present of when it was published (mid-2000s) that it ignores the past and future of anti-intellectualism.

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