Monday, February 18, 2008

The Age Of American Unreason

Image credit: The Franklin Institute

Susan Jacoby, a secularist and free-thinker, has written a book entitled The Age Of American Unreason. If you're one of those folks who think that we're becoming a more irrational society by the day, you might be comforted to know you're not alone:

BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you, Susan, that half of American adults believe in ghosts? Now I take these from your book. One-third believe in astrology. Three quarters believe in angels. And four-fifths believe in miracles.

SUSAN JACOBY: I think even more important than the fact that large numbers of Americans believe in ghosts or angels, that is part of some religious beliefs. Is the flip side is of this is that over half of Americans don't believe in evolution. And these things go together. Because what they do is they place science on a par almost with folk beliefs.

Bill Moyers Journal: Susan Jacoby

Then again, you might be appalled. I added that link, by the way. Its graphic is a chart showing belief in evolution among modern industrialized countries. Only Turkey is more ignorant than we. Sadly, the people who say they don't hold with all of that evolution stuff don't seem to be too well informed about their own religion:

SUSAN JACOBY: But you can't believe that the Bible is literally true and still believe in evolution. There's a wonderful book on religious literacy by Stephen Prothero -- you know, which sites a poll that half of Americans can't name Genesis as the first book of the Bible. Well, if you can't-- but this is part of the total dumbing down of our culture. The-- one of those books apparently that the 50 percent of Americans aren't reading is also the Bible or they would know that Genesis was the first book of the Bible. It's sort of like, you know, "I don't know what Genesis is, but I believe it."

Bill Moyers Journal: Susan Jacoby

Makes you proud, doesn't it? I'm pretty sure that most of those half of Americans who don't know Genesis is the first book of the Bible are Christians. Most Americans are, and among those who aren't, I can tell you that there are very few who aren't aware of this fact. I found this hard to believe, so I asked the crowd at Firedoglake this evening whether they knew such people. They said they did. Not a thorough survey, but at least it's some confirmation.

It seems likely there are people out there who believe that America was founded on Christian principles, but don't know what those principles are.

Jacoby continues:

BILL MOYERS: And you're pretty hard on some of them. You say they won't acknowledge the political sig-- talking about liberal intellectuals-- won't acknowledge the political significance of public ignorance. Quote, "Liberals have tended to define the Bush administration as the problem and the source of all that has gone wrong during the past eight years. And to see an outraged citizenry ready to throw the bums out as the solution." And what you say is that that's the cheap and wrong way out. Right?

SUSAN JACOBY: It's the cheap way out and the wrong way out for this reason. And we've heard it over and over in the primaries from candidates who supported the war and changed their minds. "We were lied to," they said. If we'd known then what we know now we wouldn't have done it. And they say to the public, "You were lied to." But the deeper conversation we need to be having is why were Americans so willing to be lied to, not only average citizens, but politicians. And certainly when you have legislators, many of whom didn't know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, and you have a geographic Roper poll that I quote in my new book-- they polled Americans between ages 18 and 25. Only 23 percent of college-educated young people could find Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Israel, four countries of ultimate importance to American policy on the map, a map, by the way, that ... had the ... country's [names] lettered on it. So in other words, it wasn't a blank map. It meant they didn't really know where the Middle East was either. So 23 percent of the college-educated and only six percent of high school graduates. Well, I would say that if only 23 percent of people with some college can find those countries on a map that is nothing to be bragging about. And that has to have something to do with why as a country -- we have such shallow political discussions.

Bill Moyers Journal: Susan Jacoby

Less than a quarter of college-educated people can find the place we've been sending our soldiers to die and kill people for the last five years.

Is it any wonder that our press spends so much time on irrelevant nonsense and so little on the important things? Is it any wonder that modern American journalism is so utterly, and appallingly bad? It shouldn't be, now, should it?

I don't know if I'm ever actually going to read this book. It sounds depressing. What's more, it won't end well. Unfortunately, one of the profoundest truths of freedom is that it requires intellectual effort. The people who founded this country were educated, despite living in a frontier society. Some, like Jefferson and Franklin, were inventors and scientists as well as politicians. The reason they enshrined freedom of the press as one of the first ones mentioned in the Bill of Rights is that they believed that the only way we could stay free was if we were able to inform ourselves so that we could decide our futures wisely.

If we don't want to do that, then we might as well find ourselves a king and start over.

(h/t to newtonusr at Firedoglake for putting me onto this.)

UPDATE: Over at his blog, Patrick Lang comments on the students he sees in his teaching job:

My recent exposure to adult American students associated with universities and the military makes me think that Susan Jacoby is largely correct in believing that we Americans are becoming more and more ignorant even as we become more and more proud of our ignorance.

What passes for education these days is largely devoid of the kind of cultural depth and richness of knowledge of the human experience that I associate with real education, as opposed to vocational training in; marketing, communications, journalism, business administration, etc., ad nauseam....

America the Illiterate

Lang's essay reminded me of one I read many years ago that was written by Robert Heinlein. The basic premise was the same - that education, including higher education, was being dumbed down. That was in the Sixties, if I remember correctly.

Things have been getting worse for a long time. It's about time we changed that, I think.

UPDATE 2 (Feb. 19): An anonymous commenter (and I'm sorry that the new comment software doesn't work better) left a note about Allan Bloom's The Closing Of The American Mind. As I wrote, I agree with at least some of its premises as presented by reviews I was able to read. It's certainly another example of criticism of the mushiness of our current educational system. People have been warning about this for some time. It shouldn't be a big shock, I suppose, to see just how bad it's become. Yet, it is, at least to me.


Anonymous said...

Re: The Closing of the American Mind
by Allan Bloom
copyright: 1987 Simon & Schuster NY

Your post; the consequences.

Tor Hershman said...


"All men are created equal" and that t'were written and signed by Slave Holders.

Carthage is ALWAYS bein' salted by.....The Empire.

Stay on groovin' safari,

Cujo359 said...

As I understand Bloom's basic idea (no, I haven't read the book, just in depth reviews), it's that tolerance and openness are no substitute for education. In that, at least, we agree. He also seems to have railed against the sort of orthodoxy that sometimes builds up in science, the humanities in particular, when stasis has developed. Can't fault that.

You don't need to be a wingnut to be intolerant of other ideas. Even if I weren't aware of that already, all I'd have to do is go to some of the worse lefty blogs and leave a contrarian comment. Groupthink seems to be human nature.

I think Bloom's reviewers are right in that we'd be a bit more tolerant of ideas, and more appreciative of them, if we knew how they originated, and what ideas they replaced or supplanted.

At least, some of us would.

Cujo359 said...

Tor, I see the history of Western society, at least until recently, as one of gradually greater inclusiveness. As we become more inclusive, hopefully, we'll become less tyrannical. We'll see. We've been pretty tyrannical of late, and by that I don't just mean the last seven years. I think, though, that in general these spasms of tyrannical behavior are a result of a decision process that mostly goes on in secret, followed by some lying or subterfuge to get the rest of us to go along afterward.

Even there, education that includes critical thinking skills can help. I wasn't fooled by Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N., and that's not because I was inclined not to trust it. It was just obviously false for very basic reasons. Nor was real proof offered. That should have been the conclusion of most of our representatives in government, as well. Yet it was not.

Take that for what little it's worth.

spincitysd said...

Once again Bill Moyers proves what a treasure he is. He is Podcasted via PBS which you pull off via Opera, Firefox or iTunes. Al Gore went over this ground in "The Assault On Reason" which I recommend also.

Cujo359 said...

Hi, spincitysd. Yes, he's a treasure alright. Didn't know about the podcasts - I'll have to check on them. Meanwhile, transcripts usually work fine for me - sometimes they're faster than watching the show.

Clearly, I need to pick up Gore's book and finish it this time ...

Bustednuckles said...

As many functionally illiterate people as I encounter in one week is all the proof I need.