We're all so dumb

Sometimes I do just want to cry for the world. Or America. Or Americans. I finished up The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby yesterday. She discusses the anti-intellectual, anti-reason section of American society from the 1930's on forward. She gives a very full portrait of how intelligence and knowledge has gone from being a wanted and admired trait to being something alien and threatening to many people. This book was scary and enlightening; i give it another 6.

It astounds me the breadth of knowledge that normal, middle class people had just 40 years ago. I feel like i'm pretty educated, pretty well read, but pluck a someone who was 32, with a college education, in like, say, 1974 and compare my knowledge of the world, history, geography and art and i'll do horribly! I might be able to match on politics (me on my modern vs them on their modern) and i'm sure i'd do well in anthropology/archaeology type questions, but that was my major. I know very little of American, or for that matter world, history between the civil war and WWII, at least from school. why? Because my history classes always started at the beginning of America, got up to about the Civil War, at which point we started running out of time for the school year and skipped to WWII.

She also links the laxity of American mental life to mass media, which encompasses tv, internet, magazines, newspapers. Whereas before the 1980's people experienced a lot of tv, movies, or music in groups, now everyone has their own tv, Ipod, portable video player, etc. I can even see the difference in my own family over the course of my life. We had 1 tv the entire time i lived at home, through age 18, which was in 1994. Now, my parents have 4: 1 in the living room, 1 in my parents' bedroom, and 1 each in my brother's and sister's room. They have 3 computers. As kids my family all at least started dinner together (though once people were into seconds we could ask to be excused from the table) and rarely was the tv on. Now it's more casual, usually my mom and sister eating together and my dad coming in later in the evening. (my brother works evenings so he gets a pass on this bit) And the tv's on. So there is less interaction and talking but i feel we're pretty much just as close. We just don't experience culture together.

It makes me want to read Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Jacoby's mentor Richard Hofstadter. That book is from the perspective of a writer in 1966 so i wonder what trends he saw from that point. Also, i want to read a few good, general history books. Why does that always happen? I read one and then it gives me a bunch more to read!


  1. This sounds SO good! Thanks for letting us know about it. And don't worry, it happens to me too - I just finished a book about China and now want to read everything ever written about the Cultural Revolution. Sigh. ;-)

  2. I've wanted to read this one for a while even though it'll probably tick me off and make me want to cry for the fate of America. lol


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