February 18, 2008
From Liberty Street

Nation of Dopes?

John Turner

Susan Jacoby has created quite a stir with her new book, The Age of American Unreason. Patricia Cohen’s review and Ms Jacoby’s own essay have been the most read pieces in the New York Times and the Washington Post for several days now. It appears that some Americans, at least, are growing restive with the reputation of being the yokels of the universe.

You would expect some grouchy responses, and they have already begun. Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly complained of Ms. Jacoby’s essay that it contained no evidence whatsoever. He argues that if you’re going to say that Americans are less knowledgeable than they were in the past, you need to say how you know.

The trouble is that the intellectual condition of an entire nation is hard to measure. Exactly what yardsticks are available? The custom has been to cite sociological statistics, such as percentage of college graduates, et cetera. But when you have college graduates who can’t find a given nation on a world map, you begin to wonder what the number of diplomas means.

No one, and no group, has the authority to set standards for the well-read, informed mind and I suspect that failure to know what it is to be educated is part of the unease many are expressing about American knowledge. We are thrown back on our individual sense of things, with little but our own perceptions to give us an understanding of where we are.

Undoubtedly, a major element of the world’s reading of the American mind comes from the propensity of a considerable number of our fellow citizens to view religion as a particular history and nothing more. Stories that elsewhere have long since stopped being viewed as literal, historical truths and have evolved into myths are seen by a portion of the American citizenry as camera-like descriptions of what happened. This appears to be a deficiency of religious understanding more than it is bad history. We have been described as the most religious people of modernity but the truth may be that we are the least. We have little time for thinking about what religion is so we simply substitute assumptions termed “beliefs” for thought. Those who describe themselves as fundamentalists are actually dismissing religion rather than exalting it.

Still, naiveté about religion is only part of the accusation that Americans are stupid people. Ms. Jacoby says that major problem is not so much ignorance itself but, rather, pride in ignorance. Many Americans, she says, see no reason for taking interest in world history, world geography, international current events, or anything else that pertains to conditions outside the borders of the United States. In this, she is surely right. We can’t know for sure what percentage of us are sunk in such foolish attitudes but, obviously, it’s a larger number than it ought to be.  Jacoby thinks the major reason for American vacuity is video and electronic transmissions of all sorts. In this, she is clearly wrong. Watching screens rather than reading pages may well have reduced the attention span of some American youth, but it may also have increased the rapidity of their comprehension. We haven’t begun to fathom the overall effect of the electronic revolution on the mind, but it’s evident we can’t blame it for a peculiarly American torpidity. After all, there are electronics all around the world and some people are more caught up by them than we have been.

The best candidate I can find for the charge that Americans are unusually dull-minded is the concept of American exceptionalism. The dumbest people I’ve personally encountered are those who were exceedingly satisfied with themselves. I used to work with a man who, when asked how he was, would answer with a stentorian, “Perfect!” Need I tell you that he was not a tower of intellect?

Nothing is likely to retard thought more than life in a society of self-congratulation. If you’re number one -- to use an obnoxious elocution that is peculiarly American -- what need do you have to change? And learning is change, a truth Americans seldom acknowledge. If you learn something, you are not the same person you were before you learned it. And Americans have been told repeatedly, by themselves and by their social and political leaders, that they are the greatest people on earth. What that could possibly mean, no one bothers to ask. But the effect of it is to induce smugness and the conviction that there is no need for self-alteration. If you have no desire to make yourself into a person different from what you are today, you have no need to learn. Learning is, in that case, just a waste of time.

Americans need first to learn that we are not the greatest people on earth, because it is a phrase that has no meaning.  If Ms Jacoby helps to plant that thought in our brains, she will have done us a considerable service, regardless of how much or how little evidence she compiles about American unreason.


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