U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Early Thoughts On Jacoby’s The Age Of American Unreason

I haven’t read Susan Jacoby‘s The Age of American Unreason—but I want to. With that, I’m not going to engage here in one of those pointless how-to-talk-about-a-book-you-haven’t-read pieces. But I want to whet both your and my appetite for what Ms. Jacoby has to say.

Aside from considering myself an intellectual historian, my interest in Jacoby’s book arises from formative experiences on the subject of intellectuals and respect for reason. I grew up in an area of the United States, rural and small-town western Missouri, which seemed to me to almost pride itself on its anti-intellectualism. But when I assert that anti-intellectualism was a part of my upbringing, I should clarify.

It wasn’t a pride in ignorance, for there is a difference between being small-town and being a “hick” or “country.” Rather, anti-intellectualism possessed two characteristics: an aversion to hair-splitting—the excesses of reason, one might say—and an attraction to plain speech. The intellectual, or expert (please indulge my introduction of new term), is paradoxically both appreciated and derided. I recall a tendency to both completely trust and thoroughly mock these folks. With that, the intellectual must also be an expert with useful knowledge: then you might be trusted, if not always appreciated. Practicality, not pragmatism, was the order of the day—for a belief in eternal, transcendent truth existed. For instance, thoughtful master electricians were welcome; an existential philosopher with no practical skills would be mocked. Of course even a loquacious master electrician might exceed her or his welcome with too much speculative speech. Self-conscious exhibitions of one’s intellectualism would most assuredly be derided.

Aside from these nuances, intellectuals were for the most part unwelcome and, more importantly, reason was for the most part not trusted. As I’ve grown, the latter more consistently bothers me than the former. The former can arise from respectable independence or individualism. You might say that it is a part of America’s character—welcome or not. But a general lack of respect for the power of reason undermines both the individual personally and one’s powers as a citizen. The latter harms the corporate body that is the United States more than Western individualism. If the individual who pursues self-reliance does not ultimately respect the power of reason, then respectful independence becomes pride. I don’t know that I have to remind the reader that one of the more consistent complaints about American political leadership right now is its exaggerated pride: in a word, hubris. Despite what the Enlightenment told us, reason can’t save us from everything, but it can save us from hubris.

Enter Susan Jacoby. She is not the first to call Americans out for their disrespect of the ultimate judge of life, reason. Richard Hofstadter famously did it in his landmark book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and, as Patricia Cohen pointed out in her New York Times review of Jacoby’s book, Allan Bloom did it too—in his own way. The fact that Americans need to be perennially reminded of their lack of respect for reason says something by itself. It is perhaps a structural problem: socially and educationally that respect is not consistently reinforced.

Having not read the book, I was pleased to run across this interview with Ms. Jacoby. Bill Moyers spoke with her about the book last week. I’ve listened to and watched the whole 25 minute segment. Although the interview is intriguing, I felt it focused a bit too much on politics. Considering my comments on hubris above, you might be surprised by my critique. The problem is that “the Bush administration” came up all too often in the piece. I don’t know whether Moyers brought this out, or Jacoby herself has that tendency. I was also put off by a few bits of hair-splitting in the interview—i.e. overplaying the “folks” vs. “citizens” terminology, as well as another between “troops” vs. “soldiers.” Lastly, the word “dumb” occurs too often. Despite the tendency toward political applications in the interview, there is a nice segment on our unwillingness to hear and be patient with contradictory arguments. Jacoby asserted that this is a problem with both the right and the left in the United States. She also made a fine point about presidents needing to be Teachers or Educators-in-Chief versus, or at least as much as, Commanders-in-Chief. With that, I recommend the interview as a kind of introduction to The Age of American Unreason.

Twice I’ve said I haven’t read the book. I must confess that in a neighborhood stroll, during a stop in our only independent bookstore, Women & Children First, I picked up the book and scanned the index. Having intensely studied the history of the great books idea and the intellectuals associated with it, I wondered whether they would make an appearance in Jacoby’s book. It turned out that great books were cited, along with Robert Maynard Hutchins (a mainstay) and, my favorite object of study, Mortimer J. Adler. In two pages or so, Jacoby dutifully recounts the minimal facts of the 1940s and 1950s period of the “Great Books Movement,” as it was called by Hugh Moorhead. Jacoby doesn’t reference Moorhead, but does cite Joan Shelley Rubin‘s The Making of Middlebrow Culture. Jacoby also engages Dwight Macdonald’s famous critique of Adler and Hutchins’s Britannica production of the Great Books.

But Jacoby does something I agree with: she doesn’t give Macdonald’s articulate criticism too much weight. For all his bluster, Jacoby says, solid sales of the set brought excellent literature to the fingertips of many. Not all sales occurred because people wanted to display the set in their front rooms, thereby declaring their arrival as middle-class families. It wasn’t all about buttressing middlebrow culture, as Rubin and Paul Fussell (in Class) famously have reinforced. With that, I wish Jacoby had seen or cited my work. We’re in agreement, and her book could’ve shown people that not all scholars and historians disrespect or disavow the great books idea. I suppose I’m being selfish here. But I see the great books, when really studied, as buttressing a democratic culture. Yes, the Britannica set wasn’t as inclusive as it should’ve been, but the point at the time (the 1940s) was to combat anti-intellectualism. If nothing else, Hutchins and Adler respected reason. And the Britannica set is not the only legitimate manifestation of the great books idea, neither in that idea’s entire history nor today.

Returning to Jacoby, I really want to read the whole of her work. If anyone else is, please leave a comment. Let’s figure out if she’s merely repeating what Hofstadter and others have said, or simply presentist and political. – TL