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Outlook: We Don't Care What We Don't Know

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Susan Jacoby
Author, "The Age of American Unreason"
Tuesday, February 19, 2008; 12:00 PM

"Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-intellectualism with anti-rationalism ... not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge."

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Susan Jacoby, author of "The Age of American Unreason," was online Tuesday, Feb. 19 at noon ET to take questions on her Outlook article about the negative consequences of Americans' increasing distaste for reading, diminishing attention spans and general anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Bethesda, Md.: I'm not sure I see convincing data to support your argument, just anecdotes that easily are countered. Are we not in an age in American where getting into college is increasingly competitive, Ph.Ds can't find teaching jobs at universities because the market is glutted, and business and law schools have become impossible to get into?

The intellectual curiosity of the bottom 10 percent, or even 80 percent, of Americans is not all that relevant. As long as the decision-makers and those who set policy are prepared adequately for the challenges ahead, does it matter if the average Joe reads novels? When I look at the academic resumes of those holding high public office, I see a lot of Ivy League schools, etc. Same with those who run Wall Street. I don't really care if my mechanic can find Iran on a map; I care that he can replace the timing belt on my car.

Susan Jacoby: I'm Susan Jacoby. Hello everyone.

This question is a dismaying example of how lack of respect for knowledge affects citizenship. So the intellectual curiosity of the "bottom 80 percent" of Americans isn't relevant? The country should be run by a top 20 percent and it doesn't matter how little the rest of Americans know? There is also a huge confusion here between knowledge and "Ivy League resumes" and "credentials." There are all sorts of people with Ivy League resumes who have no respect for knowledge and all sorts of mechanics who can find Iraq and Iran on a map. You ought to care whether everyone knows the location of countries where we're at war, because ignorance about such matters is what gets us involved in wars in the first place.


Bowie, Md.: Your article seems to imply that information and ideas cannot be transferred by the new media. I loved the president Roosevelt example: If we did that today in a speech, all anyone would have to do is click on Google maps and the Pacific would be before them. Please explain to us all why that would be worse than what happened in 1942?

Susan Jacoby: If everyone did click on Google maps and listen to the president talk, that would be fine. But, as I mentioned, no president can count on the attention of 75 percent of Americans when he makes a speech about anything. So they're not clicking on Google maps either. It's the desire to know about the world, not the medium, that makes the difference.


Cleveland: As someone who tries to convince more of his friends to read, and in an age of quick sound bites and short answers, what is the best retort for "elitists" when friends want to know why it's better to read something like Melville as opposed to Entertainment Weekly? Something that may work in a restaurant conversation?

Susan Jacoby: Well, both "Entertainment Weekly" and Melville have their place. The problem is that when people are saturated with infotainment from an early age, they're used to getting everything in the easiest and most passive form. I can't imagine how you'd convince someone who doesn't think that reading is fun that it is fun. (Especially in a restaurant, where you generally can't hear anyone talk because the music is so loud.) I'd work on the little kids in your life.


Honolulu: I get what you're saying and I basically agree with it. However, there is also a strain of American thinking that says "be innovative, be different, go your own path." Taken to an extreme, this can means rejecting past traditions and values, including striving to be well-educated. I once worked with a girl who pointed out that "Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard" as her excuse for slacking off (of course she didn't realize that Gates went to a prestigious private school and came from a really well-connected family). How would you jibe this point of view with yours?

Susan Jacoby: There actually is no conflict between respect for intellectual endeavor and taking your own path. I don't have any particular respect for a college degree as an indicator of knowledge, and Bill Gates dropped out because he had something better to do. The problem is that a lot of people don't continue with general self-education, as opposed to the sort of information that makes you a good test performer, after their formal education is complete. The value of a good education, whether obtained conventionally or unconventionally, is that it leads you to do more.


Rockville, Md.: Nothing new here. Mark Twain could have written about the same "problem." Basically I see it as a class difference and a lack of appreciation of different points of view. I was not convinced.

Susan Jacoby: Ah, I see. Education is for the upper classes. The old "elitist" argument. So much for Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, et al. If only they'd understood that reading is for "the elites," and that all that time they spent reading books was a matter of pure snobbery.


Rochester, N.Y.: To what extent is the media partly responsible for the dumbing-down that we see? I always am stunned when I watch political discussions by how much the commentators seem to celebrate the stupidity of voters. I also am stunned by how much Chris Matthews, David Brooks, David Broder et al openly mock intellectuals. Do things like this go on in other countries? Do media elites make fun of those who attempt to be thoughtful there as well?

Susan Jacoby: This is a big problem. No, the media elites in other developed countries don't make regular sport of intellectuals as a group. Of course, there's nothing wrong with making fun of stupid intellectuals, and there are plenty of them -- but what's wrong with them (say, the right-wing intellectuals who brought us the Iraq war) is not that they're intellectuals but that their blinded by ideology to evidence.

The media elite also tries to pretend that it is not an elite. Hence, the constant references to "folks" by national television anchors as well as politicians trying to show that they're just one of the boys or just one of the girls.


Vienna, Va.: I would like to know what Ms. Jacoby thinks about the response in today's Washington Post by Jim Wales of Wikipedia? I think he misses the point entirely and is confusing real reading with digestion of factoids. As a mother of two boys, 11 and 13 years old, I am facing an uphill battle getting them to read not only for school but for pleasure. It's a battle that I am going to fight till the end. I am grateful that my children's teachers do not accept Wikipedia as source for any research, even though I admit it does have its merits in a limited way.

washingtonpost.com: We're Smarter Than You Think (Post, Feb. 19)

Susan Jacoby: I would expect Jim Wales to confuse the digestion (or ingestion) of factoids with real knowledge, because what Wikipedia is all about factoids, unedited by people who actually know what they're talking about. Not that I have anything against Wikipedia, any more than I have anything against traditional encyclopedias. These reference works are a useful way to begin finding out about the world, a jumping-off point.

But the reading we all do on the Internet, as I pointed out, is not really reading. It's a shortcut in the search for facts or factoids. It has nothing to do with the integration of information into a larger body of knowledge.


Falls Church, Va.: I find it odd that you would use anti-Communism as a bugbear in your article when history has proven the "anti-intellectual" anti-Communists so thoroughly right. McCarthy's foolish excesses rightly can be condemned, but the fact remains that the anti-Communists were right that Communism was oppressive, Eastern Europe did want to be free, the Soviet Union did have spies in the U.S. government, and Alger Hiss was guilty. If this is anti-intellectualism, then we need more of it.

Susan Jacoby: There were plenty of anti-communist intellectuals (including anti-communist liberal intellectuals) as well as communist intellectuals. The attempt to tar all liberals and intellectuals as communists or lefties is part of the right-wing intellectual strategy of character assassination of liberals. Ever hear of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Mary McCarthy, Irving Howe -- anti-communist liberal intellectuals all?


Falls Church, Va.: I was stunned at the muted reaction when a number of Republican candidates for president proclaimed that they didn't believe in evolution. It seems to me that part of this willful ignorance is tied up with the current religiosity of right-wing American culture. As a believer I find that insulting, because belief and rigorous intellectual discourse are not mutually exclusive. Still, we seem to be falling victim to an almost Taliban-like attack on rationality in this country.

Susan Jacoby: One of my major points is that American anti-intellectualism today is particularly virulent because it is joined to anti-rationalist contempt for science and evidence. Religious fundamentalism -- belief in the literal truth of every word in the Bible -- is part of that. You obviously can't approach evolution with an open mind if your faith tells you that you must believe the Earth was created in six days. But I think it's a great mistake to blame the dumbing-down of America entirely on fundamentalist religion. There are many Americans of faith for whom religion and science are compatible, and their voices are, I think finally beginning to be heard.


Chicago: You said above, "It's the desire to know about the world, not the medium, that makes the difference." But in your article it seems as though you do put blame on the medium ... the digital age, where tons of information can be thrown at you in little snippets and attention spans are short.

Susan Jacoby: I guess I'm enough of an Enlightenment rationalist to believe that we still can control our use of the media (a plural, by the way, not a singular noun). I think the state of much of the media is execrable, but isn't it the responsibility of the individual to restrain his or her dependence on passive infotainment and to question what's said on TV and spread across the Web?


Re: Convincing adults to read: For the person who wanted an argument to use on friends as to why to read books rather than Entertainment Weekly: don't try to convince them to read in general, try to convince them to read in specific. Try to get someone to read a book you read and enjoyed, or a book that matches interests you already know that that friend has. Once they're used to reading books for pleasure, they will be more likely to be open to reading the literary giants.

Susan Jacoby: Right. Absolutely. If you've got a friend who's a passionate baseball fan, give him or her a great baseball book for a present.


Maryland: When you were forming your thesis, did you take into account "information fatigue," that the level of information available to people is so vast and that there are so many issues and concerns and groups fighting for attention that people just start to feel overwhelmed? I know I so often am bombarded by things I should care about (and I can find Iraq on map and read regularly) that I've started tuning things out. I'm only one person, and the world is so big and noisy, and has so much wrong with it.

Susan Jacoby: This is, I think a fundamental question. We all have to tune some things out in order to stay sane. No one can read everything or encompass the whole of human knowledge. (In fact, the Enlightenment founders of the United States belonged to the last generation for whom that was possible.) We all have to make choices every day. Do I watch people humiliating one another on "The Biggest Loser," or do I maybe give a new book a try during that time period? Do I have the TV or the computer on 24 hours a day, or do I spend some down time just thinking or talking to friends?


Chantilly, Va.: I had to laugh today when The Post's article about a new style of teaching math mentioned that children were having trouble with problems like: "There are 28 desks in the classroom. The teacher puts them in groups of four. How many groups of desks are in the classroom?" The article then felt the need to point out that 7 was the correct answer.

I find geographical ignorance rather amazing (how can you not know some of these things?) and foreign language ignorance unfortunate but understandable (many Americans learn a language in school but soon lose it through lack of use -- Europeans don't need to travel very far before encountering people who don't speak their language), but I think mathematical ignorance is a far more worrying problem.

washingtonpost.com: Parents Rise Up Against A New Approach to Math (Post, Feb. 19)

Susan Jacoby: It all matters. Mathematical ignorance, for example, makes it hard for people to understand medical articles. If you don't understand basic fractions and percentages, you can't understand how much a particular alarming story matters. For example, there was a front-page story in The New York Times today about a seemingly scary rise in thethe suicide rate of the middle-aged, but when you looked at the overall numbers they were extremely small. If you're talking about a doubling of deaths, it matters a lot whether the base number is one or a million.


Fredericksburg, Va.: I am sure you'll be inundated with smug pronouncements from self-proclaimed intellectuals lamenting how they are surrounded by idiots; I'd like to present another view: the curse of the over-educated. I've worked in few companies and organizations headed by power-school graduates (MIT, Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins). My observation is these types are too educated and over-informed.

Arrogance, hubris and stubbornness are the prevailing traits of this tribe. Their iron-clad superior view precluded the possibility that a new idea or a better path existed that was not their own. Wallowing in infinite analysis, they could not make a decision. They never were wrong. Convinced of their position, they'd continue in a straight line and drive right off the cliff. (What I see in these individuals is, to a disturbing degree, mirrored in American foreign policy!) Please, provide your insights on the phenomena of hyper-intellectualism and hyper-rationalism in American society.

Susan Jacoby: This isn't "hyper-intellectualism" or "hyper-rationalism." On the contrary, it's anti-rationalism. People who are so convinced of the rightness of a position that they simply ignore countervailing evidence can be found among Harvard business school graduates (George W. Bush) and among fourth-graders. The fourth-graders have an excuse. The greatest failure of our schools at all levels is inability to teach children how to think critically and evaluate evidence. I forget who said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It's also a definition of stupidity.


Boston: I don't think this gilded age of enlightenment with fireside chats and books overflowing out of every shelf actually existed. People listened because they were involved in a war and radio was new, and they read more because there was nothing else to do. Stating that they did these things because the culture was fundamentally more curious about knowledge and the world is pure conjecture.

Susan Jacoby: They read because they had nothing else to do? Talk about conjecture. In many ways, people in the 1930s had a lot more to do -- physical labor, for example, was much more a part of their lives. But you're right, what they didn't have was continuous access to low-level infotainment. Their ears weren't filled all day with noises from electronic devices, and they didn't spend time in chat rooms. Yup, they actually talked to people they knew and read themselves to sleep.


Wait a minute...: You said: "Do I watch people humiliating one another on 'The Biggest Loser'?" I say: This is part of the smugness of intellectualism that I find rather despicable. Have you seen that show? Do you think it's all about humiliating one another? Or are you just making assumptions? The "intellectual community" has a really bad habit of letting its imagination run away when it comes to popular culture.

Susan Jacoby: I have watched "The Biggest Loser." Check back with these people a few years from now to see where their weight is without the stimulus of being on national TV.


Washington: Great article. How informed were Americans in 1776? I seem to recall reading that the Founding Fathers believed an educated populace was essential to the type of government they were creating. It seems like political discussions today are dumbed down to emotional arguments rather than being based on rational thinking.

Susan Jacoby: Of course, many fewer people were able to read in 1776 (slaves, among others). But the influence of print and the literacy level in colonial America were quite astonishing; that's why Thomas Paine's arguments were circulated so widely. More to the point, the founders longed for a society in which more people would be able to read, and where free inquiry thereby would be promoted.


"But the reading we all do on the Internet, as I pointed out, is not really reading.": You certainly have made this assertion, but you've offered little in the way of evidence or reason to support it. If I read a newspaper or magazine article online, as opposed to in print, what is lost? It really seems to me -- and to other people who have commented on this chat -- that your beef is with technology.

Susan Jacoby: No, my beef is not with technology, it's with the way people use technology. In fact, studies from the past ten years have shown that online newspaper readers spend much less time reading articles than readers of print editions do. Most discouraging is the fact that the proportion of online newspaper readers under 25 -- an audience that print newspapers hoped to capture with online editions -- is no larger than the proportion of print newspaper readers under 25. If my beef were with technology, I wouldn't be here in this chat room right now. On the other hand, I think that people who spend the whole day in chat rooms are absolutely wasting their time. Balance, moderation -- ah, what archaic ideas!


Tuning in late ..: and appalled by the first commenter. There are a lot of mechanics out there who have been to Iraq. My plumber is a Vietnam vet with all kinds of opinions and knowledge that have nothing to do with plumbing, although he does a first-class job at that.

Susan Jacoby: Bravo.


Carrboro, N.C.: Serious question: What kind and what level of discourse would you consider this chat?

Susan Jacoby: Honestly, the nature of an online chat doesn't allow for much real discourse, even though many of the questions are extremely thoughtful. But I don't have the time, in this format, to answer as thoughtfully as if I were communicating by a traditional letter. This is actually a higher-level online chat than occurs in most venues.


Washington: It seems that one major stumbling block to critical thought is the belief that serious evaluation of positions is unimportant from a critical standpoint (assessing truth as opposed to interest or practicality) given that every position is a mere opinion. If everything is and can be only an opinion, and if no opinion is any more worthy than another (egalitarianism), then critical evaluation is not only pointless, it is impossible. My question is, if the above is true, is this primarily a modern cultural problem? And what might be its causes?

Susan Jacoby: Ah, the question. This is a problem, particularly, of postmodern culture, and is greatly exacerbated by the media, which frequently takes the position that truth -- if it exists -- is always equidistant from two points. Not everything is a matter of opinion. Some things are true and some are false. Knowing the distinction between opinion and evidence-based knowledge is essential.


Wokingham, U.K.: You often refer to the Enlightenment and often refer negatively to certain forms of religion. Would you agree with Rousseau that any church that says "outside us there is no salvation" is politically intolerable and that society cannot be secure until it is removed?

Susan Jacoby: Obviously, no one who reveres the U.S. Constitution can agree that churches claiming "outside us, there is no salvation" can be removed, but the absolute liberty of conscience guaranteed by the Constitution -- including the freedom not to believe as well as the freedom to believe -- has weakened the force of the "outside us, there is no salvation" argument in America. That would mean that most of your neighbors are doomed, and who would wish to say such things to his neighbor? Doesn't mean that a great many right-wing fundamentalists don't think that I am headed for the fiery pit, but so what?


Richmond, Va.: A good friend of mine who attended at prestigious liberal arts college related disgust with academics in regards to their removal from the realities that most of us have to contend with (financial responsibilities, environments that are economically, politically and socially diverse etc.). It does often seem like there is a divide between practical knowledge and traditional "academic" or "intellectual" knowledge. Do you think that perception fuels anti-intellectualism?

Susan Jacoby: I think that perception does fuel anti-intellectualism, but it is a misperception. I don't know why so many people are hung up on the "elites" in the teaching professions. I don't know, but I'd say that CEOs who make more than $100 million a year are far more removed from "practical realities" than a tenured college professor who might make about $80,000 a year.


Washington: Wow! When I first read your column, I thought you were being rather snobbish. Now, as I read the comments, I see that you have definite point. A lot of people seem to be confusing education with knowledge and really seem to have no idea what you mean.

Susan Jacoby: Thank you. One man cited the fact that law schools and business schools are oversubscribed as evidence that we don't need any more intellectuals. Those schools are oversubscribed because students see law and business as a way to make the most money. This has nothing to do with knowledge, real education, or any of the intellectual pleasures that (among other things) make life worth living.

I speak as someone who probably would have dropped out of college 40 years ago had I not attended a school (Michigan State University) that allowed honors students to take a lot of extra courses and graduate early. I wanted so badly to be a newspaper reporter (which I became, at The Washington Post) that all I could think of was how fast I could get through school. Then, of course, I had to spend a lot of time educating myself because I'd been in such a tearing hurry.


North Little Rock, Ark.: If you were to stipulate three books students should read -- say, one during primary education, one in secondary and one in college -- that would help enlighten the next generation on the importance of critical thinking and broad-based knowledge, what would they be?

Susan Jacoby: I wish I could answer this wonderful question from a teacher, but I can't, because I think the answer has to be individual. I think the books that most influenced me in childhood, for example, were historical novels -- ranging from Howard Fast's "Spartacus" to James Michener's "Hawaii" -- that were important not so much for their content but because they got me interested in history. Anything that piques a child's interest in a wider world can get them reading.


Reston, Va.: Susan, what are your credentials? Where did you go to school? What was your major? Where and what have you published?

Susan Jacoby: This is my signoff question. What are my credentials? I went to St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary School, Okemos High School, and Michigan State University. My parents read to me, and my dad recited poetry to me. I spent a lot of time watching baseball in my grandfather's bar. I spent two years in Russia, where I learned to speak Russian, developed a belated appreciation of all of the great poetry I missed while I was hell-bent on finishing college fast, and wrote my first book, "Moscow Conversations."

"The Age of American Unreason" is my eight book. My previous book, in 2004, was "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism."

My credentials are that I spend a lot of time in libraries, and when I'm not doing that I spend a lot of time listening to music and watching baseball. My credentials, as you put it, are that I'm interested in almost everything. I'm a generalist in an era of specialization, and I like it that way.


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