Susan Jacoby on dumbing us

In “The Dumbing Of America: Call Me a Snob, but Really, We’re a Nation of Dunces,” Susan Jacoby examined the “serious intellectual trouble” that the US culture faces as a result of its increasingly tighter embrace of “a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.” Writing in the 17 February 2008 edition of the Washington (DC, US) Post (p. B01), Ms. Jacoby explained the problem and identified three features of modern society that contribute to it: digital-video media, declining basic knowledge, and approbation of ignorance.

There is no quick cure for this epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; rote efforts to raise standardized test scores by stuffing students with specific answers to specific questions on specific tests will not do the job. Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it. (“Hardly anyone believes himself to be against thought and culture,” Hofstadter noted.) It is past time for a serious national discussion about whether, as a nation, we truly value intellect and rationality. If this indeed turns out to be a “change election,” the low level of discourse in a country with a mind taught to aim at low objects ought to be the first item on the change agenda.

Ms. Jacoby provided a well-documented and tightly argued analysis. Despite the fact that it is readily accessible, it deserves to be read closely and more than once.

Although I strongly recommend reading it, Ms. Jacoby might have gone farther in this analysis. She might have also discussed, among other factors, the dogged adherence by many to religion and similar magical beliefs, the inability or outright refusal to reason systematically (as developed in Thomas Kida’s book), and the rise of post-modernism in many academic disciplines in the social sciences and education. Perhaps she’ll examine these or explain why they are simply variants on the themes she described in this article when she prepares another publication (or already has in her recent book).

Link to Ms. Jacoby’s article (print format) in the Post and to her Web site.

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1 Comment

Filed under Atheism, Equity, News, Notes and comments, Science, Skepticism, Technology, Thanks for reading

One response to “Susan Jacoby on dumbing us

  1. Why do we always demonize the cultural tools du jour for our own human failings? Humanity, with the exception of the exceptional, has always gone for the least common denominator to make life easier. If it’s the internet, video, fundamentalist religion/secularism/atheism, football, Fox news, pornography, you name it — we love to live our lives based on the shorthand of stereotype and superstition. We like our questions answered, then we like to eat and have sex. It’s simply the human condition. The intellectually curious are forever bemoaning the ills of the intellectually non-curious. It’s not about religion, the internet, or anything else. It’s just the way people have always been — name your poison, and we love to create a perpetual supply.

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