Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Susan Jacoby of the Center for Inquiry has a new book, The Age of American Unreason, which argues that America is damaged not only by rampant ignorance but by a perverse pride taken in that ignorance that results from a deep strain of anti-intellectualism in our culture. In this she follows in the footsteps of Richard Hofstadter and agrees with one of the core ideas I have long argued about American culture. She has an op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that outlines some of the book’s basic ideas, beginning:

Americans are in serious intellectual trouble — in danger of losing their hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.

I don’t know that I buy her claim that today’s anti-intellectualism is any worse than it has been in the past, or that it’s caused by the replacement of newspaper and magazine reading by TV and video games; that strikes me as too simplistic and too neatly fitting the “paradise lost” story structure. I don’t think it’s necessary to argue that this tendency is any worse today than it was 50 years ago in order for it to be alarming. But she’s certainly on to something when she points out that the impatience of the video age encourages more and more simplistic thinking as ideas have to be expressed in shorter and shorter segments:

No wonder negative political ads work. As video consumers become progressively more impatient with the process of acquiring information through written language, all politicians find themselves under great pressure to deliver their messages as quickly as possible — and quickness today is much quicker than it used to be.

Harvard University’s Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate — featuring the candidate’s own voice — dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds.

And she’s absolutely correct when she points to rampant ignorance on a wide number of subjects:

According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it “not at all important” to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it “very important.”

That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge.

The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place.

Call this anti-rationalism — a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism.

But I think it goes even beyond that, and I go back again to the argument I made in my C-Span speech about the difference between mundane ignorance and virulent ignorance. Yes, this mundane ignorance is disturbing, as are the many rationalizations offered for it (“some of the dumbest people I know have PhDs but they lack common sense”), but it pales in comparison to the effects of virulent ignorance.

Far too many of those who think they’re knowledgeable on some very important subjects have in fact been educated into even greater ignorance, swallowing a series of falsehoods and half-truths that make them think they know what they’re talking about when they don’t. Memorizing a dozen “proofs” that the earth is only a few thousand years old does not cure one’s ignorance of geology, it only serves to inoculate the credulous against actual evidence.