February 27, 2008
Common Core, an organization devoted to bringing content-rich instruction to U.S. classrooms, was born this week. Susan Jacoby's new book, The Age of American Unreason, was born two weeks earlier. It seemed fitting to welcome the former by reading and reviewing the latter.
The Age of American Unreason shares much with Common Core, notably the belief that all students should receive a variegated education that exposes them not only to science and math but also to music, literature, history and the arts. This is, however, but one of Jacoby's arguments; the others are multiple and diffuse. She begins her first chapter, for example, by bemoaning the "plague" of the word "folks."
"Only a few decades ago," Jacoby writes, "Americans were addressed as people or, in the more distant past, ladies and gentlemen." But now, she tells us, "folks" predominates--an indication of just how debased American speech has become. From "folks" (which reinforces anti-intellectualism, says she) Jacoby moves on to "troops" (which reinforces the public's thinking about war casualties in "a more abstract way") and ends up with Don Imus's infamous remarks about the Rutgers female basketball team.
Jacoby then lists several different slurs and writes, "The awful reality is that all of these epithets, often accompanied by the F-word, are the common currency of public and private speech in today's America." They are? Where's the evidence? The claim doesn't ring true among people I know.
This is the problem with The Age of American Unreason. It is polluted with factually dubious statements that seem odd, out of place, and arrived at by means that stretch logic. These baseless soliloquies permeate the text.
Which is not to say that some of Jacoby's salvos aren't smart. She convincingly describes, for instance, how the recent fusion of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism (i.e., that opinions [ironically, including her own] are more valid than evidence and facts) has undermined the quest for knowledge. Americans today may be content to know fewer facts about science, history, geography, etc. because they believe such knowledge is largely unimportant and doesn't convey to its possessors any tangible advantages.
Jacoby also notes rightly that policymakers have embraced a similar quid pro quo approach to schooling; they want to see the palpable benefits--more engineers!--of their educational investments. This is the challenge that confronts Common Core: to convince Americans that the "frills" of the curriculum (history, the arts, languages, etc.) are just as necessary as math and science.
But readers of The Age of American Unreason will need to ferret out its good parts among much of less worth. Jacoby's writing is strained by trying somehow to reconcile her support of a more rigid, facts-based education system with her dislike (contempt may be a tad too strong) of the conservatives who share her views.
Thus, readers must wade through, for example, a description of the 1960s that quirkily jockeys between condemning the decade's excesses and condemning the right-wing intellectuals who also condemn its excesses. Jacoby manages this badly.
She also misses many opportunities to attack ideas and not people, which is unfortunate and weakens her book. Jacoby might have presented an informed chapter about the rise of conservative intellectuals; instead, she chooses to be snarky. William Kristol "apparently imbibed contempt for liberalism with his mother's milk and father's spleen." Elliot Abrams is "one of those undead intellectual bureaucrats who seem impervious to every effort to drive stakes through their hearts." Such barbs could have been penned by Don Imus.
This is but one reason why, in an odd twist, The Age of American Unreason cannot itself be considered an "intellectual" book. Jacoby's rather dismissive treatment of faith and the faithful is another. (She attempts to present herself as respectful of religion but doesn't quite pull it off.) The writing is hampered by prejudices, which too often replace detailed, logical analysis.
Rick Hess, who authored Common Core's inaugural report Still At Risk (reviewed below), told USA Today, "There is this kind of Aren't We Stupid? industry." Jacoby's book, alas, is part of it. Unlike Common Core's data-based analysis--which fastens upon pushing schools to teach more content-rich material--The Age of American Unreason is a long, meandering complaint that offers no real solutions.
Potential readers should skip it, and perhaps imbibe some Dostoyevsky instead. Jacoby might not disagree with that prescription.