My fellow Americans, been looking for a little self-loathing these days? Look no further, seems like the cool thing to do these days is revel our country’s stupidity! Not that this has ever really been uncool, at least not in my lifetime. We’ve always reveled a bit in our lack of intellectualism, and there’s no shortage of writing about it, just google “america” and “stupid” or “stupidity.”

So the latest to jump on the “we’re idiots” bandwagon is Susan Jacoby, author of the new book (newest one on my wish-list as well) The Age of American Unreason. I’m eager to read it, but after watching an interview with her, and reading an article she recently wrote, I think I’d have more than a few bones to pick with it.

I can understand her motivation, we’ve probably all had moments where we were staggered by the ignorance (and her book deals with our lack of knowledge, not a lack of intelligence) of a fellow American, (and it’s especially embarrassing when they’re here, outside the country, representing us all). Jacoby’s inspiration came from an overheard comment on 9/11 in New York. From the IHT:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

At that moment, Jacoby said, “I decided to write this book.”

That’s a doozy, it would probably drive me to do something too – though I probably would’ve done something less constructive, like burst into a flabbergasted rant at the two guys.

Jacoby’s premise is that the time honored hostility to anti-intellectualism, the idea that too much book learning is bad for you (so you’d better elect a inarticulate, intellectually incurious C-student like Bush) has fused with the idea that reason, evidence, logic,provable facts and the like, don’t even matter any more. From her article in the Washington Post:

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 … ; 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. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.

I would agree there is an increased hostility, especially towards science, as I believe Hillary Clinton mentioned in the recent debates. It’s an incredibly important issue for the future of our country that the government is so anti-rational, spreads misinformation and cripples science education.

But some of the examples Jacoby gives to support her argument just fall flat. For example, her diatribes about language, in the article above and in this Bill Moyers interview, don’t convince. She joins a long line of people who point to language change as evidence of some sort of degradation, which it is not, it is simply change.* Just because Lincoln wouldn’t have used “folks” in the Gettysburg address doesn’t mean its a bad word, or insulting, as she would claim. I could just as easily claim that since Lincoln doesn’t use the same vocabulary as Shakespeare that he himself was a vulgar and ignorant know-nothing. But that would be silly.

Anyways, a recent Gallup Poll  would have us believe we’re not so stupid. I personally am a little freaked out that 21% of Americans don’t know that the earth revolves around the sun, but the Gallup folks (oops, the f-word) say that in a recent poll of general knowledge, most Americans “did well.” That over a fifth of American’s are unaware of something like the earth’s rotation is disturbing, but, apparantly more of us knew it than Germans (74%) and Britons (67%). Granted those results are a decade old. But maybe we’re not any dumber than the average European, maybe our ignorance just gets noticed more, cuz we flaunt it while trying to run the world.

(*A great general book to read on language btw- the Power of Babel by John McWhorter – I had him as a linguistics professor at Berkeley and he forever changed my views on language.)

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