Tuesday, March 04, 2008

NPR....NY Times...MSNBC

I heard bits and pieces of an interesting article on NPR today. Patt Morrison interviewed author Susan Jacoby regarding her new book, the Age of American Unreason.

Here is an excerpt:
As author Susan Jacoby puts it, Americans are addicted to "infotainment" . With fewer books being read each year and a general lack of interest in academic knowledge, Americans present a sad story of anti-intellectualism and lack of reasonable thought. As a historian herself, Jacoby is concerned with the loss of historical memory and scientific knowledge, and the implications of resulting ignorance. In "The Age of American Unreason" she addresses who is to be blamed, why it's a problem and how we can remedy the situation. Knowing that television may very well rot our brains, can we fight the addiction to mass media and junk thought, and open a book?

If you found that interesting, here is a bit more of an excerpt from the author's website:

This impassioned, tough-minded work of contemporary history paints a disturbing portrait of a mutant strain of public ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism that has developed over the past four decades and now threatens the future of American democracy. Combining historical analysis with contemporary observation, Susan Jacoby dissects a culture at odds with America’s heritage of Enlightenment reason and with modern knowledge and science. With mordant wit, the author offers an unsparing indictment of the ways in which dumbness has been defined downward throughout American society—on the political right and the left. America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by a popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic.

The book surveys an anti-rational landscape extending from reality TV and “infantainment” videos for babies to a pseudo-intellectual universe of “junk thought.” This vast kingdom of junk thought reaches from semiliterate blogs of all political persuasions to institutions of so-called higher education that offer courses in “fat studies” and horror films but do not require students to obtain a thorough grounding in American and world history, science, and literature. Throughout our culture, disdain for logic and evidence is fostered by the infotainment media from television to the Web; aggressive anti-rational religious fundamentalism; poor public education; the intense politicization of intellectuals themselves; and—above all—a lazy and credulous public increasingly unwilling or unable to distinguish between fact and opinion.

Finally, the author argues that anti-rational government is not the product of a Machiavellian plot by “Washington” but is the inevitable result of “an overarching crisis of memory and knowledge” that has left many ordinary citizens and their elected representatives without the intellectual tools needed for sound public decision-making. The real question is not why politicians have lied to the public but why the public was so receptive and so passive when it heard the lies. At this crucial political juncture, The Age of American Unreason challenges Americans to face the painful truth about what our descent into intellectual laziness and our flight from reason have cost us as individuals and as a nation.

Sonja here again:
Ms. Jacoby mentioned that we tend to get our news from sources that share our world views. Ms. Jacoby went on a book tour with the intention of finding people that vehemently disagreed with her thoughts and opinions (it makes for a better discussion); instead, the only people that showed up were those that already agreed with her ideas. As a historian, Ms. Jacoby concludes that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Conservatives are more likely to watch Fox News and liberals watch MSNBC, read the New York Times, and listen to NPR.

More importantly and alarming, Ms. Jacoby discussed an increasing apathetic public that was "increasingly unwilling or unable to distinguish between fact and opinion" and a lack of trust in science and reason. She noted that two thirds of the US population did not believe in the theory of evolution but were not able to competently explain Intelligent Design or name Genesis as the first book in the Bible. She also noted that the US was the only developed country in the world that questioned evolution on such a grand scale. This conversation is getting a little too political for our "fun and happy" family blog so I'm going to end it here. Anyway, there is some food for thought.