Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason: A Critique

May 15, 2008

I am currently reading Susan Jacoby’s widely celebrated The Age of American Unreason in my spare time, and am 3 chapters in.  So far, the book deserves serious criticism, especially from historians, since she makes grandiose claims about the history of unreason (or anti-intellectualism) in the United States, and yet she willfully ignores anything written on the topic by a historian since Richard Hofstadter. She at once sees herself as carrying on the spirit of Hofstadter, which is fine, but also seems to think, by implication, that nothing of value has been offered on the topic since Hofstadter. (Again, I am only 3 chapters in, so perhaps she addresses recent historiography in later chapters.) Let me give two examples, drawing from educational and religious history, which she treats in similarly formulaic fashion.

Along educational lines, she acts as if Adolphe Meyer, who’s An Educational History of American People was published in 1957, had the last word on nineteenth century educational history. Thus, her rendering of this complex history boils down to a black-and-white morality tale between the forces of reason who seek to educate the illiterate masses, and the forces of ignorance, who resist formal education because they are, well, ignorant (or because their leaders dupe them into remaining ignorant). Never mind that, as numerous historians since 1957 have shown, people often resisted formal education for other reasons, including class, since the educational bureaucrats of the 19th century trying to get children in schools shared the class and regional background of those trying to get workers in factories. To grasp such a fundamental argument, Jacoby needn’t have dealt with recent historical literature, averse to it as she seems. She could have read and digested the arguments made by Michael Katz in his 1968 groundbreaking work, The Ironies of Early Education Reform.

In terms of religious history, again Jacoby attempts to stuff square pegs into round holes. She is a master of ahistorical and anachronistic thinking. For instance, she refers to all evangelicals across US history (or, all non-moderate, non-“mainline” Protestants) as “fundamentalists” who prioritize religious doctrine over scientific evidence in their understandings of the world. She notes that the term “fundamentalism” did not come to be used until the twentieth century, but maintains its appropriateness for describing the religious and secular beliefs of nineteenth century Americans, failing to recognize that the etymology had an historical rationale, that is, it came into being when a sizable group of religious leaders did in fact question religious fundamentals.

As such, again, she makes simple that which is paradoxical, and thus religious history becomes another story of good versus evil, or rather, rational versus irrational. The good, rational people are those who adjust their religious beliefs to the ever-changing modern world (mainline Protestants), the bad, irrational people are those who maintain a religious absolutism (“fundamentalists,” Mormons, Catholics, etc.) Again, never mind that many of Jacoby’s so-called fundamentalists sought God as a form of resistance to Mammon. (And what about abolitionists such as John Brown? Was his religiously absolute opposition to slavery so irrational? If so, let us all be so unreasonable.)

Had Jacoby nodded to recent historiography, such as the brilliant and controversial work of Charles Sellers (The Market Revolution) she might have, at the very least, been compelled to grapple with the fact that debate exists on these historical issues. Reasonable and rational people have cause to disagree vehemently with her narrative. Jacoby’s problem is that she replicates Hofstadter’s mistakes by conflating political and religious differences with psychological abnormality. And yet she fails to replicate Hofstadter’s qualities, namely, taking history seriously on its own terms, not merely as clay to be shaped to narrow contemporary pursuits. If Hofstadter stands for historical paradox and complexity, Jacoby stands for ahistorical simplicity. And there’s nothing rational or intellectual about that.

Cheers. Andrew

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3 Responses to “Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason: A Critique”

  1. amybaker Says:

    I too am reading Jacoby’s book. I just finished the third chapter a few minutes ago, and had the same sentiments (so much so that I did a book review search and found your blog).
    In addition to what you pointed out, I am very disappointed in her lack of references and listed source material. She makes many sweeping generalizations, and gives out definitions without source material. Perhaps what is most frustrating, is that I want to believe her arguments, they are emotionally & intellectually compelling at first glance.
    What did you think after finishing it in its entirety?

  2. withinempire Says:

    Dear Amy: I’m glad you agree with my assessment. I gave up on Jacoby after three chapters, although I will probably return to it later, when I have more time. If you continue reading, I’d be interested to know your thoughts. Cheers.

    Andrew

  3. Alea Says:

    Excellent review if even the first three chapters.


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