During the question period that followed a reading last month at the famous Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, a mathematics professor rose to tell a brief story. He reported that a student's evaluation of another math professor had contained this complaint: "He makes it hard for the average student to get an A."
Listening to a podcast of that occasion, I could almost feel the delight this evoked in Susan Jacoby, who had just read from her new book, The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon). The mathematician provided another outrage she could add to all the evidence that (as the headline on her recent Sunday piece in the Washington Post put it) Americans have turned themselves into a "Nation of Dunces."
Certainly the student in that story sounds like a dunce. He doesn't understand that it's the superior student who should get an A. An average student gets one only with far-above-average effort. But of course the student may have been studying at one of those universities where professors throw around A's like confetti. Perhaps he'll complain indignantly to the dean, threatening to sue. Perhaps the dean will raise the mark to avoid a fuss.
That's all possible in the demoralized universities of today, and not just in America. But it's America, her home, that worries Jacoby. She's angry because Americans, as she sees it, are much dumber than they were a few decades ago. She directs her fury at politicians, schools, TV, conservative intellectuals, evangelical Christians and parents. Among others.
A former Washington Post education reporter and the author of books on Russian schools, American secularism and several other subjects, Jacoby pulls together a rather over-familiar collection of pollster-collected facts on American ignorance: Many Americans think the sun revolves around the Earth, many teenagers can't find Iraq on a map, etc. Jacoby also hates the tone of public life. She believes the word "folks," used by politicians, is a plague -- but she's willing to write about "ordinary people." (Personally, I'd rather be one of the folks than one of the ordinary, but it's probably a matter of taste.)
Jacoby's outrage is highly selective. While trying to identify one disturbing trend, she unconsciously demonstrates that she's a glaring example of another. She belongs to the party of demi-intellectuals (it has its right-wingers and its left-wingers) who automatically condemn the ideas of everyone who doesn't agree with them. It turns out that she's unhappy because Americans aren't intelligent enough to vote for liberal Democrats consistently. Who else would an intelligent person vote for?
To satisfy Jacoby, it's not enough to exhibit intelligence. It's necessary also to use that intelligence properly, to develop views closely resembling hers. She doesn't like the late Allan Bloom, for instance, because he denounced the 1960s counterculture in his best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind. She ticks off a list of conservative intellectuals who are, in her eyes, part of the problem. With one sentence she sweeps off the table not only William Kristol of the Weekly Standard but also his dad Irving and his mom Gertrude Himmelfarb. Those are pretty brainy people, especially mom, but that doesn't impress Jacoby. She resents the Kristols' opinion of the 1960s and probably all their other opinions as well. Curiously, from time to time she forgets herself, admits the 1960s helped degrade American society and sounds briefly like Bloom or a Kristol. But she quickly recovers, remembers what jersey she's wearing, and returns to her team.
Born in 1945, Jacoby talks herself into a conviction (mainly bogus, I believe) that the America of her youth or the America just before her time had a better sense of cultural values than the America of today. She settles on middlebrow culture, represented most obviously by the Book-of-the-Month Club, as proof that Americans were once at least intellectually ambitious.
Given the American taste for masochism, it seems likely her book will do well. The reviews have been at least indulgent. But she makes a major error when she mentions, at six or eight points, the book that inspired her: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter, published in 1963. A professor of history at Columbia University, Hofstadter handled that subject with calm, cool brilliance. By contrast, Jacoby comes across as a narrow-minded bully, so politically involved that she can't place her subject in convincing historical and cultural perspective. She doesn't seem to understand that she lacks the distance a serious argument needs. A reader of her book might even conclude that she's not smart enough for her subject.