Monday, March 10, 2008

Age of American Unreason - KQED

KQED forum invited Susan Jacoby, Anthony Cascardi, Lynne Munson and the listeners to the radio program to participate in a discussion of Jacoby's recent book The Age of American Unreason, which has made head lines in the past weeks. Even though Jacoby relates having been attacked about the book and I have seen some hefty on line discussions, the program (and podcast) showed a lot of consent.

In a way the consent should not be so surprising. Also outside the US we are flooded with examples of surveys where Americans couldn't answer the simplest of questions. Accordingly, those examples are repeated by the panel as well as the callers to the show. It is also surmised that this kind of knowledge was passed onto a wider audience in the past. But real comparative data I have not seen yet, hence this stays in the realm of assumption.

Outside of the US, we see similar developments and why should Americans be less gifted with reason than other Westerners? The symptoms are not just ignorance, they are also the pride in ignorance, distrust of intellect and intellectuals, a tendency to irrationality and so on. Where does this come from? Apart from an element in the culture that mistrusts intellectualism, science, theory, 'cold' reasoning, there is also a development in the education. Education is more and more geared towards practical skills and less and less towards general knowledge. The whole idea that a skilled world citizen should have a minimum of knowledge in language, history, culture and so on has suffered both from utilitarianism (skills are economically more interesting) as well as relativism (how can we scale a limited core of knowledge to be vital).

The last point moves the conjecture from a mere 'once upon a time all was better' to a grating criticism, not just of the non-intellectuals, but also of the intellectual elite itself. In its relativism it has squandered the notion of canons and integrated education. This is somewhat mentioned in the program and maybe a considerable part of the book - we'd have to read it. I for one am certainly tickled.

More KQED Forum:
Christopher Hitchins.

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