Friday, May 15, 2009

BOW for May 18

BOW Book of the Week
For the week of 5/18/09

The Age of American Unreason
Susan Jacoby. 2008. Pantheon Books
3rd floor new books display E169.Z83 J33 2008

The author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism develops a history of the decline of American thought from its promise in Darwin's mid-nineteenth century to a present in which one of four high-school biology teachers believe humans and dinosaurs once shared the Earth. It's a coherent and rather illuminating look at the role of social Darwinism in adulterating evolutionary theory's search for truth and thus opening the door for junk science and a general cheapening and co-opting of intellectual thought. Jacoby also points to 20th century red scare as a cause of an enduring mistrust of intellectuals, and traces this through to today's celebration of vapid celebrities.

The book excels as a history more than as an extended argument; coupled with a reader's skepticism and will to challenge and balance some of its claims, it provides useful material for further thought. One may read it comparatively along with Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism and American Life (1963) and its contemporary, 2008's Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium by Dick Meyer.

--Jeff Maehre

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