Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

August 18, 2008

Susan Jacoby: How Anti-Intellectualism Is Destroying America

Filed under: culture — Tags: — codesmithy @ 11:29 am

Terrence McNally has an interview with Susan Jacoby, author of the book The Age of American Unreason.  Ultimately, I think I’ll pass on her book.  Nick Gillespie had another excellent interview with her for Book TV which is now on youtube (part 1 of 7).  Bemoaning the state of the world is a favorite long-standing tradition of intellectuals, cynics and curmudgeons.  As H. L. Mencken put it: Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.  Given that Mencken died in 1956, Jacoby’s observations are hardly new.

At the heart, Jacoby’s assertion is that the various statistics that she quotes represents a decline in critical thought.  The problem is that every statistic is a non-sequitur.  At the heart, what one would have to do to prove a dumbed down culture is show that people have a reduced capacity for logical thought over time.  It is telling Jacoby doesn’t seem to quote the one statistic that would prove her point: do people have a better or reduced capacity for identifying validity of an argument over time?  It may be true that “American 15-year-olds rank 24th out of 29 countries in math literacy” but is that because the American education system got worse, or because other countries got better?

There are other arguments you can make, such as critical thought is more important today than it was in the past because population continues to grow.  Population growth means we would have to have to be more efficient with our finite resources to maintain basic human dignity, the foundation of democracy.  Isaac Asimov used the bathroom metaphor to demonstrate the argument:

The dignity of the human species] will be completely destroyed [if the population growth continues at its present rate]. I use what I call the bathroom metaphor: if two people live in an apartment and there are two bathrooms, then both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want to stay as long as you like for whatever you need. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person; you have to bang on the door, “Aren’t you done yet?” In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive. Convenience and decency can’t survive. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one person matters

Jacoby bemoans the death of print, and complains about the quick hits of information we get online when we are seeking particular facts instead of long treastises on particular topics.  However, this is merely a fact in search of a problem.   If one doesn’t prove the underlying premise: critical thought has provably gone down in absolute terms i.e. more people are unable to determine the validity of the following argument:

  1. All men are mortal
  2. Socrates is a man
  3. Socrates is mortal

Or, cannot answer the following question.

There are a set of cards with numbers on the front and letters on the back.  Given the statement: if a card has an even number, then its letter is a vowel, what is the minimum number of cards one would have to turn over to prove/disprove the validity of the statement if one sees: 5 6 B E?

Then the statistics aren’t relevant to the argument.  Again, as far as I can tell, Jacoby never references a direct measure of this type.  If she doesn’t, Jacoby is paradoxically employing faulty logic in order to convince us that we lack critical thinking capacity.  I don’t think I could stand the irony of such a book.


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