Susan Jacoby

The “dumbing down” of America

VTR Date: May 11, 2008

Writer Susan Jacoby discusses her book "The Age of American Unreason."


GUEST: Susan Jacoby
VTR: 05/08/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest today, writer Susan Jacoby, has in her new Pantheon Books’ truly brilliant but equally depressing “The Age of American Unreason” picked up where my teacher and friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Richard Hofstadter, left off two generations ago … and with skill and insight expands upon his now-classic study of “Anti-Intellectualism In American Life”.

As presidential historian Douglas Brinkley comments about her book, “With analytic verve and deep historical knowledge, Susan Jacoby documents the dumbing down of our culture like a maestro. Make no mistake about it, this is an important book”.

Now Ms. Jacoby quotes Thomas Jefferson to begin her “Age of American Unreason: Jefferson, 1816”…”If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.”

Which, of course, is why I, too, use as the title of our Open Mind today the thoroughly disheartening but now so often heard phrase, “The dumbing down of America”.

Indeed, in this presidential election year, I would ask Susan Jacoby to answer her own book’s ultimate question: “Is it possible that American voters have learned something about the consequences of choosing an intellectually challenged Chief Executive? Fair question?

JACOBY: Fair question. We’ll find out. (Laugh) I think that, for example, I’m not even going to talk about the Republican side. But in the Democratic primaries which basically have boiled down to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Now these are two very intelligent people. These are two, also, extremely well educated people. I have to say that one of the things that has really disheartened me in the last few weeks, which is to say, since, since the contest came down to the two of them, is all of these accusations of elitism flying around.

I just heard Hillary Clinton say, and, and as you know, she and John McCain have both proposed a gas tax holiday in the summer, which every economist in the nation thinks is an idiotic idea, which will do nothing, it will just provide more profits for the oil companies.

And I heard Hillary Clinton say, “Well, that’s just elite thinking.” In other words, why listen to those stupid old economists, what do they know, we want to give relief right now to people who are suffering at the gas pump.

Now Obama to his credit said, “No. Every economist says that that would do nothing for people.” Now the question is, how do the American people think about this?

Right now we have State legislature also running to fall in line behind this stupid gas tax proposal. If people understood what a tiny proportion of their money for gas actually goes for the federal tax, then they would, they would not fall for that proposal. We’ll see …

HEFFNER: So your answer is “no” we haven’t changed.

JACOBY: I don’t know. I don’t know. A lot of … a lot of the discussion in this campaign which started out to be more intelligent has become less intelligent as it’s been reduced to a war of sound bytes.

Our political culture, you know, is no different from our culture as a whole. One of the things I object to is people talking about our political culture as though it is something different from our culture.

Our political culture interacts with our culture as a whole. It’s a reflection of our culture as a whole.

I’ve had Left Wing talk show hosts ask me a leading question because obviously I am a Liberal, I am a Democrat, ask me, “Don’t I think that George Bush is responsible for the dumbing down of America?”

No, I don’t. I think that anybody with Bush’s lack of intellectual curiosity, inability to speak a decent English sentence, that he could be considered for the Presidency is a reflection of the “dumbing down” of our culture, not a cause.

HEFFNER: And then after that … what happens? We did, whatever happened in 2000, we did in 2004 elect him …

JACOBY: Again.

HEFFNER: … you and might think …

JACOBY: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … for the first time.

JACOBY: For the first time.

HEFFNER: Ah, but we did, as a people, we accepted, indeed, embraced with the war going on and all of that. So that your book is, I gather rightly depressing in its picture of an American intellectual level.

JACOBY: Well, you know, let’s, let’s, let’s just … let’s move away from the election for a second and think about, about issues. I, myself, was surprised at some of the studies I turned up that I cite in this book.

The worst one I think is the National Geographic Roper Poll of Americans from 18 to 25 … after all, an age group that’s doing nearly all of the fighting and dying in Iraq. And two-thirds of them can’t find Iraq on a map, a map that’s marked with the names of countries.

But more than that, when, when people were asked … when this age group were asked “Is it important to know a foreign language? Or is it important to know the location of countries in which important news is being made”, more than half of them said, “no”.

So … not knowing where Iraq is on a map, that’s ignorance. Saying it’s not important to know where it is on a map is saying, “I’m ignorant and proud of it.”

HEFFNER: Well then let me ask you, what is the thrust of your beginning the book with the quote from Jefferson. Are you prophesying here that having “dumbed down” we cannot also be free.

JACOBY: I consider it a cautionary quote. If things keep going the way they’re going. If there isn’t, if there isn’t some kind of a concerted effort to deal with this problem, I don’t see how anything in our political culture can get better.

HEFFNER: But you seem to be, still to me, you seem to be kind of so uneasy about that Jeffersonian thought … here it is, you can’t dumb down and be free.

JACOBY: I am uneasy about it. I mean we can be free technically in the sense that we go to the polls. But, but certainly the Founders thought it was … it was really their main article of faith, that democracy and maintaining it depended on an informed citizenry. A citizenry that was much more widely informed and more committed to free inquiry than the United States was at the time of independence. That’s why they had, they had a lot of faith in education.

But, as your old teacher, Hofstadter pointed out, democratization of education was always coupled in America with a suspicion of too much learning. So that the idea of practical learning for better jobs and maybe better citizenship was always an American ideal.

On the other side, there was always the suspicion of the person who “knows too much, talks too good.”

HEFFNER: So the pandering isn’t all that new.

JACOBY: No. The pandering, the pandering isn’t all that new. But what has changed in the last 40 years and, again, Hofstadter couldn’t have anticipated this. He was writing really at the beginning of the video culture.

What has happened, I think that has added to all of the endemic American anti-intellectual tendencies that Hofstadter talked about is the saturation of our culture by 24/7 “infotainment”. Which was just beginning. And it, it shows itself in the fact that we’re becoming a nation … not of illiterates … but, as I say, of “a-literates”. We are people who increasingly don’t read books.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006 … only … more than half of Americans under 44 read no book at all last year, other than what they might have needed to read if they were still in school. By that I mean no book. I don’t mean that they didn’t read Proust or Henry James (laugh), I mean that they didn’t read any book … no detective story, no bodice ripper, romance, no self help book … nothing.

HEFFNER: Then you agree with my other late friend, Neil Postman, that we are amusing ourselves to death.

JACOBY: Yes. And Neil Postman’s book, which was published in 1986 was very prescient. He, he was published … that book … at the dawn of the computer era. He, you know, he hadn’t seen what the, what the, what the visual use of the web would do and how it would … how greatly enhanced the ability of people to entertain themselves 24 hours a day would be by mobile digital technology.

You know we’ve become so used to this and the fact is it’s only 10 to 15 years that we’ve had the capacity, through various portable devices to carry our entertainment with us 24 hours a day, if we want to do it.

And if you ride a bus in New York City you know that a lot of people do want to do it.

HEFFNER: And the consequences? More dumbing down.

JACOBY: The consequences are that for every … every time you spend in passive forms of acquiring information, entertainment … you’re not doing something else.

Now, if you’ve read any of the reviews of my book you see that some of them have taken me to task for being a technophobe. And I’d sort of like to answer the critics who aren’t here.

I’m not a technophobe, I simply point out that computers, the web … they’re tools. They’re wonderful tools, They’re great tools for getting information. I’m really happy that when I forget a date, that I don’t have to go through 10 books to find it, I can just, I can just click on the Internet and find out what the date of some battle was. Or how to spell the name of some country whose name has been changed.

But that’s just information. It’s a shortcut to getting information. That information doesn’t mean anything 1) if you don’t know how to look for it. That is to say you don’t know what you’re looking for. But most particularly it doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t connect to a body of knowledge.

I, I’d compare it to … the web to a calculator. Now when I do my tax returns I don’t add up the figures by hand. I use a calculator when I send stuff to my accountant.

But I know, for, for example, I understand fractions and percentages. If something came out $100,000 dollars that ought to be only $10,000, I would know immediately in my head because I understand the basic processes of math and percentages, that it was wrong. I might not know the exact dollar amount it was wrong, but I would know.

But kids who only learn calculators can get the right answer, but if the calculator goes haywire, they’ll be at a loss if they don’t understand percentages and fractions. And, just as an aside, our 15 year olds are nearly at the bottom in all developed nations in their math literacy.

So, this is a kind of an across the board thing. Well, the relationship of computers to knowledge is very much like the relationship of calculators to math. What computers have in them is what we put in them. What we get out of them is what we look for.

So if you’re looking for, if you’re looking for great things, you can find them on the Internet. And if you’re looking for garbage, if what you want to do is watch people indicting their estranged spouses on YouTube and throwing up on YouTube, you’ll do that. Garbage in, garbage out.

Now, a lot of people are very angry at me for saying that computers are just tools. And I don’t know why.

What … this may be one of the problems that America has, is an almost childlike faith in technological solutions to every problem. As though what was on the web isn’t what people have put there. (Laugh) As though it exists as some kind of a god-like source of knowledge.

HEFFNER: What then … you’ve been an historian here in this book … turn out to be a prophet and what do you prophesize?

JACOBY: I really, I really hate to be asked that question. (Laugh) I don’t feel very optimistic. I particularly don’t feel optimistic because just since I’ve been writing this book there has been a push by video marketers, to reach the last untouched market, which are children from infancy to about two years old.

Until a few years ago what was available in videos was aimed at two years and above. Now they’re, they’re promoting various things like Home Box Office’s Classical Baby. They’re promoting it for infants from six months old.

And when, when pediatricians … so the American Academy of Pediatrics says there is no safe level of viewing for kids that young because it stunts vocabulary development, among other things.

Ah, ah a psychiatrist from Harvard Medical School, who guess what, is also a consultant to HBO came out with the incredible statement … “To say that this kind of TV for babies is bad is tantamount to saying that art is bad”.

Well this shows you … this is the reason I called this book, “The Age of Unreason” by the way and did not use the word anti-intellectualism in the title. This is a … obviously a very well trained man, making an utterly unreasonable statement. (Laugh)

HEFFNER: An unpaid, well-trained person, do you think?

JACOBY: I wouldn’t know. (Laugh) I, I, I assume nobody… I assume when you’re a consultant to HBO you get a consulting fee.

HEFFNER: You and I have to think about still another field and that is pre-natal use of television. Maybe there are bucks to be made there. Okay. You and I …

JACOBY: You mean put a camera in the woman’s uterus … I see it, I see it coming. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Good business. Look, I’m, I’m quite serious. I, I … you are considered anti-technological. I’m so frequently called a Luddite to my face. What is going to happen? Others don’t seem to have experienced … though if you turn to Europe, you see that the electronic revolution …(clears throat) … excuse me … has taken hold even more than it has here. But seemingly not with the same educational consequences.

JACOBY: I think that is a really important question. Because obviously the empire of “infotainment” doesn’t have any national boundaries.

What makes us more susceptible than other cultures to the worst as opposed to the best parts of the digital revolution?

I think one, one of the things that makes us more susceptible is something I already mentioned which is our kind of love affair with technology, the idea that it is more than it is.

The other thing that makes us more susceptible … I really believe is the fact that everybody who was brought up since World War II, let’s say … everybody my age and younger … has been brought up with the idea that we’re Number 1. We’re number 1 covers a multitude of sins. It’s almost like a thumb-sucking security blanket, saying we don’t have to do anything more.

And when you look at these studies about our math and our science students and so on, you know that we’re not gong to be Number 1 much longer. In many areas, such as manufacturing, we no longer number 1. In certain scientific areas we are also on the verge of not being Number 1 and certainly this has … but the idea that we’re Number 1 … is very, very powerful. And in a way it kind of impedes thinking about solutions.

Because if you just fall back on “we’re Number 1” … and also American exceptionalism … we’re different, we’re better … and don’t look at what’s really happening in the world. Then you don’t think about solutions.

Now I have to say, since I published this book I have received literally thousands of emails from young parents who are concerned about this. All I wanted to do with my book was to start a conversation about this subject which has to precede anything we might do at the public level to impede some of these forces that are dumbing us down.

And one, that conversation has to be about how we use our own time and how we allow our young children … because those are the only people parents have any control over … once they go off … once they go off on their own, when they’re about 6 or 7 you have less and less control over them.

I’ve had so many people come up to me after talks and say “I’d love to read more, but I just don’t have the time.” Well, what we have to be thinking about, as part of this conversation is “why don’t we have the time?”

In our households we have the time to have television on seven hours a day. Young boys have three hours a day to spend on video games.

Now if you are spending all of your time on these things, whether you’re a parent vegged out on the couch, or, or a kid using video games or, or spending hours on My Space, then of course you don’t have time to read books. Of course you don’t have time to think quietly. You don’t have time to do any of those things, but there isn’t any law that says we have to keep spending our time this way.

And by the way I am not one of those people who thinks that, that nobody should ever watch TV or your should never let your kind watch a video.

The problem is, as let’s say … the hour when you’d put a kid in front of a video when you come home and you want to talk to your spouse and you want to have an hour of uninterrupted adult conversation. That’s not a problem.

The problem is when that hour turns into two and three and four and five habitual hours. When it occupies the weekends, that’s the problem. And that, I believe, is the first force “dumbing down” our culture.

All of the others, in a way, are secondary to it. The, the sound bite that has become our political culture is a product of this culture of “infotainment.”

HEFFNER: Strange to me that what you don’t say is that the American motto or theme or whatever you might want to call it … that the bottom is our bottom line … and that we lure our children into these things. I’m surprised that you don’t do that.

But I, I … let me ask you something. You say, toward the very end of your book … memory has been the greatest civic casualty of the past 50 years.


HEFFNER: What do you mean?

JACOBY: Yes. Because and again … this is, this is, this is part of our political process.

Look, we have heard almost nothing about the war in Iraq in the political campaign in the last two months. We heard a lot about it at the beginning. Why? Because, because there aren’t quite as many Americans dying with the Surge. So, so the personal arguments between Hillary and Barack have pushed the war off TV.

We can’t seem to be able to carry through a conversation about an issue unless bombs are exploding in our own faces.

And when I say that memory has been a casualty, to talk about the war in Iraq, you have to talk about how it started. Which means that you have to be able to remember what happened five years ago. And only in America, I think, could somebody say that their vote five years ago didn’t matter. And that was what everybody was doing then, and have that accepted.

To discuss anything intelligently that’s a matter of policy, you have to have some memory. And again, I think the video culture is very much a part of that.

I make no brief for a lot of the junk that appears in newspapers and in many books. But if you see something wrong in a book, or in the newspaper for that matter … something that doesn’t quite track with you, you can go and compare it with other sources and look at a lot of things.

When I hear a candidate saying something on TV, chances are I’m only half paying attention, with half an ear, anyway. The sound byte is gone except when they endlessly loop things like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The sound byte is gone and you don’t … you have the opportunity to think about it.

Now all of this stuff is there on the Web, that’s right. And you can use the web to do this kind of thing. But very few people actually do, except for the most sort of intensely, politically interested people. Newspapers, for instance, ten years ago thought online editions were going to save them. They’re not.

Young people don’t read more newspapers online than they read print editions. Which is to say only a small minority of the people who read online editions are under the age of 35.

And also people read less online of a newspaper than they read of a print edition. People who want to look at sports go to the sports scores, the latest political brouhaha, you go to that. But the experience of reading the whole newspaper is gone.

And I think that what we do, I argue, on the Internet, is not reading. It’s like being a vulture. Swooping down for bits of information. That’s what I do when I’m looking for a fact for my articles. It’s what anybody who’s using Internet for work does.

It’s not the same experience as sitting and reading and thinking about it and letting it brew in your head. Because the whole purpose of the Internet … it’s beauty as well as its horror, in terms of intellectual culture, is it’s quickness. We don’t want to spend time with it.


JACOBY: (Laugh) We want to spend time with it, but not with any one thing to read on it.

HEFFNER: Would you consider it inappropriate for one to suggest that maybe the best thing for us to do then is to accept, not relish, but accept your description and it is a … an accurate, in my estimation. I don’t think anybody really challenges your description of what is happening to us.

JACOBY: Oh, yes, they do.

HEFFNER: Well, they may not like it, your description … you’re putting your finger on where we are and who we are. But don’t we have an obligation to think through instead a different framework, education … educational framework, a different political framework if we, ourselves, are becoming such a different people.

If memory and the loss of memory is so important, why protest so much, why not, instead think in terms of what kind of politics will we have in the future?

JACOBY: Well, people have thought in terms of what kind of politics we’d have in the future in a stupid society. Aldous Huxley thought about it in “Brave New World”, which I think is much more of a paradigm of what we have today than even than Orwell’s. Orwell’s, Orwell’s embodied and idea of a tyranny from the top.

But Huxley’s, I think, and I’m not the first person to say this, Neil Postman made this observation …

HEFFNER: Indeed, he did.

JACOBY: … first. Huxley envisioned a world in which people wouldn’t care very much about what their rulers were doing because they were sort of drugged by pleasure … in his case, literally drugged. Our drug, in addition to literal drugs, our drug is this infotainment that surrounds us. And I, I think that we have already had a vision of what the future would be like in a society more extreme than ours.

And I don’t see anything to do except try to fight it with those people who are willing to fight it. There are teachers who are willing to fight it. There are parents who are willing to fight it. I don’t want to think about the creation of a culture, which will happen anyway, if we continue to go the way we’re going … I don’t want to think about the creation of a form of politics that would be as dumb as we have become so far.

HEFFNER: Susan Jacoby maybe we’re going to have to think the unthinkable. In the meantime I hope as many people as possible read The Age of American Unreason and thank you so much for joining me today.

JACOBY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.