A Nation of Uncommitted, Distracted Dilettantes

By Susan Jacoby
Pantheon, 356 pages, $26

A few hundred pages into The Division of Labor in Society, a 1893 tract notable for its eyeball-bleeding tedium and the insouciant unfalsifiability of its categorizations, Emile Durkheim finally addresses a matter the modern reader might care to hear about: namely, “the division of intellectual labor.”

“Science,” Durkheim writes, “carved up into a host of detailed studies that have no link with one another, no longer forms a solid whole. … The division of labor cannot therefore be pushed too far without being a source of disintegration.” Durkheim, of course, spent the rest of his life establishing sociology as its own special, separate science.

To read Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason is to think of old Emile, though he was neither American nor especially unreasonable. Like Durkheim, Ms. Jacoby’s new book, a polemic at once passionately argued and terrifically calm, is not quite what it seems. And neither, whisper the spaces between lines, is this Age of Unreason: As it turns out, our era of know-nothing atavism (and Know Nothing nativism) is not nearly so far removed from the procession of high intellectual culture as either Mike Huckabee, say, or Jurgen Habermas—each wondrously dense in his own way—might hope.

This central point makes Ms. Jacoby’s work a surprising and uncommonly sophisticated treatment of a familiar topic—and if you blink, you’ll miss it.

The contours of a peculiarly American disenlightenment have been traced again and again in recent haute-pop titles as disparate as Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason. A new American exceptionalism of literalist Christianity and proud anti-intellectualism has taken hold: With our Left Behinds and intelligent designs, we must surely seem exceptionally ridiculous to the rest of the world, not least the London-Dubai-Shanghai axis that’s inherited the future while we’ve dawdled over Jesus.


BUT DISMANTLING THE worldview of creationists and anti-vaccination activists—or even exposing the machinations of political elites who commandeer ridiculous beliefs for regressive ideological ends—does little to explain the ascendancy of that worldview.

Is it possible that anti-intellectualism is a problem exacerbated by intellectuals? Even as Susan Jacoby the concerned citizen goes through the motions of liberal condemnation, rightly decrying the centrist “mindless tolerance” that “places observable scientific fact … on the same level as unprovable supernatural fantasy,” Susan Jacoby the contrarian historian suggests a different, altogether subtler and more persuasive reading of Americans’ self-satisfied illiteracy, cultural and otherwise.

Take her marvelous treatment of the Scopes trial, in an early chapter titled “Social Pseudoscience and the Morning of America’s Culture Wars.”

For Ms. Jacoby, the enemy during that early skirmish was not William Jennings Bryan, whose political populism was entirely compatible with his anti-evolutionary stance. Bryan conflated natural selection with the Gilded Age conviction that concerns for social justice were an affront to human progress. At a time when the industrial ruthlessness and subsequent philanthropic largesse of Carnegies and Rockefellers propped up quasi-evolutionary myths of radical meritocracy, Bryan’s conclusion was hardly an imaginative leap.

But the robber barons aren’t the enemy, either. The real villains, as far as Ms. Jacoby is concerned, are the followers of British philosopher-charlatan Herbert Spencer, the man who introduced social Darwinism to American academia. And the point is precisely that Darwin’s naturalist language—his intellectual imprimatur—offered a patina of science to vile, age-old supremacist notions; “late nineteenth-century academics,” Ms. Jacoby writes, “belonged to the first generation of American intellectuals to insist that their social theories were a branch of objective science.”

The problem was (and is) not so much the realization of Durkheim’s fear of a fragmented science as its corollary and inverse: Once it has trickled down to the civilians for whom academic knowledge has remained a “solid whole,” the real revolution of Darwinian biology becomes indistinguishable from Spencerian “survival of the fittest.” William Jennings Bryan, “The Great Commoner,” was not so different after all from the university elite: “One of the great ironies of this phase of American intellectual history is that the intellectual social Darwinists and their fundamentalist opponents shared an inability to distinguish between science and social pseudoscience and they passed on their confusion to a pubic that worshipped the fruits of science but was fundamentally ignorant of the scientific method.”

The perfume of academic expertise, in short, hid the stink of uncritical nonsense.


MS. JACOBY, WHOSE last book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004), offered a Profiles in Courage-like counternarrative to the Christian nation, here defends an equally imperiled American virtue: The corrective to unreason is not erudition but generalism. She reserves special praise for William James. Defying the Durkheimian impulse toward ever more atomized jargon-deploying disciplines, James was a physician and a naturalist as well as a psychologist and a philosopher. In 1880, he delivered a devastating attack on “the misappropriation of genuine evidence-based science in the service of unverifiable, monistic, metaphysical, and social theories.”

A Nation of Uncommitted, Distracted Dilettantes