This article by Susan Jacoby in the Washington Post has been getting quite a bit of attention; she claims that the United States is in the midst of an “epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism.” Her thesis, fairly summed up in the article’s sub-headline, is that we are a “nation of dunces.”
It’s not much of an article, really; more like a rant you might find on a mediocre blog. Jacoby bemoans the rise of video and takes a ritual pass at Bush bashing, but her heart doesn’t seem to be in it. Even Democrats don’t seriously believe that the President has made Americans stupid.
Jacoby offers no data to indicate how today’s Americans compare with those in the past, or in other countries. She cites familiar scare statistics, such as the finding in the 2007 General Social Survey, carried out by the National Science Foundation, that close to twenty percent of respondents think the sun revolves around the earth. That sounds shocking, all right, but I’ve observed that you can ask virtually any question in a survey, and ten to twenty percent of respondents will give you an off-the-wall answer. Whether they are irresponsible young people pimping the questioner, distracted mothers with crying infants on their hips, or genuinely dumb people is hard to say. Actually, you can find scarier data on the GSS web site, like the 32 percent–more than the number who think the sun revolves around the earth!–who believe that astrology is either “very scientific” or “sort of scientific.”
In general, I think, people deal competently with things that affect them in their daily lives, with which they have personal experience, and less effectively with abstractions. Recall this exchange from A Study In Scarlet, in which Dr. Watson describes his new roommate, Sherlock Holmes:
His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the na