excerpts from the book
The Age of American Unreason
by Susan Jacoby
Vintage Books, 2008, paperback
Thomas Jefferson, 1816
If a nation expects to be ignorant and
free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and
never will be.
Americans are alone in the developed world in their view of evolution
by means of natural selection as "controversial" rather
than as settled mainstream science. The continuing strength of
religious fundamentalism in America (again, unique in the developed
world) is generally cited as the sole reason for the bizarre persistence
of anti-evolutionism. But that simple answer does not address
the larger question of why so many nonfundamentalist Americans
are willing to dismiss scientific consensus. The real and more
complex explanation may lie not in America's brand of faith but
in the public's ignorance about science in general as well as
evolution in particular. More than two thirds of Americans, according
to surveys conducted for the National Science Foundation over
the past two decades, are unable to identify DNA as the key to
heredity. Nine out of ten Americans do not understand radiation
and what it can do to the body. One in five adults is convinced
that the sun revolves around the earth. Such responses point to
a stunning failure of American public schooling at the elementary
and secondary levels, and it is easy to understand why a public
with such a shaky grasp of the most rudimentary scientific facts
would be unable or unwilling to comprehend the theory of evolution.
In 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts released a survey
indicating that fewer than half of adult Americans had read any
work of fiction or poetry in the preceding year... Only 57 percent
had read a nonfiction book. In this increasingly a-literate America,
not only the enjoyment of reading but critical thinking itself
is at risk.
In recent years, television has commissioned an unceasing stream
of programs designed to appeal to a vast market of viewers who
believe in ghosts, angels, and demons. More than half of American
adults believe in ghosts, one third believe in astrology, three-quarters
believe in angels, and four-fifths believe in miracles.
Misguided objectivity, particularly with regard to religion, ignores
the willed ignorance that is one of the defining characteristics
of fundamentalism. One of the most powerful taboos in American
life concerns speaking ill of anyone else's faith-an injunction
rooted in confusion over the difference between freedom of religion
and granting religion immunity from the critical scrutiny applied
to other social institutions. Both the Constitution and the pragmatic
realities of living in a pluralistic society enjoin us to respect
our fellow citizens' right to believe whatever they want-as long
as their belief, in Thomas Jefferson's phrase, "neither picks
my pocket nor breaks my leg." But many Americans have misinterpreted
this sensible laissez-faire principle to mean that respect must
be accorded the beliefs themselves. This mindless tolerance, which
places observable scientific facts, subject to proof, on the same
level as unprovable supernatural fantasy, has played a major role
in the resurgence of both antiintellectualism and anti-rationalism.
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life public opinion poll results,
August 30, 2005
Nearly two thirds of Americans want both
creationism, generally understood as the hard-core fundamentalist
doctrine based on the story of Genesis, to be taught along with
evolution in public schools. Fewer than half of Americans - 48
percent - accept any form of evolution (even guided by God), and
just 26 percent accept Darwin's theory of evolution by means of
natural selection. Fully 42 percent say that all living beings,
including humans, have existed in their present form since the
beginning of time.
... 42 percent of Americans with only
a partial college education and half of high school graduates
adhere to the creationist viewpoint that organic life has remained
unchanged throughout the ages. A third of Americans mistakenly
believe that there is substantial disagreement about evolution
among scientists - a conviction reinforcing and reflecting the
rightwing religious mantra that evolution is "just a theory,"
with no more scientific validity than any other cockamamie idea.
... There are of course many scientific
disagreements about the particulars of evolution, but the general
theory of evolution by means of natural selection is a settled
issue for the mainstream scientific community.
A 1998 survey by researchers from the University of Texas found
that one out of four public school biology teachers believes that
humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth simultaneously.
Whatever the denomination or religion, fundamentalism has always
been defined by its refusal to adapt to any secular knowledge
that conflicts with its version of revealed religious truth; that
refusal, in science and the humanities, has been the most enduring
and powerful strand in American anti-intellectualism.
Deism , a belief in a "watchmaker God" who set the universe
in motion but then took no active role in the affairs of humans,
was a form of freethought particularly prevalent among the founders.
My own mind is my own church.
The more harsh the circumstances of daily life, the more potent
are the simple and universal emotional themes of struggle, sin,
repentance, forgiveness, and redemption that form the core of
evangelical fundamentalist religion. The need for emotional solace
does much to explain the appeal of fundamentalism not only to
settlers on the frontier but to enslaved blacks in the South.
When the storm is raging on the prairie, what comfort can be found
in a debate over the nature of the Eucharist or the Holy Trinity?
When the master is about to sell your children downriver, why
would you want to listen to a preacher who told you that Jesus
might be nothing more than a good and prophetic man instead of
the all-merciful Savior who will wipe away every tear from your
In any event, the reasons why fundamentalism
triumphed over "rational" religion in the American spiritual
bazaar are less important than the fact that fundamentalism did
succeed in capturing the hearts of large numbers of Americans
during the very period when intellectuals like Emerson were finding
even Unitarianism too rigid. If a combination of freethought arid
Enlightenment-influenced liberal Protestantism had been able to
meet the emotional needs of the turbulent young nation, the course
of American intellectual and religious history would have been
It is the greatest irony, and a stellar
illustration of the law of unintended consequences, that the American
experiment in complete religious liberty led large numbers of
Americans to embrace antirational, anti-intellectual forms of
faith. In Europe, the prevailing unions between church and state
made some form of rationalism not another religion-the most common
response of those who had lost faith in either their religion
or their government. Early nineteenth-century Europeans who opposed
church power over the state did not seek solace in revival meetings
on the banks of the Tiber, the Arno, and the Seine. Instead, they
sought their intellectual underpinnings in a continuation of the
secular spirit of the Enlightenment and the struggle for democratization
and political reform throughout much of the Continent. In America,
the absence of a coercive state-established church meant that
American citizens had no need to uproot existing religious institutions
in order to change political institutions, and vice versa. Americans
dissatisfied with their church simply founded another one and
mathematician Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicholas Caritat, marquis de
Condorcet, during the early phase of the French Revolution, put
forth a proposal for public schooling - in a report to the French
Legislative Assembly in late 1791
To afford all members of the human race
the means of providing for their needs, of securing their welfare,
of recognising and fulfilling their duties; to assure for everyone
opportunities of perfecting their skill and rendering themselves
capable of the social duties to which they have a right to be
called; to develop to the utmost the talents with which nature
has endowed them and, in so doing, to establish among all citizens
a true equality and thus make real the political equality realised
by law-this should be the primary aim of a national system of
education, and from this point of view its establishment is for
the public authority an obligation of justice.
In the 1790s, [James] Madison and [Thomas] Jefferson had stood
nearly alone in their advocacy of general taxation for schools,
then thought to be the responsibility of parents who wanted education
for their children and were willing and able to pay for it.
In a 1786 letter from Paris to his friend
and tutor George Wythe, Jefferson expressed his conviction that
the most important bill under consideration by the Virginia Assembly
was his proposal "for the diffusion of knowledge among the
people"-and that ignorance was the greatest enemy of the
common good. Jefferson's interest in the diffusion of learning
at public expense did not of course extend to slaves or women.
He did, however, believe in a white male aristocracy of intellect
that did not depend on aristocracy of birth. One of the distinctive
features of his proposed law, which combined limited democratic
and elitist ideals, was its provision that the most promising
sons of poor parents be selected to continue their education through
college at public expense. As the educational historian Adoiphe
Meyer notes, "if Jefferson inclined toward an elite of brains,
something which in current America is sometimes suspect, then
at least he did not assume, as did nearly all others of his era,
that the common people had no business within that cultivated
circle." Jefferson's proposed law was never enacted; Virginia
planters were uninterested in paying taxes for the education of
anyone else's children.
The dilution of a deity [God] in order not to offend any religious
denomination led inevitably, if not immediately, to a secular
public school curriculum
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of regional and
local disparities in the formation of American attitudes toward
intellect and learning. The educational backwardness of the South,
rooted first in slavery and then in segregation, deserves special
mention in view of the current cultural division between so-called
red and blue states. Even Virginia, which had led the way in providing
a nonsectarian model that eventually did so much to foster the
diffusion of learning in northern states, sank into the same intellectual
torpor, dictated by a slavery-based class system and indifferent
to the education of all but the rich, as the rest of the South.
Part of the South's post-Reconstruction mythology maintains that
everything wrong with southern education in the nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries can be blamed on the destruction wrought
by the Civil War and the vengeful postwar treatment of white southerners
by the North. In fact, on the eve of the war, only North Carolina
had established a public school system comparable to those in
Massachusetts and other New England states-or even the more laggard
... in a society [the American South]
based for so long on the supremacy of a planter aristocracy and
belief in the innate inferiority of blacks, there was little reason
to provide decent public education for poor whites, much less
blacks. Why bother, when just being white - even an illiterate
white - made an inhabitant of the South superior to any black.
As for blacks, the public school systems of the South rarely provided
any education beyond eighth grade until well into the twentieth
century. The only thing that might have saved the South from falling
further and further behind the rest of the nation in education
in the late nineteenth century was massive federal aid which the
South would surely have suspected as a plot against its way of
life even if the federal government had been willing to break
with precedent and provide aid for the schooling of destitute
former slaves and white sharecroppers.
... Local control of schools [in the
United States] meant not only that children in the poorest areas
of the country would have the worst school facilities and teachers
with the worst training but also that the content of education
in the most backward areas of the country would be determined
by backward people. In Europe, the subject matter of science and
history lessons taught to children in all publicly supported schools
has always been determined by highly educated employees of central
education ministries. In America, the image of an educated elite
laying down national guidelines for schools was and is a bête
noire for those who consider local control of education a right
almost as sacred as any of the rights enumerated in the Constitution.
For generations, the science and history taught in small towns
in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana was vetted by adults who
believed in the innate inferiority of blacks and who also subscribed
to fundamentalist creeds at odds with the growing body of secular
scientific knowledge. The best educated regions of the country
became better educated, and the most Intellectually backward regions
became more backward.
A half century into the political experiment intended to form
a more perfect union, the intellectual life of the new nation
was profoundly fragmented n the older urban centers of the Northeast,
there were visible signs not only of a diffusion of knowledge
but of the unmistakable emergence of an intellectual aristocracy.
In the South, what can only be described as an intellectual blockade
was imposed in an effort to keep out any ideas that might threaten
the social order.
Abraham Lincoln ... would become the last self-educated American
to be elected president, and his self-education was, as he made
clear, a matter of necessity rather than choice. Even as Emerson,
born in 1803, just six years before Lincoln, was embarking on
his career as an essayist and philosopher in a world of books,
Lincoln was struggling to master the principles of English grammar
while earning his living as a clerk in a general store in New
Salem, Illinois, a town of just twenty-five families in 1831.
Carrying his own well-worn copy of Shakespeare's plays everywhere,
studying a copy of Blackstone's Commentaries borrowed from the
one educated man in town, Lincoln prepared himself to become a
lawyer even as he became a figure of amusement to his neighbors
because of his bookishness. A recurrent theme in Lincoln's accounts
of his early life is his struggle to obtain books, usually by
[Charles] Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection,
was twisted into a social philosophy always described as "scientific"-
that enshrined competition and validated the worthiness of whoever
and whatever came out on top.
Between 1860 and 1910, in spite of the deaths of more than six
hundred thousand men in the Civil War, the American population
nearly tripled-from some 31 million to more than 92 million-as
a result of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. It is
a familiar yet still awe-inspiring demographic statistic, a raw
number that would seem to rule out any possibility of successful
assimilation or absorption-if we did not know that the task was
indeed accomplished. During the 1880s and 1890s, a network of
public elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and libraries
emerged to meet the challenge of absorbing millions of non-English-speaking
immigrants and raising the educational level of the entire American
What does it mean to be an American fundamentalist in the first
decade of the twenty-first century? The word "fundamentalism"
is rarely used in surveys of Americans' religious self-identification,
in large measure because the term is considered a pejorative even
by many fundamentalists themselves. Pollsters usually ask whether
Americans consider themselves "evangelicals," because
evangelical is a broader, less loaded term that can encompass
both theological liberals and theological conservatives. Former
President Jimmy Carter and President George W. Bush are both evangelicals,
but Bush's statements indicate that he is a fundamentalist while
Carter, who strongly supports the teaching of evolution in schools,
falls on the liberal side of the evangelical divide. The main
difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals, although
they share a faith that rests on an intimate, personal relationship
between God and man, is that not all evangelicals regard the Bible
as literally true but all fundamentalists do.
Two thirds of Americans believe in heaven but fewer than half
believe in hell.
There is unquestionably a powerful correlation between religious
fundamentalism and lack of education. Approximately 45 percent
of those who have no education beyond high school believe in the
literal truth of the Bible, while only 29 percent with some college
- and just 19 percent of college graduates - share that old-time
faith. Secularism, skepticism, and acceptance of mainstream science
all rise with education; two thirds of college graduates, but
only about one third of high school graduates, believe that living
beings have evolved over time with or without the guiding hand
of a creator.
The South remains the most educationally backward region of the
nation, and southerners are far more likely than other Americans
to profess fundamentalist faith.
Patrick Henry [University] located about fifty miles west of Washington,
D.C., was established specifically to train conservative fundamentalists
for jobs in government.
Pew Forum 2006 survey, asked, "Which should be the more important
influence on the laws of the United States? Should it be the Bible
or should it be the will of the American people, even when it
conflicts with the Bible?" An astounding 60 percent of white
evangelical Christians replied that the Bible, not the will of
the people, should shape U.S. law.
The Council on Foreign Relations is just about as high in the
establishment as one can go, and Foreign Affairs [magazine] is
Right-wing American Catholics' defining characteristic is devotion
to the dogma of papal infallibility and its attendant prohibitions
against abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, and birth control.
Five out of the nine current members of the Supreme Court are
Roman Catholics: John Roberts, Joseph Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence
Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy.
[Justice Antonin] Scalia's rationale for the death penalty merits
close inspection because it comes directly from the Bible and
is identical to the arguments used by Protestant fundamentalists
against secular government and secular values. In Scalia's view,
democracy itself is responsible for opposition to the death penalty,
because secular democracy rests on the principle that governmental
power comes not from the consent of V the governed but from God.
"Few doubted the morality of the death penalty in the age
that believed in the divine right of kings," Scalia noted
in a speech delivered at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Then he went on to observe that "the more Christian a country
is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral.
Abolition [of capital punishment] has taken its firmest hold in
post-Christian Europe, and has least support in the church-going
United States. I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing
Christian, death is no big deal. That death is no big deal for
believing Christians strikes me as a dubious proposition; but
even if it were true, it would fall within the Jeffersonian category
of something that gives no offense to those who are less sanguine
about dying. It is, however, a big deal for a justice of the United
States Supreme Court to base important legal decisions, affecting
Americans of all faiths and no faith, on his religious belief
in an afterlife.
Scalia's argument belongs properly to
the realm of theology, not to the worlds of jurisprudence, domestic
policy, or international affairs.
The number of Americans with no formal ties to any religion more
than doubled, from 14.3 million to 29.4 million, between 1990
and 2001. Sixteen percent of Americans describe their outlook
on the world and public affairs as wholly or predominantly secular.
Between the fundamentalists and the secularists lies a much larger
group of religious centrists or moderates, but it is not entirely
clear what it means to be a religious moderate in the United States
today. Forty-three percent of Americans take the centrist religious
position that the Bible is divinely inspired but not to be taken
literally. Add the centrists to the secularists, and 63 percent
of Americans believe that the will of the people, not the Bible,
should exert the greatest influence on American law and government.
On the other hand, when the centrists are added to the fundamentalists,
75 percent of Americans believe in a supernatural supreme being
who guides the destiny of individuals and nations-and most of
these people also believe that liberal secularists have gone too
far in trying to remove religion from public life. The centrist
believers approve of religion in general, and of expressions of
religion in public life, but they disapprove of extreme positions
like Bush's imposition of a religious veto on embryonic stem cell
research. Yet this group has generally been no political match
for the True Believer mentality of the fundamentalists, and religious
moderates have frequently followed the path of least resistance
and let the fundamentalists and anti-modernists have their way
on public issues.
The tendency of religious centrists to
accept compromise solutions, with no regard for consistency, is
one explanation for the seeming absurdity of public support, by
a two-to-one majority, for the teaching of both creationism and
evolution in public schools. Fundamentalists are effective at
getting their way because religion forms the absolute, immovable
core of their lives. Unlike religious moderates who, like most
human beings, want to have things both ways - God and science,
belief in eternal life and the medical pursuit of every means
to prolong earthly life - fundamentalists have no doubts. A middle-class
fundamentalist cannot be swayed, as someone of more fluid religious
convictions might be, by the argument that he ought to vote for
secular liberal candidates because they are more likely than Republicans
to institute tax policies that help families making less than
$100,000 a year. For Catholics in the [Antonin] Scalia mold, the
prospect that embryonic stem cell research might help cure them
of Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's means nothing next to the
belief that God, through their church, has said no. Cultural and
moral issues tied to religion, such as abortion and gay marriage,
Nearly two-thirds of Americans, compared with only one in five
Europeans, say that religion plays a very important role in their
[In 2000] voters entrusted the nation's highest office to a man
whose most distinctive personal trait has always been an absolute
lack of intellectual curiosity. The son, grandson, and great-grandson
of rich and powerful men, George W. Bush is the living embodiment
of the gentleman's C: there cannot be anyone in the country who
believes that Bush's brain would have gotten him anywhere near
Yale, Harvard Business School, or the ownership of a baseball
team-much less the presidency-without his family name and connections.
Nevertheless, this walking testament to unearned privilege somehow
managed to convince voters that he was just an ordinary guy and
did not belong to the detested elites."
How did he do it? I think that he was
able to pull it off simply by being himself, as evinced most obviously
by his bumbling use of his native language. Unlike Kerry and Al
Gore, Bush did not have to work at sounding like a regular guy
with a less than elite education; despite summers in Kennebunkport
and stints at Ivy League institutions, the words "nuclear"
and "government," which presidents must use with considerable
frequency, will always roll trippingly off his tongue as "nuculer"
and "guv'mint." Bush's presidential demeanor has been
characterized by a sneering, aggressive provincialism, which he
displays not just at home but abroad, for the edification of foreign
leaders. The American public-at least before it turned decisively
against the Iraq War-was either charmed by or indifferent to oafish
performances that would have mortified middle-class citizens of
other developed nations.
One of the most serious failures of vision on the part of both
left- and right-wing intellectuals has been a reluctance to acknowledge
the political significance of public ignorance.
The general decline in American civic, cultural, and scientific
literacy has encouraged political polarization because the field
of debate is often left to those who care most intensely - with
an out-of-the-mainstream passion - about a specific political
and cultural agenda. Every shortcoming of American governance
is related in some fashion to the knowledge deficit of the public-if
only because there is no widespread indignation at policies shaped
by elected officials who suffer from the same intellectual blind
spots as their constituents. The Iraq Study Group's report on
the multilayered failure of America's war in Iraq, released at
the end of 2006, revealed that of more than 1,100 employees at
the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, only thirty-two spoke Arabic at all-and
just six were fluent in the language. It may be shocking, but
it is hardly surprising, that the government would staff an embassy
almost entirely with diplomats who literally cannot understand
what local people are talking about. We are, after all, citizens
of a nation in which five out of six young adults do not consider
particularly important to know any foreign language.
As both dumbness and smartness are defined downward - among intellectuals
as well as nonintellectuals - it becomes much easier to convince
people of the validity of extreme positions. Not only basic knowledge
but the ability to think critically are required to understand
the factual errors (as distinct from differences of opinion) that
generally provide the foundation for policies at the far ends
of the political spectrum.
Two thirds of newspaper readers, but only 40 percent of television
news watchers, know that the primary mission of the Supreme Court
is to interpret the Constitution. When people are ignorant of
the high court's constitutional mandate, it is much easier to
convince them that justices are supposed to reflect public opinion-and
that something has gone wrong when a court hands down a decision
that contradicts popular wisdom.
Surveys conducted by the National Constitution Center show that
while Americans hold the Constitution in high esteem, they know
relatively little about the nation's founding document. Asked
whether they could recall any of the rights guaranteed by the
First Amendment, a majority could name only freedom of speech.
More than a third were unable to list any First Amendment rights;
42 percent think that the Constitution explicitly states that
"the first language of the United States is English;"
and 25 percent believe that Christianity was established by the
Constitution as the official government religion. The young are
even more ignorant than their parents and grandparents. About
half of adults-but just 41 percent of teenagers-can name the three
branches of government. Only four in ten adults-but just two in
ten teenagers-know that there are one hundred U.S. senators. The
vast majority of both adults and teens have no idea of when or
by whom the Constitution was written. Among the teenagers, nearly
98 percent cannot name the Chief Justice of the United States."
This is our civic present and, if nothing
is done to stem the rising tide of ignorance among the young,
our even more disturbing civic future.
historian Arthur Schlesinger
Sometimes, when I am particularly depressed,
I ascribe our behavior to stupidity - the stupidity of our leadership,
the stupidity of our culture. Thirty years ago we suffered military
defeat fighting an unwinnable war against a country about which
we knew nothing .... Vietnam was bad enough, but to repeat the
same experiment thirty years later in Iraq is a strong argument
for a case of national stupidity.