Having grown up as a nerd in a culture where nerds didn't generally get beaten up or bullied, but were often actually treated with respect (imagine that!), I've never fully understood the strong anti-intellectual streak in American culture, which seems so at odds with this country's leadership in many areas of intellectual endeavor, notably in science. And these past few years of repthuglican rule have, of course, done little to dispel the fear that this country, this culture, is sinking deeper into a morass of anti-intellectualism and irrationality. And these fears many of us have been feeling, have apparently been part and parcel of US history, with the same curious brain-vs-brawn dichotomy of a culture dependent on the brain for all the hi-tech in daily life, including, especially, military tech, nevertheless willing to be subjugated by brawn, right from when kids start going to elementary school! Of course, I doubt the culture back home in India has remained the same, but I'd hate for it to get as ugly as it often seems here for those interested in leisurely pursuits of the intellect over more muscular pastimes.
Nevertheless, the depths of unreason being plumbed now, by those in positions of power in American politics and popular culture, are causing some serious alarm bells to be rung. Last year we had Al Gore lamenting The Assault on Reason, following Chris Mooney's frontline reporting of the Republican War on Science. Now a heavier intellect has weighed in who should be worth watching on the telly tonight, when Bill Moyers interviews Susan Jacoby. Here's an excerpt from the PBS website promoting tonight's interview:
The notion that Americans aren't often at the top of the ladder of erudition isn't new. Every year the media points out how poorly U.S. kids perform in math and geography feats compared to many other nations' school children. Susan Jacoby follows a notable scholarly tradition with her new book, THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON. In 1964 historian Richard Hofstadter won the Pulizter Prize with his lament — ANTI-INTELLECUTALISM IN AMERICAN LIFE: 'The national distaste for the intellectual appeared to be not just a disgrace but a hazard to survival.' Jacoby says of Hofstatder's work now: 'It is difficult to suppress the fear that the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to functional democracy.'
And while you wait for your local PBS affiliate to air Bill Moyers Journal tonight, or for the video to be posted on their website, go watch Moyers' last interview of Susan Jacoby, from back in 2004 when he had not yet been pushed out of PBS' Now, and she had just published Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, another scholarly tome that should have received more attention than some of the other more notorious atheist books on the bestseller lists.
Jacoby's new book is also featured in a New York Times essay entitled "Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?" that is well worth the read. And it happens to be the top most emailed story from the NYT right now, although no one seems to have blogged about it yet.
Meanwhile, I better go make some room on my nightstand for a couple of more volumes...