o A digitally-enabled mass media that subordinates the written and spoken word to an all-but-inescapable 24/7 onslaught of sound and video images that endanger the survival of serious thinking;
o A resurgence of fundamentalist religion that celebrates “willed ignorance” and “places observable scientific facts, subject to proof, on the same level as unprovable supernatural fantasy;”
o A malfunctioning public education system that has produced a level of ignorance in science (one in five American adults believes the sun revolves around the earth), as well as religion (a majority of American adults cannot name the four Gospels, or identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible), and a lack of simple curiosity (fewer than half of Americans, according to a 2002 survey, had read any work of fiction or poetry in the preceding year) that puts the citizenry’s ability to think critically about any serious issue at risk.
Jacoby’s arguments are compelling and well-crafted. However, they are by nature polemics, provocative and stimulating but impervious to proof. Is time spent in childhood reading The Bobbsey Twins or the Hardy Boys really better used than time devoted to twitching one’s thumbs in response to video game images on a digital screen? It’s easy for those of us who, like Jacoby, reached adulthood prior to the advent of the digital age to assume so, but we’ll have to wait until our children gain control of our culture and economy to know for sure.
Jacoby’s view of religious fundamentalism also assumes more than she can know with certainty. America’s blatant religiosity has not prevented us from becoming one of the world’s leaders in science and technology. For more than 230 years, the mind of our nation has been flexible enough to encompass both the unreasoning belief in supernatural religious myths that Jacoby condemns, and a dedication to understanding the natural world that has made us a leader in agriculture, manufacturing and engineering.
Jacoby quotes public television’s Bill Moyers to argue that the role of religion in public life really is different today:
“One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seats of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington.”
But in the 2006 midterm elections, American voters resoundingly defeated the candidates of the religious right who opposed stem cell research and the teaching of evolution in the public schools. People of faith seem to have re-discovered the Biblical passages that enjoin believers to take care of the environment and their fellow man.
The Republican Party of George W. Bush and Karl Rove has been able to cynically manipulate evangelical Christians in the service of their political agenda. It is by no means certain, however, that those Christians will stay locked forever in thrall to Rove’s machinations.
Jacoby’s account of the failure of American education is the least arguable element of her story, perhaps because that failure is so evident, and so well documented. From the publication of the landmark “A Nation at Risk” study in 1983 to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s ranking of U. S. students as 24th out of 29 countries in mathematical literacy, and 14th out of 25 in science, the available data leave no doubt that the quality of America’s human capital is undergoing a long, slow erosion.