Anti-intellectualism is as American as—well, as anti-intellectualism, an ironic tradition that, writes Jacoby (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, 2004, etc.), allows the president to declare himself pro-education while admitting to not reading newspapers.
Of course, the author adds, Bush said that “he rarely read newspapers because that would expose him to ‘opinions,’ ” opinions presumably meaning anything with which he did not agree. Yet Bush’s just-plain-folks appeals worked, at least for a while; even Hillary Clinton calls people folks, which, grumbles Jacoby, sounds forced and inauthentic, just like the rest of politics. Americans, it seems, prefer their presidents on the autodidactic side, and not too smart. Even if Bill Clinton was a Rhodes scholar, Teddy Roosevelt a historian and Woodrow Wilson a college president, the model is always of Lincoln, even if he in turn lamented “his lack of systematic formal schooling [which is] left out of the self-congratulatory story of American self-education.” Contrary to this strain, notes the author, is the middlebrow contribution to the culture, which thrived on self-education and manifested itself in such organs as the Book-of-the-Month Club, all “within the broader context of mass marketing.” Even the middlebrows are largely absent these days, Jacoby laments, as are the opportunities she once had as a magazine writer to turn out long think pieces for women’s magazines that now specialize in short features about how to please your man. Jacoby twits the academic enemies of intelligence—professors who write endless tomes on Bob Dylan’s poetry and chair programs in “fat studies”—while zapping the usual suspects, such as television and video games, as assassins of the mind and spirit.
The argument is a little scattershot and occasionally self-serving, as social criticism tends to be, but Jacoby makes a good case for having a president who reads and a culture that provides material worth reading.