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The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby: A Book Review: Part Four

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


In chapter three of "The Age of American Unreason" Susan Jacoby writes: "The rising literacy rate, and the proliferation of adult education programs, libraries, museums, and lecture series, intensified the public's appetite for intellectual amusements and information of every kind" (1). She's talking about the so-called "Gilded Age," which, for our purposes right now, can be thought of as simply as the nineteenth century.

Jacoby would also like us to know that the "Gilded Age was also the age of the lecture as a source of both entertainment and instruction. The old community-based lyceums were replaced by national lecture bureaus that offered high fees to well-known speakers but were able to keep ticket prices low because of huge popular demand" (2).

Now, in keeping with the idea of interrogating the "Good Old Days" thesis, the question we're asking is: What drove the "huge popular demand" and "public's appetite" for "intellectual amusements and information of every kind"? The answer can't be "rising literacy rates." Most Americans, today, know how to read and write and do simple arithmetic, but reading for pleasure, outside of the purposes of work, is at an all-time low.

The answer can't be the Internet and the various other mediums of information and entertainment that are currently available to us; because a culture that had remained committed to the printed word, as well as "intellectual amusements and information of every kind," as related by properly credentialed experts; would have accepted these new forms of information delivery and entertainment without allowing the former to supplant the latter.

So, again, the question is: What drove the American public's "appetite for intellectual amusements and information of every kind"?

The historian Nell Irvin Painter has noted, in her book, The History of White People, that Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) received his PhD., in 1775, after submitting a mere 15-page dissertation, which became the book, On the Natural Variety of Mankind (3). Blumenback was a "race theorist" (4), who tried to scientifically make the case for white supremacy by way of the anatomical comparison of various skulls (5).

In a footnote, Painter informs us that Linnaeus, the inventor of the Western system of taxonomy, was awarded his doctorate, after one week, for submitting an even concise 13-page dissertation. He got the PhD. from the university of Hardernijk. One historian of science called the school a mail order institution. Painter thinks that verdict might have been too harsh, although she admits that the school known for selling degrees (6).

If you put those two things together---the "huge popular demand" of Gilded Age America for "intellectual amusements and information of every kind," delivered by world renown scholars and scientists; and this push of Ph.Ds. out the door, with such speed and an apparent minimum of work---what do we get?

Were Blumenbach and Linnaeus' 15- and 13-page papers, respectively, simply the best ever 15- and 13-page papers on those topics, with the explanatory power of reports ten times their length?

Were Blumenbach and Linnaeus mutant super-geniuses?

Let's add a third item.

The historian James Bradley has noted that "[t]he 1880s saw the emergence of 'social sciences' in America. Not surprisingly, they validated Aryan supremacy. One after another, white Christian males in America's finest universities 'discovered' that the Aryan was God's highest creation, that the Negro was designed for servitude, and the Indian was doomed to extinction" (7).

James Bradley continued by letting us know that "the myth was embedded in children's books, tomes of science and literature, sermons from the pulpit, speeches in the halls of Congress, and in everyday conversations at the kitchen table" (8).

I must tell you it was that last quote that inspired the thinking, that eventually led to my construction of the term subliminal narcotic of white supremacy ego justification. If you've been following this series from the first installment, you know what I'm talking about.

So, once again, what do we get when we put those three things together? I'm talking about the intellectual hunger of American society during the Gilded Age, nineteenth century; the fast-paced, minting of experts at the McUniversities; and what James Bradley has told concerning the complete saturation of American society as it pertained to the bigotry of white supremacy.

I think what we have is many institutions of higher learning, which apparently responded to "supply and demand." These institutions perceived and cynically catered to a growing hunger in America, and perhaps other locales, for scholarly and scientific knowledge, delivered with a "subliminal narcotic of white supremacy ego justification" as a "chaser." Perhaps these institutions realized consciously what the public only knew subconsciously.

Let me close with one example of this process of institutional-conscious-knowing and public-subconscious-knowing.

I would highly recommend a brilliant documentary film of American cultural history called The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis. I believe you can still watch it entirely online on YouTube.

Anyway, one of the stories the film told was about Betty Crocker instant cake mix. When it was first put into the market, the company polled women in an attempt to get a preliminary idea of what kind of sales they could expect. A large number of women said that they would indeed buy the convenient cake mix.

However, as time passed, women were not buying it in anything like the numbers that had been indicated from the "exit polls," so to speak. What was the problem?

Betty Crocker had on its staff, a crew of psychologists (known as the "depth boys"), who finally figured it out. They passed their insights on to the directors of the firm, so that it became their conscious knowledge.

The psychologists had figured out that what stopped women from buying the instant cake mix was GUILT! The women felt that they were letting their families down, almost withholding love from them by using an instant cake mix out of a box.

The "depth boys" figured out a way to repair the breach. The company simply added an instruction to "add an egg" to the label. By doing this the women would, even if in a small way, feel like they were "putting something of themselves" into the cake they made for their families.

The result was that it worked and the instant cake mix started flying off the shelves.

Betty Crocker consciously realized that female customers were unconsciously carrying around guilt about instant food products. Betty Crocker took conscious action to address the unconscious guilt of women, perhaps without the latter even knowing that they had been acted upon by the baking company.

That's what I mean when I talk about the universities being consciously aware of the subconscious needs and desires of European-descended publics, and consciously acting on those subterranean needs and desires, perhaps without the publics of European descent even knowing that they were being manipulated, if you will, by these institutions.

That's all I have for now. See you in part five. There's still much to do.

Thank you for reading!


1. Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason. Pantheon Books, 2008. 65

2. ibid

3. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. (paperback). 72

4. ibid, 77

5. ibid, 75

6. ibid

7. Bradley, James. The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War. Little, Brown, and Company, 2009. 31

8. ibid, 34


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