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WHY I WROTE THE BOOK

Why I wrote it

Susan Jacoby, author of the just-published book The Age of American Unreason, was inspired to write her by something stunning she witnessed on Sept. 11, 2001.

After the terrorist attacks, she was walking home from the New York Public Library to her Upper East Side apartment. Overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. She recounts what happened next.

As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day's horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew the United States into World War II:

"This is just like Pearl Harbor," one of the men said.

The other asked, "What is Pearl Harbor?"

"That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War," the first man replied.

At that moment, Jacoby said, "I decided to write this book."

That's a country?

A popular video on YouTube shows Kellie Pickler, the adorable platinum blond from American Idol, appearing on the Fox game show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? during celebrity week. Selected from a third-grade geography curriculum, the $25,000 question asked: "Budapest is the capital of what European country?"

Pickler threw up both hands and looked at the large blackboard perplexed. "I thought Europe was a country," she said. Playing it safe, she chose to copy the answer offered by one of the genuine fifth graders: Hungary. "Hungry?" she said, eyes widening in disbelief. "That's a country? I've heard of Turkey. But Hungry? I've never heard of it."

Such, uh, lack of global awareness is the kind of thing that drives Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, up a wall.

(See the amazing video at YouTube; search for Pickler and Hungary.)

Jacoby believes something different than mere willful ignorance is happening today in America: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that "too much learning can be a dangerous thing") and anti-rationalism ("the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion") have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don't think it matters.

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