Optimistic despite its author's central premise that North American culture may be headed into a cataclysmic decline, Jane Jacobs's Dark Age Ahead
presents a lucid examination of just how easily a thriving culture can squander its most precious resources. Crime, racism, environmental destruction, distrust of the political process, and the widening gap between rich and poor are not
, Jacobs lucidly argues, the key causes of concern when a civilization starts to collapse, but merely symptoms of more pervasive threats.
Written when this legendary author of classics including The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations had already entered her 80s, Dark Age Ahead draws on a lifetime of astute observation to identify factors such as the erosion of community and family and the lack of public fiscal accountability as the true harbingers of an unhealthy cultural base. Jacobs, whose own formal education ended with a high school diploma and a year-long unpaid Depression-era apprenticeship at a Pennsylvania newspaper, identifies the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next as vitally important, and sees the trend towards replacing intellectual mentorship with what she calls "credentialing" at universities and other institutions of higher education as very dangerous indeed. "My impression is that university-educated parents or grandparents of students presently in university do not realize how much the experience has changed since their own student days, nor do the students themselves, since they have not experienced anything else," Jacobs writes. "Only faculty who have lived through the loss realize what has been lost. A vigorous culture capable of making corrective, stabilizing changes depends heavily on its educated people, and especially upon their critical capacities and depth of understanding."
These and other factors are discussed with formidable clarity and insight in Jacobs's trademark elegant, plain-language prose. Rather than disrupting the flow of her extensively indexed main narrative analysis with dense notes, the Toronto-based visionary presents her references in a 47-page parallel text following the book's initial 176 pages. "This is both a gloomy and a hopeful book," the modern-day Cassandra notes; reading it is a pleasure. --Deirdre Hanna
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From Publishers Weekly
Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities
forever transformed the discipline of urban planning by concentrating on what actually helped cities work. Unencumbered by generations of fatuous theorizing, Jacobs proposed a model of action that has left a positive mark in neighborhoods all over the world. Her latest salvo, Dark Age Ahead
, is, despite the pessimism of many of its conclusions, also positive, less a jeremiad than a firm but helpful reminder of just how much is at stake. Jacobs sees "ominous signs of decay" in five "pillars" of our culture: family, community, higher education, science and "self policing by the learned professions." Each is given a detailed treatment, with sympathetic but hard-headed real-world assessments that are often surprising and always provocative and well-expressed. Her chapter on the decline of the nuclear family completely avoids the moral hand-wringing of the kindergarten Cassandras to place the blame on an economy that has made the affordable home either an unattainable dream or a crippling debt. Her discussion of the havoc wrought by the lack of accountability seems ripped from any number of headlines, but her analysis of the larger effects sets it apart. A lifetime of unwasted experience in a number of fields has gone into this short but pungent book, and to ignore its sober warnings would be foolish indeed.
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