Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Americans are stupid

No, no, no, that's not me talking -- perish the thought! -- that's Newsweek, which has conducted yet another test of American civic knowledge (or lack thereof) and found Americans, er, wanting:

How Dumb Are We?

NEWSWEEK gave 1,000 Americans the U.S. Citizenship Test -- 38 percent failed. The country's future is imperiled by our ignorance.

Indeed, the results hardly make one optimistic. The test includes easy questions on the Founding (e.g., name one of the writers of The Federalist), the Constitution (e.g., what are the first ten amendments called?), key figures in U.S. history (e.g., what was Martin Luther King, Jr. known for?), and current political figures (e.g., name the vice president), and, well, Americans should be embarrassed.

But we knew all this already, didn't we? Did we need yet another "test" to learn that far too many Americans know next to nothing about their history and politics? We have some updated quantifiable "proof," I suppose, but otherwise I'm not sure the exercise is worth much. (Besides, political and historical ignorance is hardly an American phenomenon. Trust me, I've gone to school not just in the U.S. but in Canada and Germany as well and ignorance is alive and well everywhere, if not necessarily to this appalling degree.)

And yet, credit Newsweek, there is at least some attempt here to explain the ignorance:

It doesn't help that the United States has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world, with the top 400 households raking in more money than the bottom 60 percent combined. As Dalton Conley, an NYU sociologist, explains, "it's like comparing apples and oranges. Unlike Denmark, we have a lot of very poor people without access to good education, and a huge immigrant population that doesn't even speak English." When surveys focus on well-off, native-born respondents, the U.S. actually holds its own against Europe.

Other factors exacerbate the situation. A big one, Hacker argues, is the decentralized U.S. education system, which is run mostly by individual states: "When you have more centrally managed curricula, you have more common knowledge and a stronger civic culture." Another hitch is our reliance on market-driven programming rather than public broadcasting, which, according to the EJC study, "devotes more attention to public affairs and international news, and fosters greater knowledge in these areas."

It also doesn't help that Americans don't seem to take primary and secondary education seriously enough, or that a sense of extreme complacency has set in. The problem is that the world is rapidly passing America by:

For more than two centuries, Americans have gotten away with not knowing much about the world around them. But times have changed -- and they've changed in ways that make civic ignorance a big problem going forward. While isolationism is fine in an isolated society, we can no longer afford to mind our own business. What happens in China and India (or at a Japanese nuclear plant) affects the autoworker in Detroit; what happens in the statehouse and the White House affects the competition in China and India. Before the Internet, brawn was enough; now the information economy demands brains instead. And where we once relied on political institutions (like organized labor) to school the middle classes and give them leverage, we now have nothing.

The article examining the results of the test is actually quite hard-hitting, exposing some of the brutal truth about an empire that is declining and falling before our very eyes.

America sinks further and further into ignorance at its everlasting peril.

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  • This author has something important to say. However he confuses being stupid and being ignorant. We do have many who are ignorant. That is a condition of lacking information. If they cannot learn, they are stupid, sad to say. If they do not WANT to learn, we must despair. Our culture does not inspire learning, It is "bread and circuses" to distract the populace from the true issues. [Go back and read B.F.Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, for the choices a culture makes]

    By Anonymous Ida's child, at 12:06 AM  

  • This is really a discusion about class and perception. America because of its high profile gets noticed more than most, and it has a big and getting bigger underclass of proud to be stoopid people who are also too dumb to know that they shouldn't put their heads above the parapet.
    Consequently these people have come to represent what America is to too many others around the world.
    Sad but predictable.

    By Anonymous Ken Bruns, at 7:41 AM  

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