Are We Really That Stupid?


Lately, we have started wondering if the image of the warmongering "ugly American" in the eye of the world will soon be replaced by that of the stupid American.

A recent survey, called the National Geographic-Roper Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study, polled young adults (18-24) on national and world geography.

According to the study, 87% of college-aged Americans couldn't find Iraq on a map of the Middle East; 70% couldn't find Iran on a map of Asia; and 83% couldn't find Afghanistan.

Asked which language is spoken by most people in the world as their primary language, only 18% knew it was Mandarin Chinese, while a whopping 74% thought it to be English.

Unfortunately, their ignorance didn't stop at far-away countries: on a map of the United States, 50% were unable to locate the state of New York, 48% didn't know where Mississippi and 33% where Louisiana was--despite broad news coverage during Hurricane Katrina. On a world map, 6% missed the entire country.

29% of the polled believe that the U.S. has a population of between 500 and 750 million, another third guessed 1 to 2 billion. However, 39% correctly answered that Las Vegas is the setting for the TV series "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

In a similar, international test conducted by National Geographic in 2002, U.S. testees came in second-to-last of nine countries; only Mexicans were less educated.

Jodi Vender, coordinator of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Geographic Education, blames the mere "emphasis on reading, writing and math" for this lack of knowledge. "There is no funding for geography in the No Child Left Behind Act, as there is for other school subjects."

With such an emphasis on reading, writing and math, U.S. students surely excel in those subjects, then?

Not so. In a 2004 study released by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American students ranked 28th of 40 countries in math and 18th in reading.

But even the people we would expect to know the basics fall pathetically short.

In November 2006, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took his hat, the New York Times reported a memorable exchange between a sergeant stationed in Iraq and one of his subordinates.

"'Rumsfeld's out,' he said to five marines sprawled with rifles on the cold floor. Lance Cpl. James L. Davis Jr. looked up from his cigarette. 'Who's Rumsfeld?' he asked."

Along the same lines, new House Intelligence Committee chief Silvestre Reyes botched some easy questions by Congressional Quarterly editor Jeff Stein. Asked if al-Qaeda is Sunni or Shiite, Stein answered, "they have both," and then, "Predominantly--probably Shiite." (Al-Qaeda is profoundly Sunni and views Shiites as heretics.) Reyes was also unable to explain what kind of group Hezbollah is.

In case you're saying that you didn't know either, keep in mind that this is the man supposed to oversee our intelligence on the Middle-East.

If our leaders can't get it together, who can blame the average Joe Schmo for being a bit dense? Nonetheless, we had no idea of the degree of stupidity until we watched this popular video clip on YouTube, in which an Australian journalist sets out to quiz Americans on the street on commonplace topics. Topics such as:

  • Who is Tony Blair? (Answers: skater/actor/Linda Blair's brother)
  • How many sides does a triangle have? (Answers: four/none/one)
  • What's the religion of Israel? (Answers: Israeli/Muslim/Islamic/ Catholic)
  • Which countries are in the Axis of Evil? (Answers: Germany/ California/New York/Jerusalem/Florida/Mississippi).

(Of course, in all fairness, we have to assume that the TV crew edited out the dozens of correct answers they received.)

In the same video, you can see unwitting prank victims stick pins into "Iran," "North Korea" and "France" on a fake map on which Australia has been relabeled, and give expertly advice from which direction the U.S. should best attack. And Texas residents happily agree with the interviewer's suggestion that the U.S. should invade Kyrgyzstan, a country most have never heard of, if "the president thinks it's a threat to national security."

In a 2004 rant, SF Gate columnist Mark Morford complains: "Middle America is a scattershot conglomeration of the politically apathetic and the actively disenfranchised, full of people far too busy with their lives and kids and jobs and zoning out on 'Fear Factor' and 'Monday Night Football' to care about following the elitist, ever dire dramas playing out on the nation's gilded stages."

Morford's explanation: "In short, as the theory goes, most Americans don't give a damn because we're on top and we own everything and have more nukes than anyone and we're never the ones getting invaded. It's our unofficial motto--America: We Don't Have to Care."

But not only the political arena is threatened by a dumbed-down population, our ever-widening educational gap also hurts the economy.

A 2003 study by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that 5% of Americans are illiterate and another 29% possess only basic reading and computing skills.

No wonder then, that in 2005 automobile giant Toyota announced that it would open a new $800-million plant in Ontario, Canada, rather than in America, despite U.S. offers of generous subsidies. The reason: U.S. workers are too hard to train.

Gerry Fedchun, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association, said that Canada's "level of the workforce in general is so high that the training program you need for people, even for people who have not worked in a Toyota plant before, is minimal compared to what you have to go through in the southeastern United States."

According to CBC News, Fedchun also commented that "Nissan and Honda have encountered difficulties getting new plants up to full production in recent years in Mississippi and Alabama due to an untrained--and often illiterate--workforce. In Alabama, trainers had to use 'pictorials' to teach some illiterate workers how to use high-tech plant equipment."

"The educational level and the skill level of the people down there is so much lower than it is in Ontario."

What does all this say about our educational system, and what should be done about it? Let's hear your opinion at [email protected].

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Posted 02-06-2007 4:54 PM by Shannara Johnson