Are Americans just plain dumb?
Let me start off this post by saying this is not about bashing Americans. I’m sure we all have an opinion about the current state of the US and the War on Terror. But this post is asking something I’ve pondered before when I took a look at the New York State Regents Exam in History, with its multiple-choice questions accompanied by plenty of clues. Are Americans less well-educated than the rest of the world? And warning: there’s a bit of a rant ahead, so skip it if you’re not interested in thinking about whether contemporary society is guilty of shallow intellectualism.
I’ll back up a bit: my first introduction to the US and Americans was in the late 1990s, when I was asked by a US technology company to do a conference and workshop tour, talking about their technology and KM. I have to say I really loved the US, particularly Boston and Chicago. Would even consider living there if it wasn’t for the circus that is their immigration system.
What really stunned me though was this – over dinner with some executives in Philadelphia someone commented that Australians always seem to be so well-travelled (well, that’s because we live at the arse-end of the world as Paul Keating had a habit of reminding us and so we need to get off our proverbial butts to see anything). But it was the next comment that stopped me in my tracks: “so do you really have kangaroos hopping down the streets of Sydney and what’s it like to have a Queen as your President?“.
I took a few moments to see whether this question was a joke at my expense. And did he mean THE Queen or a queen? I had visions of seeing our Prime Minister (note to Americans: we don’t have a President) participating in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras!
Over the next month, I travelled through Texas, Virginia, New York, Florida and LA and I started to notice a pattern. The news on TV talked only of America and US events. Hardly a word was uttered about international news. But then of course 9/11 hit the US and forced Americans to lift their collective heads up and notice that there is a world beyond the borders of the Land of the Free.
So it was interesting to read about a new book by Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason, which bemoans the current state of American “culture”. Jacoby is 62 years old but I don’t think she can be accused of being a fossil blaming young people for an apparent demise in intellectualism.
I’m sure you’ve all seen this cringe-worthy video on YouTube of Kellie Pickler (of American Idol 15 minutes of fame). Competing against a 5th grader, she was asked: “Budapest is the capital of what European country?“. Her reply? “I thought Europe was a country“.
Is this an isolated case or are we living in such an age of commercialism and obsession with self and reality TV that there is a backlash against the acquiring of basic knowledge? A varied intellectual life is the very basis of a functioning democracy. But 6 out of 10 young Americans didn’t know where Iraq was on the map when National Geographic conducted a poll in 2006 and recently an American I met confused Australia with Austria (okay, I can see the similarity, we Australians love to yodel too!).
Have Americans given up on the Enlightenment values of rationality, pursuit of the scientific method and encouragement of diversity of thought and argument? Are Americans now a society being kept amused and stupefied by infotainment; determined to weed out “the different”; and demonstrating an antipathy towards science from the fundamentalist religious right?
Jacoby’s book brings to mind Richard Hofstadter’s tour de force, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published in 1963. I read it during my university days and if I remember correctly, Hofstadter highlighted three pillars of anti-intellectualism — evangelical religion, practical-minded business and the populist political style. Despite the rise of the notion of expertise enshrined in knowledge management and despite the expertise of technology geeky types, I think the three pillars are still firmly rooted in America.
Anti-intellectualism can be seen everywhere: the decline of educational standards; the corporatisation of universities; suspicion of science and medicine, leading to the rise of alternative medicine and so on. We have “expert intellectuals” (consultants), not “critical intellectuals”, schooled in the art of argument, debate and the ability to reason. We have specialists rather than expert generalists.
The postmodernist mood following WWII reacted to, if not rejected, the assumed certainty of scientific efforts to explain reality. So no one explanation is valid for all groups, cultures or races. Reality is constructed individually through our own interpretation of concrete experiences. The abstract is rejected in favour of the concrete.
This is why today’s mantra of “well, I’m entitled to my own opinion” is so sacrosanct. This is why reality TV shows reign supreme – they’re about real world experiences of grappling with weight issues; surviving isolation on some Pacific island; racing around the world looking for clues to the next destination or what task to perform.
This is why you have an American President who is better known for his comic gaffes and lack of curiosity about the world than for serious intellectualism. It is why we tend to speak or advertise in slogans and it is why our society is one of glibness and self-absorption. It is why popular science tries to pass itself off as serious science and it is why we are critical of each other rather than providing a critique. It is why business is obsessed with the bottom line, efficiency and productivity because serious intellectual pursuit requires inquiry and reflection (aka time wasters). And so we have closed minds.
Okay I realise I’m on a rant here. I’m not saying that Americans are the dumbest people on the planet. I could sling all of the above at Australia. And I think the internet, our obsession with iPods, YouTube, MySpace and so on has ushered in an age of solipsism.
What do you think?