I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to travel a fair amount – Europe several times, South America, Canada – and after every trip I’ve returned thinking its good to be home, but man we sure don’t know much about the rest of the world.
I remember a trip to Canada a few years ago and engaging in serious conversation with friendly Canadians who seemed to be up on everything happening in the USA from our politics to popular culture. By contrast, most Americans couldn’t find Saskatoon with a GPS device let alone name the Canadian Prime Minister – Stephen Harper – or that the national capitol is Ottawa, not Montreal or Toronto.
Now it turns out we don’t know much about ourselves, either. Newsweek has surveyed 1,000 Americans on the most basic details of our history, government and politics. We flunked. Badly.
The questions aren’t exactly PhD level, either, but are questions that are asked in the official U.S. citizenship test. Questions like: What happened at the Constitutional Convention? How could 65% of those surveyed not know that the Founders wrote the U.S. Constitution at the Constitutional Convention?
Or, how about this. Fully 88% in the survey couldn’t name one person who authored the Federalist Papers. Hint: his wife’s name was Dolley, as in Madison. Maybe those 65% know her donuts and cakes better. And, don’t ask what the Federalist Papers were.
I’ve railed in this space in the past about America’s historical ignorance, but 29% not being able to name the current vice president or 73% not know why we “fought” the Cold War. This isn’t funny. It is worrying.
Newsweek blames several factors for American ignorance, including a generally complex political system that unlike Europe tends to spread control among local, state and federal governments. I guess this is confusing and there is much to keep track of, but that hardly seems an excuse for the fundamental lack of knowledge exposed in the survey.
The decentralized education system gets some blame. What we teach in Idaho they might not teach in Maryland. Some of the blame should go, I think, to those who have de-emphasized history, social studies and the humanities in favor of science and math. Kids need it all, in big doses.
And there is the income and media reality. A growing percentage of Americans are poor, not of the middle class. Poorer Americans have less access to information and knowledge. In Europe, where a larger share of the population lives in the middle, people are generally better educated and much more knowledgeable about their politics and government.
The mass media is both part of the problem and could offer a slice of the solution, but we mostly have a pure market driven media that features much more American Idol than Meet the Press. It is, after all, difficult to take politics seriously when so much of it is trivialized over the air and on the web.
The Newsweek analysis concludes, and maybe this is the good news, “the problem is ignorance, not stupidity.“ One expert who has studied this American ignorance says, “we suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.”
The real problem here isn’t knowing James Madison authored many of the Federalist Papers, it is not knowing enough – as the current budget debate in Washington, D.C. makes so clear – about our federal government and our political system. It’s impossible to assess, for example, what must be done to fix the budget if we have no idea how the government spends and taxes.
Survey after survey says Americans want Congress to cut the budget by reducing foreign aid and by stamping out that old standby waste, fraud and abuse. At the same time they say whatever you do don’t touch Social Security or Medicare where the real money gets spent. Too many politicians pander this ignorance and we get the endless debates we now witness in Congress.
Simple fact: Americans need information and real knowledge to make sense of their government and then they must care enough to act on the knowledge. Ignorance isn’t a strategy for a great country.