Wrong answer to the wrong question

When New York Times writer Patricia Cohen rounded up a bunch of books for her column “bemoaning” alleged American ignorance, she gets the wrong answer from the wrong question. Cohen showcases Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, who concludes “Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.” Who then, I wonder, will buy her book?

I also wonder what the question was people were answering when they damned themselves with the answer that it doesn’t matter that they have essential knowledge. Were they asked what they had memorized or if they knew where or how to find essential information when the need to find it?

The irritating thing about saying that Americans are happy in their ignorance is that sweeping generalizations are never accurate. I, for one, am an American who could have passed the history and geography questions posed in the Cohen article, as could most of the students in my high school classes (and I don’t teach social studies.) Furthermore, Jacoby blames everything from the internet to education to fundamentalists to television for why many Americans are not well-grounded in academic fundamentals. Take a look at the struggle she herself faced when she tried to turn on off her television for a week:

“The surprise at her own dependency on electronic and visual media made her realize just how pervasive the culture of distraction is and how susceptible everyone is — even curmudgeons.”

I think people think they can get the information they need when they need it, which today is via electronic and visual media. That is the problem; not that people don’t care, they just don’t think they need information ahead of time. The need-to-know basis attitude is what pervades more than knowledge-doesn’t matter.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe we should have the knowledge Ms Jacoby laments is lacking. And it is true we do not mandate enough social studies classes for high school graduation. But even if we did, five years after graduation could people pass the same tests they did in high school? And as for identifying countries, hey that can change; after all this week Kosovo declared independence, so a new country is on the map. What mentality Americans need to cultivate is one of lifelong learners and they need to have that mentality with an attitude that knowledge is interconnected, not sets of discreet facts.

The real motivator to get Americans to care about keeping their civic, cultural and historic knowledge up to date, in my mind, will be for schools, government leaders and authors to foster a view of us as interdependent with others in the global workplace; that what happens in Boston and what happens in Bejing, to paraphrase Thomas Friedman, are interconnected. People do want to know about what makes an impact on them.

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