D. Dowd Muska


Don’t Know Much About History. Or Civics. Or Science…

February 27, 2014

Boy, are we stupid.

The latest evidence of America’s dunce-cap status arrived inside the 2014 edition of “Science and Engineering Indicators.” Published biennially by the National Science Foundation, the tome includes a chapter on “public attitudes and understanding.” Pollsters discovered slipping skepticism of astrology. Fifty-five percent think horoscopes are nonsense -- down from 62 percent -- while the remainder aren’t sure, or consider the connection between celestial objects and mankind’s fortunes “very” or “sort of” scientific.

It gets worse. Just 53 percent understand that an electron is smaller than an atom, a mere 48 percent grasp the fact that humans “developed from earlier species of animals,” and a paltry 39 percent recognize that the “universe began with a huge explosion.”

Book learnin’ isn’t much of a priority in the United States. In 2002, the National Geographic Society issued the results of a exam administered to 18- to 24-year-olds. The shares of test-takers who accurately identified numbered countries on a map were atrocious:

France: 40 percent

Saudi Arabia: 24 percent

Israel: 21 percent

Germany: 19 percent

Knowledge of civics stinks, too. In 2012, a survey by the legal-information website FindLaw.com revealed that “nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t name even a single member of the Supreme Court.” A year earlier, when NEWSWEEK asked 1,000 respondents to take the U.S. citizenship test, “29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights.”

Reading itself is in rough shape. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) was last conducted in 2003. As USA TODAY reported, the analysis showed that “the nation hasn’t made a dent in its adult-literacy problem” since 1992’s assessment. Thirty-two million adults were “saddled with such low literacy skills that it would be tough for them to read anything more challenging than a children’s picture book or to understand a medication’s side effects listed on a pill bottle.”

At least our college-bound and college-educated retain impressive brainpower? Au contraire. An alarmingly large portion of freshmen arrive on campuses unprepared for “higher” learning. At four-year institutions, the dropout rate is around 50 percent. Remedial training is often necessary for the students who manage to hang on. And obtaining a degree or two is no guarantee of intellectual heft. Grade inflation is rampant. The 2003 NAAL found that the average graduate’s literacy had declined since 1992. Employer dissatisfaction with the products of colleges and universities is widespread.

But there’s no need to worry. None of this is new.

In 1898, at the start of the Spanish-American War, President McKinley had trouble getting his bearings. “When we received the cable from Admiral Dewey telling of the taking of the Philippines I looked up their location on the globe,” he later admitted. “I could not have told where those darned islands were within 2,000 miles!”

When the U.S. entered World War II, roughly half of the populace hadn’t completed secondary education. (“Hitler,” paleoconservative writer Peter Brimelow observed, “was defeated by a nation of high-school dropouts.”) In 1943, The New York Times conducted a survey of 7,000 college students. The newspaper wailed that “freshmen … reveal a striking ignorance of even the most elementary aspects of United States history and know almost nothing about many important phases of this country’s growth and development.”

Skip ahead four decades. In a 1991 essay in The Atlantic Monthly, Daniel J. Singal marveled at “the extraordinary dearth of factual knowledge” his students exhibited. “I will never forget two unusually capable juniors,” the history professor wrote, “one of whom was a star political-science major, who came to my office a few years ago to ask what was this thing called the New Deal. I had made reference to it during a lecture on the assumption that everyone in the class would be well acquainted with Franklin Roosevelt’s domestic program, but I was wrong: the two students had checked with their friends, and none of them had heard of the New Deal either.”

The Land of the Free is not a place that nurtures intellectuals. We prefer the practical and the pleasurable to matters of the mind -- and always have.

Our status as arguably the dumbest nation in the developed world is something to keep in mind as the college-is-for-everyone crusade lurches toward its inevitable waterloo. Worth consideration, too, is a question posed by columnist Thomas J. Bray in 1998: “If America does so poorly in education, how come it is the world’s economic leader?”

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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