What hope for America’s intellectual advancement?
This may well be one of those articles that ends up with me in hot water. The thought process arose from listening to a recent BBC interview with Australian author, Peter Carey. Carey is a long time resident and a big fan of New York, but the interviewer pushed him to give an opinion on America in general. Carey attempted to dodge the question a few times, but backed into a corner he espoused some thoughts that acted as a catalyst for not dissimilar ideas of my own. Carey expressed the view, and I paraphrase, that he didn’t understand America in totality. He said that ’outside of New York what is America? A collection of highways and a population where as many as a third believe that dinosaur remains were left on earth by God as a puzzle for us. Where up to one third think Obama is not a Christian and where twenty per cent think he isn’t even American.’ There was more in a similar vein, but the point was clear. Americans often come across as …well…as a little stupid when viewed from outiside.
Now cheap shots at Americans with their Puritanism, social conservatism, xenophobia and over-confidence are easily made and all too frequently pursued. However, Carey’s ponderings raise a valid question. Americans are not congenitally stupid; no nation that is so economically successfully can only be peopled by rubes. So why are there such disconnects between the level of debate and understanding in the US versus other developed nations. Partially, it is a question of history, but what can be posited from the current upsurge in regressive forces such as movements like the Tea Party seemingly predicated on rejecting societal advancement, liberalization and internationalization?
A large part of the blame can be attributed to US media. As a long time US resident, I know from personal experience that the level of analysis and in-depth reporting here is deplorable. American news is the epitome of the sound bite where catchy one liners act as a news report to a visually over-stimulated and intellectually-soporific audience. This is a not a new theme for us (no pun intended) we have reported on this before in such tongue in cheek articles as “Is the US media making Americans stupid?” Yes, the level of inane commentary on both sides of the great American divide by the likes of Malkin, Coulter, Olberman et al makes one despair, but there is more to it than that. US news and its media commentators are bad, appallingly bad, but if the populace were inspired to look for knowledge, a few minutes and a search engine could take them to the world press. That is not what generally happens. Many Americans remain poorly informed and lock step on the populist talking points.
The US cable news and talk shows are also incredibly partisan and a large part of the problem. The likes of Fox News and MSNBC serve as poster children for this. Fox has particular impact as several studies indicate that the far-right of the Republican base gets most of its information from visual and auditory sources such as Fox and radio talk shows. This contrasts to the Liberals who empirically seek written sources which are often less extreme and usually more detailed. However, this again is not enough of a deterrent to anyone that does actively seek out information. These are no real excuse for dumb. Dumb doesn’t just happen in and of itself; it is usually a product of a systemic failure. Does the issue lie in the education system? It is true that the public system is often poorly funded and that the school year is far shorter than America’s international competitors.
Unfortunately, the vigorous work ethic and strive to learn has not rubbed of on the nation’s children. American children have school for only 180 days year, compared to the 195 days in Germany and 200 in East Asia. Furthermore, they only have about 2-3 hours of homework per night and are not pressured by society to take extra classes after school; a fact that appalls nations such as Japan and India, whose children take after school classes regularly to help them with their studies.
Americans also have the shortest school day, a mere six and half hours, all packed into the morning and early afternoon. Countries such as Denmark and Sweden boast a staggering 40 to 50 hour school week, making some American education reforms re-think they way the write guidelines for the nation’s schools.
Anecdotally, the US education system seems less rounded in terms of subject matter and a little less rigorous than its counterparts, but is this enough to explain the naiveté and paranoia that often peppers American debate? A little less rote knowledge of the Constitution could be balanced out with a better grasp of world geography, but again this is not enough to explain the intellectual under-achievement. How does the US stack up in IQ measurement to other nations? A controversial academic study, “IQ and the Wealth of Nations”, ranked the US 19 in IQ among other relatively high GDP per capita nations, well behind many of the other developed countries. This ranking puts the US behind many of the Asian and European nations and sadly on a par ranking with France and Mongolia. One fails to see what other similarities these countries have other than a middling comparative IQ average. The US and Mongolia, leaving France aside, would not usually be peers in a league of nations
So this brings us back to the question that Carey raised in his interview, ‘what about America?’ Is it really only a nation of God-fearing, dinosaur doubting, anti-climate change gun lovers or is it more like its left and right coasts, sophisticated, nuanced and diverse. It is a question I tussle with frequently but the trend doesn’t look good, particularly with the current political polls indicating a probable boomerang to the social right. I foreshadowed the issue a while back in the article “Is America bringing stupid back?” I hope for all our sakes that both Carey and myself are wrong about that, but with the likes of Sarah Palin, anti-immigrant Governor Brewer and Christine O’Donnell anti-masturbation policies showing surging populist support, one does have to wonder.