A recent issue of Education Week (October 18, 2010) revealed that less than half of high school students are taking foreign language courses while in the European Union, almost 100 percent take at least one. Although there are now 200,000 young learners in this country who are studying Chinese — and one wonders how fluent they will become unless they live for a time in China or a Chinese-speaking neighborhood — in 2009 over 30,000,00 Chinese were learning English with projections for over 100,000,000 in the next decade.
As much as our educational system is being criticized for its shortcomings, and there certainly are many, although poverty is a big part of it, one most also wonder if there is something about our culture that has evolved recently into one in which ignorance is not only acknowledged but celebrated as a virtue. Politicians who don’t know the Constitution or misquote it as the Declaration of Independence, as about-to-be House Majority leader John Boehner did in one of his notable performances in front of the Capitol steps, are not forced into retirement because of their ignorance but praised for their powers of persuasion that not knowing something they don’t like — such as Global Warming — is preferable to acknowledging that it exists. Last February 11 a poll was taken on the occasion of Darwin’s 200th birthday and only 44 percent of Americans believed in evolution compared to over 80 percent in many European countries.
Americans’ ignorance of such basic facts as American history, national and world geography, and our apparent aversion to high-level thinking in math and the sciences cannot be explained by any one phenomenon. That is, unless one believes that living in the United States automatically leads one to assume that knowledge of anything except what can make money as quickly and easily as possible is unimportant and therefore unworthy of concentrated thought. That we have political and cultural figures who seem to revel in ignorance, not just deliberately in order to make a point against an opponent, but because they really don’t know or can’t remember what the First Amendment to the Constitution actually says or think they know about Russia because they can “see it from their front porch” should frighten us because people who parade that level of ignorance should never be taken seriously enough to be elected to any public office. They may be politically astute but they are mentally incompetent to do anything constructive once they are elected as we will undoubtedly see in the next session of Congress.
In the 1950s President Eisenhower, who was in many respects a brilliant administrator and, in comparison to some recent presidents, a towering intellect, would sometimes make misstatements in his press conference and had to rely on his press secretary, Jim Haggerty, for details. But that was a source of embarrassment for him, not pride. When during the presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and then-President Gerald Ford, Ford made the gaffe that “Poland is not under the control of the Soviet Union” when, at the time, it obviously was, many political observers believed that it was that failure of memory on his part that cost him the election. I wonder if a similar mistake were made by a candidate today, it wouldn’t give him or her a boost in the polls for being as unabashedly ignorant as the majority of the electorate.
Two recent polls, one on knowledge of religion by the Pew Forum, another on history, revealed that an alarmingly high level of Americans were woefully ignorant not only of the basic facts about our history, such as which country did we rebel from but of fundamental ideas of one’s own religion let alone others. These long-term trends — I’ve been hearing and reading about them for decades — have convinced me that many of our children may be getting taught in school but certainly aren’t learning or remembering very much of anything they don’t “want” to learn. But what makes the European and advanced Asian and Latin American countries students “want” to learn? It certainly is not genetic since a significant proportion of our recent population is coming from many other countries around the world. And many of these countries produce good students who are enthusiastic about learning and come from less affluent surroundings than would be ideal.
I believe that we as a nation must seriously examine what is causing this “IQ Ignorance Quotient” which makes us the laughing stock of many other countries and will eventually lead to our decline as a significant nation. We will be left behind by those countries whose young learners value learning for more than a grade or a test score or a “bribe” for good marks but for its own sake; students who are eager and have the persistance to tackle the difficult subjects, find creative and imaginative ways to solve complex problems, but also appreciate the fullness of a life devoted to living, not just getting and spending. We certainly have them in our country, but they are too often exclusively the products of elite homes, elite cultural benefits, and elite schooling and the overwhelming majority of Americans are being “dumbed down” by a culture that is rapidly becoming a Land of the Ignorant.
This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.