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Home / Politics  /
Are Americans Really That Stupid?
Dumb Americans

Would the majority of Americans believe this is a world map?  Only according to the rest of the world.


Talk of American stupidity is nothing new.  When I took my first big world trip in 1994, Europeans loved to bring up, for no reason whatsoever, how dumb Americans are.  After George W. Bush was elected, twice, the subject of American intelligence was ripe for more potshots .   Jay Leno, the talk show host, regularly mocks American stupidity. He has an unscripted segment called "Jaywalking"  talking to 'everyday' Americans, asking exceptionally simple questions that the respondents answer incorrectly.  On his Fourth of July segment, he posed questions like "Who did America gain its independence from?"

The European slams, the Jaywalking segments, and even the simplified American worldview map above are not very thorough justifications for American stupidity.  The United States is a large country.  Most Americans have neither the time nor the money to venture off their home continent and obtain a broader view of the world.  These are the people European travelers to America encounter.     The Jaywalking segments document some serious idiocy, to be sure, but it's being played for comedy.  Any people providing Leno with correct answers aren't shown on the segment. 

It wouldn't be very difficult for me to amass video footage of French or German or Spanish ignoramuses failing to answer easy questions about their home countries; data on low IQ elected European politicians; or produce North American and Asian maps in which European schoolchildren cannot ascribe the proper state or country names. 

There is a clear difference between being ignorant and being stupid.  Stupidity is a lot easier to quantify.   According to the American Civics Literacy Program, 75% of college graduates don't know what the American First Amendment is for.  If that's true -- how many college grads did they poll and from which colleges -- this would designate stupidity among the American populace. Labeling far away country names on a map incorrectly is more an issue of ignorance.  When I was 13, our teacher handed us a blank map of Europe and asked us to identify the countries.  I may have gotten 4 or 5 right.  This was ignorance.  Why shouldn't I have been ignorant of Europe at the time?  I hadn't yet been there or studied European history in intricate detail. 

Ignorance is something that can be rectified with exposure to more experience and facts.  After living in Europe for two-and-a-half years later in life, I could identify every country on the map and the name the capitals.  Stupidity is systematic, the result of either a dull brain at birth or a brain deadened permanently from continued willful ignorance.  Interestingly, people who are ignorant about particular topics are usually quite straightforward about their ignorance.  A true idiot, however, never considers himself stupid.  It actually requires a bit of intelligence for a moron to know he's a moron; and if he can self actualize that concept, how dumb can he really be?

To assess if Americans are truly stupid, we need a more objective measure than Jay Leno or a map, and a way to compare results with citizens of other nations.  The Programme For International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide evaluation given to 15-year old students to assess their scholastic performance.  The assessment was first performed in 2000 and has since been repeated every three years.  It tests reading, science, and mathematics knowledge. In 2009, the last year for which there is current data, the top ten results, out of 62 countries, are:

 

Mathematics

Science

Reading

1

Singapore

Finland

South Korea

2

South Korea

Singapore

Finland

3

Taiwan

Japan

Singapore

4

Finland

South Korea

Canada

5

Liechtenstein

New Zealand

New Zealand

6

Switzerland

Canada

Japan

7

Japan

Estonia

Australia

8

Canada

Australia

Netherlands

9

Netherlands

Netherlands

Belgium

10

New Zealand

Liechtenstein

Norway

US

Rank #30, below Hungary

Rank #23, below Hungary

Rank #17, below Iceland

* China, though scoring #1 in all categories, was excluded from the list because only the city of Shanghai was tested.  Similarly, Hong Kong and Macau were excluded because both are administrative regions of mainland China.

The American performance here, while far from stellar, doesn't depict American 15-year olds as the dumb asses the rest of the world thinks they are.  The Americans' mathematics results are at the bottom of the rich pack.  But in science, America scores better than Norway, Denmark, France, Iceland, and Sweden.  And in reading, better than Sweden, Germany, Ireland, France, Taiwan, Denmark, the UK, Portugal, and Italy.   If you combine the total point scores for all three sections, the U.S. scores just two points behind France, one of the European countries regularly calling the U.S. a nation of idiots as a matter of national pride; and three points ahead of Sweden, a rich Scandinavian welfare state considered to be among the most affluent and highly educated countries on the planet.

For now, let's focus our attention on the seven countries which appear in the top ten for all three categories, listed in order of cumulative scores: Finland, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Canada, New Zealand , and the Netherlands.  Contrary to popularly accepted wisdom , a European country, not an Asian one, tops the list. 

These seven nations are different enough that generalities drawn from their demography, degree of diversity, and population fail to provide an easy pill other nations can swallow to get similar results.   A country's position on the pecking order of global wealth doesn't seem to make a large difference how a nation's children performed.  Sweden, which ranks cumulatively below the U.S. on the PISA, is still richer, as measured by GDP per capita, than top performer Finland.  Australia consistently scores lower than neighbor New Zealand in every category, but is significantly wealthier.  South Korea is poorer than Japan, but tests higher.  An educated workforce is just one among many factors a nation has at its disposal for generating wealth.  We also cannot say that lowly populated countries are able to push through educational agendas better than highly populated ones.  Finland, Singapore, and New Zealand all have less than 6m people, but South Korea has close to 50m and Japan over 120m.  Homogeneity isn't a factor either.  Finland, South Korea, and Japan are homogenous.  The other four countries are not.

It's money.  America must not pay its teachers enough.  That has to be the problem I used to think.  Sorry, it ain't.  Stats from the U.S. Department of Labor show that American teachers on average as of 2005, were actually paid more in purchasing power terms than Korean, Japanese, Canadian, and Finnish teachers.  All right, it's that the U.S. doesn't spend enough per pupil.   Wrong there, too, I'm afraid.  The U.S. spends $1,200 more per pupil than the top performing Finns. 

The real difference comes down to respect.  The teaching profession is well respected in the nations with pupils scoring high on the PISA.  Better talent in those countries goes into the field to teach and inspire the next generation.   Respect can be a more powerful carrot than money.   Robert McNamara gave up a lucrative position as the Ford Motor Company's president to take a Secretary of Defense position under John F. Kennedy that paid significantly less.  Arnold Schwarzenegger opted to be governor of California and be paid nothing instead of earning millions per picture during that same time continuing as a movie star.  Jut one-in-eight applicants for teacher training in Finland makes the cut, and all teachers go on for masters degrees.  Within Confucianist Asian nations, teachers are revered.  Competition for kindergarten and primary school positions in South Korea can be fierce.   A Canadian teacher commented in an article on teaching attitudes between the US and Canada that "When people find out that I am a teacher I NEVER am made to feel like I have settled on teaching for lack of ability to do otherwise.  Did I mention NEVER?"  Dr. Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Education for Singapore, said in 2010, "Being a teacher in Singapore's public school system means something.  The profession commands respect . . .  Our recruitment policy is to hire teachers from the top one-third of every cohort of students."  The U.S. education system, by comparison, staffs its institutions of learning with the bottom one-third.    I can attest to that from personal experience.  A number of my junior high and high school teachers admitted that they went into teaching because they couldn't do anything else!

Raising teacher pay in the U.S. won't automatically make the teaching profession more respectable.  It would just encourage more people -- and not necessarily the right ones -- to go into teaching, great for alleviating a teacher shortage, not so great for addressing a teacher quality control problem.  Why is Harvard University a more respected institution than Miami University of Oxford?  Because Harvard only admits 9.2% of the students knocking on its doors, and Miami accepts 78.8%.  Once the teaching profession genuinely raises the bar on who can practice the craft, and schools work out a scheme to award teachers bonuses based on student performance improvements or continued achievement of superior results, only then can the position start to look respectable.  Throwing a lot more money at teachers probably isn't even necessary . . . or possible.  U.S. states' education budgets  aren't swimming in so much extra cash to spare more generous paydays.    Lucrative salaries aren't responsible for teacher respect in Finland or Canada or Korea or Japan.  They needn't be the engine driving the profession to greater respect in the U.S.

All things considered, American students hold up better than author Thomas Friedman or the Obama Administration are saying.  Are American school children really falling behind?  Or is it just in the last thirty years other countries are starting to catch up?   Today's seven PISA studs are much richer vis a vis the U.S. then they were a generation ago and enjoy narrower income distributions.   The gap between the rich and the poor among PISA stallions isn't as vast as it is in the United States, so you don't see a huge difference in quality between schools in one region and those in another.   But American secondary education is left up to the states.    Schools in poorer states like Kentucky, West Virginia, and Mississippi are of a lower caliber than schools in rich states like Connecticut, and there are even huge differences in quality and performance across schools in different districts in the same state.  Students from the lower quality schools bring down the averages on American assessment results.  

Kids in poorer school districts with less talented teachers will always score worse results, on average, than children with inspirational teachers in prized districts, whether the year is 1979 or 2007.  But back in 1979, the top 1% of the United States received 8% of U.S. income.  By 2007, that figure was over 17%.  The best American school districts, you might say, keep getting better, while more and more of the rest of the system stagnates.    The fortunes of the children in any country's education system have always mirrored the travails and triumphs of their parents' results in the country's financial system.   With America's financial system perverted and the nation in huge debt, I'm just relieved American kids can still read and add. 

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