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
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?"
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
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.
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
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
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
Ignorance is something that can be rectified with exposure
to more experience and facts.
After living in Europe for 2 ½ years later in life, I
could identify every country on the map and the name the
Stupidity is systematic, the result of either a dull brain
at birth or a brain deadened permanently from continued
Interestingly, people who are ignorant about
particular topics are usually quite straightforward about
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?
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
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:
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.
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.
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
Finland, Singapore, and New Zealand all have less than 6m
people, but South Korea has close to 50m and Japan over
Homogeneity isn't a factor either.
Finland, South Korea, and Japan are homogenous.
The other four countries are not.
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
Wrong there, too, I'm afraid.
The U.S. spends $1,200 more per pupil than the top
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
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
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
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.
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.
American secondary education is left up to the
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.