Reflecting on Greg Kuperberg’s comment over at drhelen's, I have been wondering “what is it that people generally know?” We are often treated to surveys which report that only half of high-school seniors can locate the Civil War in its proper century, or can’t name the three branches of government, or don’t know at what temperature water boils. We tut-tut and complain that society is going to hell in a handbasket. Jay Leno asks random people on the street to name one of the 10 Commandments, and a giggling girl asks “Freedom of Speech?” Glenn Beck asks a woman what direction she will be traveling in if she is going north and takes a left, and she answers “north.” We shake our heads and wonder how the republic will survive.
And people believe contradictory things. They believe that dinosaurs existed but God made the world 10,000 years ago. They believe that global warming is definitely happening and definitely not happening, depending on how the question is asked.
This is not just the current generation that can’t get it right. I have been reading this type of article since the early 70’s, and suspect it has been ever thus. I have been reading how far behind other nations’ students Americans are for as long as I can remember.
And yet we are the world’s dominant nation in so many ways, aren’t we? Our everyday people perform more technical sophisticated tasks than any other. Outside of the Anglosphere, the average hotel clerk cannot solve the simplest unexpected problem, yet ours do it every day. I work with people who have amazing gaps of general knowledge, being unable to find their home state on a map or name who was president before George W. Bush. Yet these people learn CPR – a complicated task. They understand mental health law because their job requires it. They can estimate how much you should have to pay for a 1998 Arctic Cat. They go to flea markets and can tell you if such-and-such a bottle is valuable. They are intelligent people, but they don’t possess general information I would consider impossible to get by without. Can I conclude they are stupid? If they need to learn something, you can teach it to them, proving they are intelligent.
I googled around trying to find out what people actually do know. There is a Canadian sociologist, Sheldon Ungar, who has done some work about what people know about science. There is Hirsch’s book about what educated people should know, but that’s something else. I imagine there is a bestselling book in it for someone who wants to collect all the data of what actually is generally known.
Does anyone know of sources where such information is found? Secondly, what are your theories why Americans don’t know anything but are able to know anything?