Monday, January 02, 2006

Information Bleg

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?


Anonymous said...

Well. I thought about an essay on this but realized it's not necessary. Americans CAN know a lot, have that capacity, because they spend their lives in a free society with free minds.

Americans DON'T know a lot because the majority pass through the public school system, which hasn't taught anything worth a tinker's damn since circa 1972, and because families no longer actually converse in any substantive way.

Anonymous said...

It almost seems like, at least with my generation and the one before mine, Xers I guess, have become much too introspective. It almost seems like, to me at least, that people now must be bombarded by entertainment. Try walking through the city during the day and count how many people are walking around blasting music through little white headphones loud enough for me not even to have to buy my own mp3 player. The saddest part being that people know more about what celebrities are doing and who they were married to or seen with, but yet, some cannot even name the last president. Maybe the biggest problem is the atmosphere fostered in schools, or at least in the ones I went to, where the uncoolest thing you can do in school is actually learn something. but people will always be ignorant, and selectively learn what interests them, so like you said maybe this has always been a problem, and is just a part of human nature. What will be interesting to watch develop over time will be whether all of our technological advances will help educate more people, or will personal entertainment be the norm, and give even less time for one to learn.

Jerub-Baal said...

Considering my own learning history before launching into Judgment on anyone else....

At the age of 25, I knew that the "Dukes of Hazzard" was based on real people who ran moonshine and could never be caught in their fast car, and the "General Lee" was based on that real car, a late 50's Chrysler 300 named "Traveler" (after General Lee's horse) which had been found, and was restored by a collector in upstate NY who left in the oil drop tank and a couple of bullet holes in the trunk for the sake of conversation.

At the age of 46 I was finally sitting down and reading "the Divine Comedy”, “the Illiad", and "the Odyssey."

And I had gone to a very nice private prep school, followed up with the study of history, literature and the humanities as part of my college career in Theatre Studies.

So much for a classical education.

Yes, some of American's lack of 'basic' knowledge is a result of the bad qualities of our public schools (which is why my wife and I home school our kids). Some of it though is reflective of the freedom of information and the freedom to use our historically copious free time as we wish. We as a people can learn what we want when we want, for the most part. I think this is going to prove to be a "feature, not a bug" for future generations, as the job market demands ever more flexibility of workers and they are able to pursue the knowledge needed at the time that it is needed.

I think the key is for all of us as a society to decide what knowledge and skills are foundational (like balancing a checkbook or not nose-diving into credit card debt) and what knowledge is situational (needed for the pursuit-at-hand).

With the right foundation, the human mind, especially with the traditional American Psyche, can rise to whatever comes its way.


Charlie Martin said...

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.

Isn't the obvious conclusion that you're just mistaken in your belief about what information is impossible to get by without?

Jerry said...

I think part of it is that we tend to self-select what we want to know - and aren't usually shy about sharing the information if asked, or not asked - one very intelligent friend of mine'll practically tell you the history of timekeeping devices if you ask what time it is...

270+ million people have a LOT of room for esoteric information in their collective heads - And with the internet, it's easier than ever to find what information you might need. However, there's a twofold problem - first recognizing you need the info, and second trying to figure out where to find it. The latter is much easier these days, though you do need to do some selective filtering to make sure the answer is relevant.


Anonymous said...

I believe a small but significant aspect of this discussion relates to non-verbal intelligence. How many mechanics and technicians show amazing capability and talent even though they don't talk too good.

GM Roper said...

I love the posts... You are NOW on my blogroll, after all, Us SOX fans gotta keep together, espcecilally since Johnny Damon went over to the Dark Side...

Hmmm, I've got a Red Sox JD autographed baseball for sale... any of you Yankee's fans interested?

Greg Kuperberg said...

To address the original "bleg", one interesting study was the 2002 National Geographic / Roper Geographic Literacy Survey. According to the survey, only 1/7 of young adult Americans could at that time correctly identify Iraq on a world outline map. My joke was that instead of asking the public whether we should invade Iraq, as pollsters did frequently in that period, they should instead have asked, "Show me on this world map which country we should invade."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thanks, Greg

DSmith said...

For my part, I strongly suspect most such claims are based on "rigged" polls or studies. Where are all these oh-so-ignorant Americans? I don't know any, and I bet you don't either. I've been hearing this stuff since the 70's, and I've looked around and tried to *find* all these dumb people, and I'm just not finding nearly as many as are claimed exist.

So maybe the question isn't "how do we get by when we're all so dumb" but rather "why do we keep believing these obviously incorrect reports?"