Dumbing Down Americans

A lot has been written about the younger generations of Americans being poorer than their parents. Many do not realize that they are, on the average, also much more poorly education than previous generations.

Up through the 1960s, each generation of Americans did better both financially and educationally than the generation before it. At some point, both trends reversed. Susan Jacoby Page, in her book The Age of American Unreason, which I have not read and don’t intend to buy, argues that Americans are getting dumber and dumber. I don’t think we need to read her book to agree with her. (She has reputedly proven her point by producing a poorly written book.)

I’ve lived in France, Germany, Sweden, and Spain in addition to the USA, which is, of course, my native country. Except Spain, the young people in those other countries are generally more aware of what is going on in the world than Americans are, and they have a better idea of foreign geography and culture than do Americans. Among the younger generation, at least, they read better in their native languages than Americans do in English, and they are more informed about science, technology, and mathematics. In fact, I would argue that in some European countries, young people speak English as a second language better than most young Americans speak it as their first language.

This wasn’t always the case. When I was young, American education was the envy of the world. Now, among industrialized nations, American education is below average and is falling farther behind with every year that passes. When I lived and worked in Germany as a young man, I felt much better educated than 95 percent of Germans. Among today’s young people, the shoe is on the other foot.

It is not just that other industrialized countries have improved their education, our educational level is also slipping. The worst part is that politicians are taking advantage of and even encouraging our ignorance. They cut budgets for education to the point where in most states teachers are so poorly paid that very few smart people are willing to teach.

Nearly half of all graduate students in math and science programs in the United States are from abroad. Why? Because Americans by and large are too poorly educated to meet the standards of American graduate schools in those fields. We have some of the best universities in the world, but some of them have standards so high that few Americans can meet them.

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs commissioned a civic education poll of public school pupils. Only 2.8 percent could pass a citizenship test, the test that we require immigrants to pass to become American citizens. Seventy-seven percent did not know that George Washington was the first president of the United States, nor did they know that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Here in Phoenix, we fared a bit better. When our Goldwater Institute gave the same tests to public school pupils, 3.5 percent managed to pass.

Gallop says that 38 percent of Americans believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth. No wonder they also believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old and think that House Speaker Paul Ryan is an intellectual.

When I was a university undergraduate majoring in the German language, those who were education majors, destined to teach German in the public schools, could not speak German with one exception, and the exception was a young woman who had immigrated from Austria. These people were going out to teach German in our schools without being able to speak it themselves.

Is it any wonder that few Americans can speak a foreign language unless they grow up speaking it at home? Go to Holland, Flanders, or anywhere in Scandinavia, and almost everyone is fluent in English. In Amsterdam you can wake up any drunk sleeping on a park bench, ask the person a question in English, and get an answer in the same language. The Dutch also speak German, at least some French, and, of course, their native Dutch language. Most Germans can at least get by in English, even if their grammar is a bit off. How many Americans do you know who can speak four languages? How many do you know who can speak two, unless they grew up speaking the second language at home?

Is it any wonder that 35 percent of Americans believe that Donald Trump would make a good president? If you think that the fact that Arctic ice is melting and almost all of the Earth’s glaciers are melting means that the Earth is getting colder, you will also believe Donald Trump when he says he’s going to build “a beautiful wall” on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it. You will not bother to ask how he could force Mexico to do that.

One of the things that many voters held against John Kerry when he ran for president was that he speaks French. In other words, he was not stupid enough to be president. George Bush the Second, who has trouble expressing himself in English, was more our style.

Changing subjects, it was reported in the news this morning that s Spanish court fined a civil servant in the city of Cadiz 27,000 euros, approximately $30,000 US, for not showing up for work for six years before retiring in 2011.  I wonder if he gets to keep the pension that he “earned” during those years.

And lastly, don’t forget that the image in the left sidebar shows me standing in front of a road sign in Spain on my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Click on the image, and a page about the book will open on Amazon’s website. I guarantee that it is well written, even if this blog entry is not.