U.S.A. “The Uninformed States of America”?

Posted May 5th, 2011 at 2:18 pm (UTC-4)

A while back, Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote a troubling piece in which she described a trend that doesn’t seem to bother the country much.  But it worries me!

She laid out the appalling results of two national studies, one that tested the “civic literacy” of freshmen and seniors at 50 universities across the country.  Parker didn’t specify exactly what was tested, but she reported that “the average senior failed with a score of 54 percent.”

Q. 1  This is (a) Donald Trump  (b) Joe Biden  (c) Ted Landphair

Q. 1 This is (a) Donald Trump (b) Joe Biden (c) Ted Landphair

College seniors, mind you, some of them, at the end of supposedly rigorous academic journeys, about to step into the world of work as what we’re fond of calling “the leaders of tomorrow.”   Leaders who, presumably from their dismal performance on such tests, quite possibly don’t know how many U.S. senators there are or who’s third in line as the leader of our nation should something happen to President Obama and Vice President Biden.

In the other study — something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered to children in the 4 th, 8 th, and 12th grades — only one in four proved “proficient” in American history, despite all the lessons, photos of George Washington hanging around, and school pageants in which the kids played Pocahontas and Paul Revere.

Want better results on surveys?  Ask our young people about this guy.  (Rob Stemple, Flickr Creative Commons)

Want better results on surveys? Ask our young people about this guy. (Rob Stemple, Flickr Creative Commons)

And judging by the previous study mentioned, it doesn’t look promising that their civic and historical understanding will expand much as they move on in school.

Yet, as Parker points out, “Students are brilliant, apparently, when it comes to popular culture, something we’ve all known.”  She cites still another survey that proves students know all about the rap star Snoop Dogg and the snarly cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-Head.

Has celebrity madness overwhelmed the intellectual parapets of our civilization?

Here, for me, was Parker’s most astute and troubling point:

Students cant be blamed for not knowing what they havent been taught.  An ACTA [American Council of Trustees and Alumni] study in 2002 found that most top universities and colleges no longer require any history courses. [And that was nine years ago!]


Q. 2  This is (a) Ulysses S. Grant  (b) Kevin Costner  (c) Rutherford B. Hayes  (Library of Congress)

Q. 2 This is (a) Ulysses S. Grant (b) Kevin Costner (c) Rutherford B. Hayes (Library of Congress)

Read that again:  Students can’t be blamed for not knowing what they haven’t been taught.

Looking at American young people’s dreadful lack of awareness of their history and government — yes, I know, there are stellar exceptions — what are U.S. high schools and colleges teaching? Interpersonal relations?  Computer analytics?  Video-game proficiency?  Or more to Parker’s point, what besides history arent they teaching, or teaching very well?

No wonder, as Parker went on to point out, “a national survey of adults . . . found that 83 percent failed a basic test on the American Revolution.”

Q. 3 This Revolutionary War figure is (a) the Minuteman  (b) the Eveready Man  (c) the Jolly Green Giant  (Hohun, Wikipedia Commons)

Q. 3 This Revolutionary War figure is (a) the Minuteman (b) the Eveready Man (c) the Jolly Green Giant (Hohun, Wikipedia Commons)

For the information of young people who might stumble upon this blog, that was the war that gave us the freedom to remember Beavis and Butt-Head and forget the general who led the Revolution.

Robert E. Lee, wasn’t it?

But Wait!

In my head, I can hear some readers saying, “Come on, does it really matter in our day-to-day lives if we know or don’t know who’s third in line for the White House?  Life is not a trivia game.  We should learn practical things that help us make friends and succeed at our jobs.  If we want to impress our buddies with our esoteric knowledge, we should learn that stuff on our own and not waste teachers’ and children’s time on such useless, pedantic things.”

Well, I guess we can tighten that bolt or scoop that ice cream or write that legal abstract just as capably if we don’t know that the speaker of the House of Representatives would take over if the president and vice-president died or were incapacitated.

Q. 4  This is an upside-down map of MOST of what country? (a) Belarus (b) the United States (c) the Kingdom of Swaziland

Q. 4 This is an upside-down map of MOST of what country? (a) Belarus (b) the United States (c) the Kingdom of Swaziland

But immigrants to our land study such things for months on end and must demonstrate that knowledge to earn the right of citizenship.  If the rest of us can’t name one — or, gulp, any — U.S. Supreme Court justice, don’t know where Delaware is, and haven’t the faintest idea which nations once controlled what is now Oregon or Arkansas or California, what exactly DO we know?

And if, as Sam Cooke put it in his hit song half a century ago, we “don’t know much about history/ don’t know much biology/ don’t know much about a science book/ don’t know much about the French I took,” but we know all about actor Charlie Sheen’s “winning” rants and Lindsay Lohan’s latest brush with the law, what’s to become of us?

Even back when Cooke was writing and singing, schools were beginning to snip away valuable courses such as civics and geography and music in order to fit in socially and culturally “relevant” courses.  I sat in my share of “open classrooms,” on cushions of my choosing rather than at an assigned, hard-backed, bolted-down desk with its old-fashioned inkwell. We “shared” as much as studied there.  Sometimes we were encouraged to call the teacher “Jim” or “Miss Judy,” and we felt good about it — and ourselves.  The emphasis was on skills and frills, certainly not drills.

Some critics go so far as to say that American education has completely sold out to the “touchy-feely” crowd.  Richard Larson, a Pocatello, Idaho, broker, for instance, harrumphs on his community blog, “We’re creating a generation of sheep that is too ill-informed to see through the specious reasoning of indoctrinated contemporary education, and who haven’t been equipped with the tools of reasoning and critical thinking.”

While a lot of colleges still expose — others would say subject — their students to an array of “liberal arts” subjects, if only to broaden their worldview, others concentrate on putting students on a fast track to whatever profession they’d like to break into.

Q. 5  This is  (a) the Liberty Bell  (b)  the Jingle Bell  (c) the Alexander Graham Bell  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Q. 5 This is (a) the Liberty Bell (b) the Jingle Bell (c) the Alexander Graham Bell (Carol M. Highsmith)

Still, it surely can’t be true that “most” four-year colleges don’t teach history any more.  But I know that a whole lot of the courses are “electives” for which only kids who already dig the Depression and the Crimean War sign up.

I’m not close enough to the academic world, any more, to argue conclusively whether we have — or have not — hopelessly conceded worldwide educational pre-eminence to other nations and other cultures in which achievement and intellectual vigor are as valued as picking up job skills and feeling good about oneself.

Somehow, some way, a lot of America’s young people become high achievers.  I just wish more of them could pipe up proudly and inform us that George Washington, not Robert E. Lee, led our revolutionary army.

Q. 6  What do Americans call this white house?  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Q. 6 What do Americans call this white house? (Carol M. Highsmith)

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Flunk. To fail, especially a test or academic subject in school.

Parapet. A wall-like barrier extending above the edges of the roof. Atop medieval castles, soldiers protected behind these walls hurled arrows and even boiling oil down on attackers.

Pedantic. Bookish, overly concerned with obscure knowledge and showing off that knowledge.

Stellar. Outstanding, of star quality. The star-related root of the world is similar to that in the word “constellation.”

12 responses to “U.S.A. “The Uninformed States of America”?”

  1. J Roberto says:

    I am brazilian and here our students have the same problem. They do not like read any more, listen good songs or see good films. They are not prepared to be a citizen who thinks. The aim is buy things, press buttons and spend a lot of time in front a computer to play games. Ask them about the third in line to presidency it would be a crime (here is the chief of federal deputies). It is sad to assume. Hugs and good luck for the youth.

  2. Tony Gregson says:

    “Pedantic. Bookish, overly concerned with obscure knowledge and showing off that knowledge.”
    Methinks this is a bit too narrow or colloquial a definition, so allow me to be a tad pedantic and share the definition that comes up on my computer: “a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules or with displaying academic learning.”
    There – describes my reply perfectly!

    As an amusing aside, the Wikipedia entry for “pedantic” includes the following quote ascribed to Garty Vicksters (whoever!): “The only other thing is that I am a pendant when it comes to written English and I would like to proof-read anything that can viewed outside the company.” [Sound advice if only s/he followed it!]

  3. tland says:

    Dear J Roberto,

    “Good luck for the youth,” indeed. And good luck for us all, from the direction our knowledge base is going.


  4. tland says:

    Dear Tony,

    Yeah, if ol’ Garty is a pendant, I guess he just hangs around!”


  5. C. J. Leiren says:


    In some ways, I do agree with your’s and Miss Parker’s points about the debasement of today’s educational institutions. But I am 21, a mere child to someone who has voted in more presidential elections than I’ve lived thru. That being said, I feel politically, economically, and socially well-equipped for the future of america.

    America’s degrading standards of intellectualism can only be blamed in part on the educational system. Societal influences are an even greater supporter of the degradation of common sense and idealism.

    Even as an indipendent individual, when I am eatting a meal with my family, my phone is expected to be turned off. My parents never allowed interuptions such as television, phone calls, or texting at the dinner table. But in today’s society, a growing number of families entertain themselves with laptops and texting during these important moments.

    I say important because a majority of my history education was taught at the dinner table. My father, a naval brat, travelled much of the world that I’ve yet to see. His knowledge and experiences were passed down through stories. Much as he heard stories of World War II from his father.

    In recent years, social media has disrupted this habit. Parents aren’t spending quality time with their children, children are more adept to the celebrity scene, and media organizations take advantage of it. It’s a downward spiral of insufficient exposure, due to lack of curriculum at home, school, AND social stratospheres.

    – C.J. Leiren

  6. Evan says:

    Education in this country is a joke. It is a bunch of useless factual tidbits that are memorized for an exam and then immediately forgotten.

  7. Naturally there’s no teaching that isn’t “practical.” Our nation is designed around the acquisition of money and “stuff,” and there’s no money (or stuff) in learning history, geography, psychology or sociology. What matters is math, science and “practical” things like computer operation. These can get you jobs and you can make money – if it means you stay home on election day or vegetate in front of the tube after work, so what? As long as you can go out and buy something, you’re OK.

  8. Alan J. Zeni, Jr. says:

    I find myself wondering how many of those students would be able to correctly identify Ted’s comment as a pun. I’m already aware that those mutilated and eviscerated corpses of formerly English words that they dump into the text box on the damn cell phone are ‘words’, now. Or ‘wrudz’, perhaps.

  9. Robert Patridge says:

    Why do we need to spend 100k per high school graduate so that they can flip burgers or peddle iphones (apple buys all products from China – check the manufacturing data plate to confirm!). I could care less about students learning history – it is an expense we do not need. We do need productive labor. So I think learning how to lay carpet and repair Toyotas should be public school focus. We have lots of smart kids who attend great schools to make for an educated element of society. Let the low end kids make Big Macs. And lets reduce the tax payer burder by trashing our education system into something that results in more revenue with less expenses. Non caring students and parents should not consume the resources others crave so let us get rid of the non performers after 7th grade. Kids with behavior disorders and problems are out. No second chance. Give those resourse to kids who can and who want to perform! In essense, throw the bad babies out with the bathwater.

  10. Gary says:

    It seems to me that the Speaker of the House is second in line, after the Vice President, who is first. The President isn’t in line at all; he’s in office. Third would then be the President pro tem of the Senate.

  11. tland says:

    To Gary,

    Astute point! You’re right, I THINK. The president already has the job, so it’s the next three who are in line to succeed him (or her, someday). But looking at it another way, if there’s a line, and the president’s at the head of it, he’s in line.

    That’s a stretch, though, so kudos to you for a good catch.


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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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