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Are Americans Really All That Ignorant?
November 18, 2005 8:11 AM   Subscribe

Are Americans really all that ignorant?

I am am American, but I live outside the US and my wife is from outside the US. I am constantly arguing with people that Americans are no more or less ignorant, isolated, or stubborn about their own views than anyone else in any other country. The only differences are that (1) American media and politics extends American points of view further than those of other countries and that (2) because the US is relatively large and isolated, Americans are less knowledgable of different cultures and languages than say the average European, but no different than other large isolated countries.

I don't know whether I am right or wrong, I was wondering if anyone was aware of any statistical studies or thoughtful analyses of this issues.
posted by BigBrownBear to Society & Culture (84 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I suspect that what you say is generally true: Americans probably are no more or no less ignorant, on average, than people from other countries. I'd wager, however, that we're a lot more vocal about our ignorance: sometimes we shout it from the rooftop.
posted by jdroth at 8:25 AM on November 18, 2005


No, stupid people are just more visible because of said media presence. We also do not dismiss people for being stupid, for better or worse, and sometimes find these qualities endeering (see Forrest Gump). I wouldn't say we aren't as intelligent as the rest of the world but we do have a stronger anti-intellectualism prevelant. Also I've noticed anecdotely that our strong individualism manifests itself when you'll see an American talking about something they don't know about but a European will just not say anything. This is not necessarily a bad thing as our individualism and stupidity to lead to our high rates of entrepenuerism.

Look at our contribution to R&D in high technology, medicine and other high-intellect endeavors. It's impossible for people to agree with exactly constitutes intelligence but it would seem such easily accessible indicators of intelligence like R&D output would be a good place to start -- it at least proves we are not stupid.
posted by geoff. at 8:27 AM on November 18, 2005


"...but no different than other large isolated countries."

That's where I think you're probably right. However, I have zero doubt that the average European or middle-class and upper-class Latin American and others are quite a bit more knowledgeable about the world outside their countries than Americans are. Also, you might say that Canada is as isolated as the US but Canadians, too, are much better informed.

So, my personal opinion is that "Americans are ignorant" is less true than many think and that you're right that the proper comparison is with other large, geographically isolated countries. But, I think it's still true to some degree even in that context and it's the same reason New Yorkers or Parisians are hidebound (I can't think of the right word, you know what I mean). Americans tend to think that the US is all that's really important. We have that luxury where others do not.

I don't think it's because we are inherently bad people, or anything. It's a product of circumstance.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:27 AM on November 18, 2005


geoff, it's interesting that you interpreted this entirely in the context of "stupidity" while the post was very explicitly in the context of "ignorance". I certainly don't think that Americans are less stupid than anyone else.

I might be persuaded that intelligence is measureable and partly or greatly influenced by environment and that the American environment is unusually unfavorable. But I'd be very skeptical on every point leading to that conclusion and would take a lot of convincing.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:31 AM on November 18, 2005


I called my wife and some of her friends on this the other day -

American: "Don't kids in Country X eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?"
Non-American: "Oh what, you think that just because Americans eat peanut butter and jelly then everyone does?"

OR

American: "Oh, kids in Country X don't eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, too?"
Non-American: "Oh what, you think that Americans are the only people that eat peanut butter and jelly?"
posted by BigBrownBear at 8:32 AM on November 18, 2005


Some Americans are probably no less ignorant of the rest of the world than say, someone in Siberia. In my experience it is the attitude of some American's which lets them down and shows their ignorance. They seem to take pleasure in broadcasting it.
posted by fire&wings at 8:33 AM on November 18, 2005


I didn't read the question carefully enough, now I'm feeling stupid. I was having a discussion about this last night (the stupid thing) with my friends so I jumped on the chance to comment.
posted by geoff. at 8:33 AM on November 18, 2005


Point I'm making is that perhaps because of the extent of the American voice, we end up getting held to some impossible standard and everything we say is wrong. But, on the other hand, I also can see that Americans can be particularly vocal about their ignorance. I think there is an element of individualism and the right to be heard and rights in general that can make Americans very abrasive and also oblivious to the right behavior in certain situations and social subtlities.
posted by BigBrownBear at 8:34 AM on November 18, 2005


Miss Manners was asked a question about this issue, and she said that it's just plain rude to insult another person's country. If someone says something to you about it, I would follow her example and give a response that, while polite, shows that I don't find that sort of talk about my country interesting or acceptable.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:35 AM on November 18, 2005 [1 favorite]


no offense geoff :)
posted by BigBrownBear at 8:35 AM on November 18, 2005


Also, you might say that Canada is as isolated as the US but Canadians, too, are much better informed.

I'm not at all sure this is true. Canadians know more about the U.S. than Americans know about Canada, but I'm skeptical that the average Canadian knows more about the rest of the world.

I think your thesis is correct, by and large, BBB.
posted by orange swan at 8:35 AM on November 18, 2005


Unless you enjoy the sort of arguments you've been having (which I certainly don't).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:36 AM on November 18, 2005 [1 favorite]


ThePinkSuperhero - you try saying that to my wife.
posted by BigBrownBear at 8:36 AM on November 18, 2005


Newsweek Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International:

"Now I have a few questions about the Bible. Do you believe that every word of the Bible is literally accurate -- that the events it describes actually happened, or not?"

Yes, Believe: 55%
No, Do Not Believe: 38%
Unsure: 7%

Dec. 2-3, 2004. N=1,009 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3 (for all adults).
posted by Jairus at 8:37 AM on November 18, 2005


I'm not at all sure this is true. Canadians know more about the U.S. than Americans know about Canada, but I'm skeptical that the average Canadian knows more about the rest of the world.

Yeah, I have to second this. Canadians know about the US because it's unavoidable, but otherwise I think we're only marginally more international. Germany getting their first female chancellor - not exactly front page news here. The PM taking a shit on Bush about free trade and softwood lumber - well, it's only international because this time he's doing it in Korea at APEC.

Every country has its share of ignorant people. Ignorance is certainly not an American invention.
posted by GuyZero at 8:45 AM on November 18, 2005


Ignorance regarding other counties

A few points:

1) Economics rule. If you are dependent on trade with the rest of the world, you better know how to find it on a map.
It seems other counties want to sell to the US, and the US only really care where they can find resources.


2) America is so vast, that one can live there for 80 years without having to care or think about the rest of the world.

3) In other countries foreign news is give more attention, then national, then local. In the typical US media, (smaller radio stations, press etc) local is given preference, then regional, then national. No international - or very little.

4) In Europe everyone knows where France is, why? Because they had wars, they travel, distances are shorter between counties. Also, they HAVE to interact with other small countries for economic survival.

5) Ignorant? No, it is just that it never cross their mind to think outside the borders. Of course there are many informed people, and normally it is their interest or business that makes them aware of the rest of the world.
posted by bright77blue at 8:52 AM on November 18, 2005


My experience with Canadians, having been married to one, is that they are better informed, on average, than Americans are about other parts of the world.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:53 AM on November 18, 2005


Jairus, that's not very useful since there's nothing to compare it to. I understand the implication that most Americans are ignorant in your mind but that wasn't the question.
posted by smackfu at 8:53 AM on November 18, 2005


My experience with Canadians, having been married to one, is that they are better informed, on average, than Americans are about other parts of the world

My experience with Canadians, my brother having married one, is that they are less informed, on average, than Americans are about other parts of the world.
posted by jdroth at 8:55 AM on November 18, 2005


If you took an average American off the streets of rural Nebraska and one off the streets of rural Guangzhou province which would fair better on a test about international issues?
posted by Pollomacho at 9:01 AM on November 18, 2005


And of course I mean one Chinese off the streets of rural Guangzhou. I'm pretty sure an American picked up there would probably have some international knowledge.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:02 AM on November 18, 2005


People are interested in information that is meaningful to them. The affairs of North America are far more important to Europeans than vice versa. I would therefore expect Europeans to know much more about American politics than Americans to know about European politics.

I think a European is as likely to know what is going on in an economically unimportant country in Africa as an American is in an economically unimportant one in Latin America—not very.

All that said, I think the average university-educated European is much more likely to keep up with the news, and will keep to higher-quality news sources, than the average university-educated American. So while part of the problem is due to the inherent isolation of the U.S. (geographic and otherwise), I think some of it does have to do with an intrinsic interest in world affairs.

A far more damning critique, because it avoids all these confounding issues you bring up, is that Americans know less about what's happening in their own country than many Europe.

grew up in the U.S., have spent the past two years in Europe
posted by grouse at 9:02 AM on November 18, 2005


Sometimes I believe that it's a plot by the American government and media to keep Americans disinformed as to conditions in other parts of thw world.

What would happen if every American realized that other first world countries have universal health care as good or even better than the current US system? And, with universal health care, companies could offer amazing benefits because they didn't have to worry about health care costs. I'm talking full dental, $15 a year deductable for prescriptions (everyting past the first $15.00 is covered), great disability benefits and more vacation time.

I blame it all on the dark cabal of big business, the media and shadowy government agencies....
posted by TorontoSandy at 9:09 AM on November 18, 2005


Americans are ignorant of the world, compared to citizens of other first-world nations.

I'm not sure if american news media is a contributing factor, or simply a reflection of willful ignorance.

Jairus's survey would've been far more interesting if they included a breakdown with a followup like:
How much of the Bible have you read?
a) none
b) some, at church
c) most
d) every single verse

I'd really love to know how many people have read every single verse, and still take a literalist stand.
posted by I Love Tacos at 9:13 AM on November 18, 2005


The only differences are that (1) American media and politics extends American points of view further than those of other countries and that (2) because the US is relatively large and isolated, Americans are less knowledgable of different cultures and languages than say the average European, but no different than other large isolated countries.

I swear I'm not trying to snark...but aren't those things pretty much "igorance"?
posted by duck at 9:15 AM on November 18, 2005


the term you are looking for is "willfully ignorant". Americans choose not to understand things that might make them feel shame, guilt or compassion for the rest of the world. It's the only way we can continue our unsustainable existence.
posted by any major dude at 9:16 AM on November 18, 2005


There is also the fact that US politics is -- and I mean no offense by this -- a baffling, hilarious, disconcerting and never-ending train-wreck. It has a certain disastrous beauty to it that few other political systems can match. Americans do things bigger and louder than most other people, and they do it all terrifyingly far to the right, so when you've got that circus to keep yourself occupied at home, who needs to look abroad?

n.b. My impressions have been arrived at mostly through reading Metafilter.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 9:22 AM on November 18, 2005


Americans might be ignorant about the world, but they, on the whole, are very knowledgeable about their *own* country. I've rarely met an American that can't rattle off the 50 states in alphabetical order. I know plenty of Canadians that don't know of even half of our own provinces. Even on political issues, the same ignorance is always apparent. Americans *know* what amendment of the bill of rights gives them free speech. I don't know a single Canadian that could tell you what part of the Charter gives them the same right without them looking it up first, although they often *guess blindly* correctly.

So I guess it depends on what you define ignorance as...
posted by shepd at 9:22 AM on November 18, 2005


I don't think that Americans, as a whole, are more ignorant than other nationalities. It's a ego-stroking myth that other people - especially Canadians, it seems - are only too happy to propagate.

I can't even count how many arguments I've had with friends over Jeopardy contestants who get 'This city is the capital of Manitoba'-type questions wrong.
A well-timed "Well, what's the capital of Kansas, then?" usually puts a pin to their inflated indignation, though.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:22 AM on November 18, 2005


Americans *know* what amendment of the bill of rights gives them free speech. I don't know a single Canadian that could tell you what part of the Charter gives them the same right without them looking it up first, although they often *guess blindly* correctly.

I bet many Canadians know more about the American Bill of Rights than the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
posted by grouse at 9:24 AM on November 18, 2005


duck: Well that is a good point. That's why I am wondering how the US might compare in such manners to places like Australia or New Zealand or perhaps other European states. I would love any kind of real statistical type studies on this topic.

I Love Tacos: UC Princeton has an interesting lecture from Bill Keller, Executive Editor from The NY Times that touches on this issue.
posted by BigBrownBear at 9:25 AM on November 18, 2005


Americans I meet tend to go on and on to me about matters which are probably of interest only to other Americans. They seem to behave as if it's natural for the rest of the world to care about American domestic affairs/music/films/books and for them to care not a whit about things outside of that loop themselves. I have to interrupt a lot and say, "I dunno what you are talking about."

So yeah, ignorant until proven otherwise is how I treat 'em.
posted by dydecker at 9:25 AM on November 18, 2005


Remember as well that the US exports more culture (in terms of TV and movies) than it imports. Here in Canada, for instance, the vast majority of the movies in theatres are Hollywood productions, meant more for (and reflecting the beliefs & attitudes of) Americans than us foreigners. So we get exposed to much more American history, politics, social norms, etc., and very little of our own homegrown productions. If we're knowledgeable about America, it's because we're unavoidably informed about it.

Americans see even fewer Canadian-made shows than we do (lucky bastards), and the same is true of other cultures I bet. What does reach American shores is generally the best representation of foreign cultures (Yahoo Serious notwithstanding), so it doesn't reveal our ignorance as much. Does that make sense?
posted by GhostintheMachine at 9:26 AM on November 18, 2005


the media issue i mean
posted by BigBrownBear at 9:26 AM on November 18, 2005


I think americans aren't necessarily more ignorant than any other similarly developed nation, but our ignorance has more immediate implications on the world at large and as such we should shake our fist at it.
posted by mcsweetie at 9:31 AM on November 18, 2005


I know plenty of Canadians that don't know of even half of our own provinces. Even on political issues, the same ignorance is always apparent. Americans *know* what amendment of the bill of rights gives them free speech. I don't know a single Canadian that could tell you what part of the Charter gives them the same right without them looking it up first, although they often *guess blindly* correctly.

Well if we're going to exchange anecdotes and impressions, I know plenty of Americans who couldn't name all the states and plenty of Canadians who could name all the provinces. Frankly, though, I think it's an unfair comparison since how Americans can be expected keep so many states straight is a mystery to me. At least all the provinces are lined up nicely.

And it's Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I did not look that up. Now I think this is a silly question too, for two reasons: 1) I think the only reason Americans can name the amendment is that you run around calling your rights by their amendment numbers. It's just a difference naming convention. We don't talk about our rights by their section numbers. 2) I actually think the wierd way Americans have of treating the constitution like some sort of holy document and equating "it's in the constitution" with "it's right" is kind of creepy.

When we're done with anecdotes this might be a good place to start to get some proper answers. It only deals with geography (finding countried on a map, and not the kind of stuff I think we're talking about here, though).
posted by duck at 9:43 AM on November 18, 2005


right. However, I have zero doubt that the average European or middle-class and upper-class Latin American and others are quite a bit more knowledgeable about the world outside their countries than Americans are.

Well, it's easy to be aware of "the world outside your country" when you live in, say, Switzerland, being aware of Germany is as impressive as me being aware of Indiana. To be fair, you'd really have to see whether Europeans are more aware of non-European, non-American cultures. I doubt it.
posted by dagnyscott at 9:46 AM on November 18, 2005


duck: that is a good link, thanks.
posted by BigBrownBear at 9:47 AM on November 18, 2005


I think a lot of times people compare European intellectuals with American non-intellectuals, which isn't fair. At the highest levels, Americans seem to hold their own. Our top universities are pretty good, although they are populated with more and more foreign-born students. Our best writers are as good as anybody's.
posted by callmejay at 9:51 AM on November 18, 2005


Americans are uniquely antiintellectual among first world nations. I believe it is part of the American character. Willfully and proudly ignorant can describe a good percentage of the population. Phrases such as 'liberal elite, egghead, overeducated and impractical' come to mind. Common sense, character, and instinct - that 's American.
posted by xod at 9:52 AM on November 18, 2005


2) I actually think the wierd way Americans have of treating the constitution like some sort of holy document and equating "it's in the constitution" with "it's right" is kind of creepy.

I think it's how America stays together. The Constitution is sort of the referee. You can change it, but it is the last word in a legal argument until you do. And because it's really hard to change, it makes for a political stability that might not exist without it, or might not have in the old days when lack of technology made America a very far-flung and diverse place that began as a number of distinct colonies. Back then, Canada had the political stability of being just a colony. Does that make sense?

Also, I find many Americans can name the states in alphabetical order because they learned "Fifty Nifty United States" in grade school.

To answer the actual question, yes, I think on aveage Americans are more ignorant than other nationalities due to quirks in economics, geography, and culture (massive anti-intellectualism). And the evidence of MeFi notwithstanding, I think it shows even more because most Americans are willing to guess and be wrong. None of that is a good excuse to treat every American you meet like a moron, though.
posted by dame at 9:56 AM on November 18, 2005


There are subjects that are taught very professionally in European basic education that are taught poorly, if at all, in most U.S. schools. World history and foreign languages come to mind immediately.
posted by gimonca at 9:57 AM on November 18, 2005


I think it's how America stays together. The Constitution is sort of the referee. You can change it, but it is the last word in a legal argument until you do.

Well I wouldn't find that creepy if that's all their were to it, abd that's what constitutions everywhere do. But in the US it seems like it's not just the last word in legal arguments, it's treated as a (and often last word) in moral arguments, where I don't think it has any place at all. Often in conjunction with the idea that something was the "intent" of the founding fathers. Should we do X or should we do Y..."well George Washington believed blah blah blah... and Thomas Jefferson said yadda yadda yadda" But so what? They're just politicians. They could be wrong just like anybody else. The fact that they said something should carry no more weight than the fact that Senator Santorum or Senator Clinton said something. But it does...and that's creepy to me.

(Oh, like I'm the only one here making arguments without any good data or examples! At least I had a good link).
posted by duck at 10:08 AM on November 18, 2005


I have zero doubt that the average European or middle-class and upper-class Latin American and others are quite a bit more knowledgeable about the world outside their countries than Americans are.

To echo callmejay's comment, let's compare apples to apples. Also, I think the average American who thinks residents of the US are more ignorant certainly does not include themselves in that average. Why, it's their very brilliance that allows them to perceive how dopey their neighbors are.

These Latin American countries you reference, EB: do they have a middle class? And what % of the total population does the middle/upper class represent? If the average American is more ignorant than their counterparts elsewhere, I would posit it is because the average here is drawn from a much larger pool of folks who can get their voices heard (without having to burn a few hundred cars).
posted by yerfatma at 10:12 AM on November 18, 2005


duck: Excellent link! I don't think anecdotal stories are of much value here either, though my own would lean far to the side of Americans being much more ignorant of the world than the rest of the first world. I am Canadian so let's see how I do and let's examine the first few questions in the link duck posted:

1. The population of the US: how the hell can Americans answer this question correctly less often than every other country polled??? Truely weird (I got it right, Americans last place)

2. Most populace religion: Americans did very well on this question though I suspect that is party because the answer is Christianity, i the correct answer were Islam I doubt the American answers would have been much different. (I got it right, Americans 4th place, not bad)

3. Where are Al Quaeda and Taliban movements based: HOW CAN AMERICANS GET THIS QUESTION RIGHT LESS OFTEN THAN ALL OTHER COUNTRIES POLLED??? This is truely stunning, I won't even comment on it, it really tells itself. (I got it right, Americans last place)

4. Who uses the Euro: Well first off you would think that the name Euro would be a bit of a clue as to who uses it but apparent, for 56% of americans, that isn't enough of a clue. (I got it right, Americans last place)

5. Who exports the most oil: Americans did well here, I do think they are fairly well informed about oil. (I got it right, American's 4th place, beating Canada!)

6. Who is fighting over Kashmir: Interesting how clueless Americans are about a situation they have done so much to foster. (I got it right, Americans second last)

7. What is El Nino: American's did well here, third place behind Japan and Canada. (I got it right, Americans third)

8. Who is the most affect by HIV and AIDS: Middle of the pack here for Americans, I'm glad to see them knowing this one. (I got it right, Americans 6th)

9. Countries with population over 1 billion: Americans seem to have trouble with questions of population, could it be from assuming they must be #1? (I got it right, Americans 7th)

10. Compass reading: How anyone living in a country with an education system can get this one wrong it beyond me. (I got it right, Americans 6th, 30% of Americans in this test do not know North East South and West!)

Ok I'm not going any further, too much work, I do think the answers are quite telling though. I would bet I could find ten more of these sort of tests that would back up the opinion that Americans are more ignorant of the world than the rest of the first world is, easily.

So anecdotally, me as a Canadian got 10/10, Americans finished first in 1/10. Canadians beat Americans on every single question... it goes on and on, how can people believe Americans are NOT less informed about the rest of the world?
posted by Cosine at 10:26 AM on November 18, 2005


This is almost impossible to discuss rationally, because there are so many variables and nobody is even remotely objective. In order to even begin to have a rational discussion you have to compare apples to apples, but then is there any real data? It seems to me the whole point of this kind of discussion is usually attacking/defending America, which frankly is pretty boring the 10,000th time around the track.

I'd really love to know how many people have read every single verse, and still take a literalist stand.


Lots. Reading every single verse of the Bible is highly correlated with a conservative religious stance. Do you really think your average agnostic/Unitarian is likely to have read every verse of the Bible?

I have to interrupt a lot and say, "I dunno what you are talking about."
So yeah, ignorant until proven otherwise is how I treat 'em
.

So let me get this straight. They know something that you don't know... so you treat them as ignorant. Brilliant!
posted by languagehat at 10:26 AM on November 18, 2005


They could be wrong just like anybody else. The fact that they said something should carry no more weight than the fact that Senator Santorum or Senator Clinton said something. But it does...and that's creepy to me.

Except Washington and Jefferson and Madison got together and fashioned a country that's held together by nothing else and was one of the first democratic republics. They have a record of some political wisdom.

Look, many Americans are proud that their predecessors managed to make a really vast and heterogenous country and that it has managed to stick together through all sorts of weirdnessess and divisiveness. We recognize it was hard; look at the swings in government after the French Revolution or the Articles of Confederation dry-run.* This can filter down into some weird attitudes, especially combined with tacky uber-patriotism. Sure. But unlike places with other reasons for cohesion, the constitution's all we got. I rather like that it is a piece of paper we hold reverence for. It certainly isn't any worse than cohesion through feeling superior to your southern neighbors. (Though some of America has that too.)

As for the question of moral arguments, the point of the Constitution is to outline inalienable rights and that is a moral question. Think of the context. This is an of what we are due as citizens of a nation created pretty soon after that whole contract of the governed notion took off. Do you see how that could lead to the sheen it now often takes on?

(Oh, like I'm the only one here making arguments without any good data or examples! At least I had a good link).

I don't know if this was addressed to me, but I don't really have a problem with what you said. I was just trying to explain something creepy from another point of view so that it might be demoted to weird (which I can see it being). But if you're invested in it being creepy, then okay.

Anyway, I should leave it, because generally I'm the last person defending the U.S. and, as languagehat points out, it's kinda boring.

The Articles of Confederation came before the constitution and didn't work out so well.
posted by dame at 10:37 AM on November 18, 2005


I don't know if this was addressed to me, but I don't really have a problem with what you said.

It was not addressed to you or to anyone. It was just addressing the obvious giant flaw with my own post: I was making grand generalizations about how Americans think without even really having an example to cite. I was "defending myself" against the critique before it came.
posted by duck at 10:40 AM on November 18, 2005


I'm sure there other first world, industrial cultures that have anti-intellectual strains, but historically America has, and continues to, institutionalize the anti-intellectual. Examples range from the christian fundamentalist critique of liberal education to vocational training as pedagogical theory. Distrust of philosophy and other non-pragmatic studies seems conspicuous from the 18c.
posted by xod at 10:41 AM on November 18, 2005


I did a search for some concrete data and found the same National Geographic-Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey that duck linked to.

Answering about 70% of questions correctly, young adults in Sweden, Germany and Italy ranked the highest of the nine countries surveyed. They were followed by the French (61%) and Japanese (55%). Respondents in Great Britain answered 50% correctly. Their peers in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico answered fewer than half the questions correctly.

... map skills were not particularly strong among young adults worldwide. Only young adults in Sweden, Germany, and Italy correctly identified at least 75% of the locations on the world map portion of the quiz. Despite sharing a 355 border with the Netherlands, however, 30% of Germans couldn't identify it on a map of Europe. A sizable proportion could not find the world's largest body of water, the Pacific Ocean--even in countries that border it. In Japan and Canada, nearly one-fifth (16% and 17%, respectively) could not locate the Pacific; in the U.S., nearly three in ten (29%) could not find it.


The 1988 version of the survey caused a fair amount of alarm:

Madam Speaker, the need for geographic knowledge was identified by the national goals for education as one of the core subjects in which American students should demonstrate competency. This need has also been highlighted in a 1988 study that found Americans between the ages of 18 and 24-years-old ranked last in an international comparison of geographic knowledge, and American adults of all ages scored among the bottom third. In addition, three in four Americans surveyed--132 million Americans in all--could not locate the Persian Gulf on a map, and one in four could not identify the Pacific ocean.

I'd summarize by saying that Americans are still in last place, but people in most other countries (e.g. Canada) don't have much to be proud of, either.
posted by russilwvong at 10:55 AM on November 18, 2005


After finishing all 20 questions on the National Geographic quiz here are the results, one point per percentage who answered correctly.

Final Score:

1. Sweden 1482 Points
2. Italy 1390 Points
3. Germany 1338 Points
4. Japan 1266 Points
5. France 1255 Points
6. Canada 1204 Points (I ended up 20/20, not sure why the rest of my countrymen did so poorly)
7. Britain 1107 Points
8. Mexico 1001 Points
9. America 999 Points

Americans finish dead last, beaten even by Mexico, whose education system has a fraction of the resources of the American.

As I stated from the start, I think you take any general global trivia type quiz and Americans will finish last or next to last against any other first world country.
posted by Cosine at 11:00 AM on November 18, 2005


Cosine, comparing your answers to the average American's answers doesn't seem to be really worthwhile. I mean, I'm an American and I also got 10/10 of the first 10. I think the best explanation is that neither of us are average representatives, apparently.

Also, only people between 18 and 24 were polled. This small demographic may not be representative of entire countries.
posted by booksandlibretti at 11:05 AM on November 18, 2005


Yes, but how did you do on the other ten? ;) (seriously, big wink)

The rules were the same for all countries, so preface my comments with "of 18 to 24 year olds" if it helps.
posted by Cosine at 11:08 AM on November 18, 2005


Born and raised in the good 'ol USA. Yeah, most of the population here is teh suck.
posted by tom_g at 11:08 AM on November 18, 2005


duck, what dame said. (weird.) A huge part of why any constitution works is a sort of faith in it. For a variety of reasons, Americans have a great deal of faith in their constitution and that's why this government has been around as long as it has. And, as dame says, Americans need to have a strong mythology about this sort of thing because the national identity is intentionally not ethnic, or religious, or whatever. And if you look at what Canada's done with a constitution and the Charter, I think you immediately see why having the sort of reverance that Americans have is a good thing from a pragmatic standpoint.

yerfatma, yeah, the portion of middle-class in Latin America is relatively small. But I was trying to compare apples to apples. The poor of LA are really comparable to the poor elsewhere in the developing world and just getting any sort of an education in that context is an accomplishment.

But as I've said before elsewhere, I've been closely associated with higher-education institutions almost my entire life (when I was kid, I was a staffer's child) and I have always been friends with foreign students while noticing that for the most part, other Americans ignore them. Americans almost never ask about or are interested in foreigner's lives and experiences. The average foreign student I've known knows more about America's political history than the average American undergraduate I've known--particuarly the Latin Americans.

I was friends with a really smart, really nice guy who was getting an engineering degree at the time and already had an English degree. He was a Republican, staunchly so, but not the bigot type, just the generally conservative cultural values type with strong right-wing economic values. Anyway, he said something one time that absolutely astonished me and I still think about it because I think it's very revealing of the American conservative mindset. We were talking about how unusually aware of world affairs I was and how deeply interesting I find the subject of things non-American. And he said something like "And that right there is the reason I'd never vote for you for President." That's a vice in his view, not a virtue.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:12 AM on November 18, 2005


I have always been friends with foreign students while noticing that for the most part, other Americans ignore them. Americans almost never ask about or are interested in foreigner's lives and experiences.

Oddly enough, I think is because of the prevalence of the "Americans are ignorant" discussion. See this comment. I know sometimes I don't want to ask because I don't want to hear about how I should already know.
posted by dame at 11:20 AM on November 18, 2005


I have always been friends with foreign students while noticing that for the most part, other Americans ignore them.

My experience has been the exact opposite of this - however, I will say that having lived abroad, I have found expats/foreigners usually have more in common with each other than with the local population, which is why you might see French, German, and Peruvian students hanging out together in the States or American, German, and Australian people hanging out together in Spain. Languagehat is right that this is a hard issue to discuss rationally and that everyone brings their personal analogies to the table.
posted by Staggering Jack at 11:22 AM on November 18, 2005


I got all those answers correct, even though it claims I got the third one wrong (AQ and Taliban). Originally, and now, the answer for Taliban is Pakistan, and also now for AQ. Stupid quiz writers. I thought it was asking a particularly clever question. (And that's a good example of how tests results fail to be as meaningful for the cohort's outliers.)

And aren't we right on the cusp of heading over 350M in population? Also, I think a very good question for almost anyone is what is the third most populous country in the world.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:23 AM on November 18, 2005



Well, it's easy to be aware of "the world outside your country" when you live in, say, Switzerland, being aware of Germany is as impressive as me being aware of Indiana. To be fair, you'd really have to see whether Europeans are more aware of non-European, non-American cultures. I doubt it.


I'm not sure I agree with the term "ignorant" here as it suggests that it is something people should know something and don't. I think we just have less reason to care. If that satisfies the original poster's criterion of "ignorance," great. But I do think that the critical point is that our field of knowledge is different than what is held elsewhere.

First off, America does not have the (recent) colonial history that many European nations do (yes, I am aware that 200+ years ago the US was a colony). British, French, Belgians, Dutch, Italians, Portuguese, and Spanish all had colonial interests around the world in the 20th century that give them a continuing interest in those areas today--and likewise, those former colonies (which, by the way, were seldom treated well) have relations with their former power in a way that other countries wouldn't. The point being, this created interrelationships between countries all around the world, influencing that country's foreign policy, media coverage of far-off events, trade policy, etc. When an American hears "Laos" we think "Something to do with Vietnam, right?" But when a Frenchman hears "Laos," the stuff he learned in school about former French possession of that country comes to bear, thus informing his perceptions of that country today.

Second, as other people have pointed out, it's trivial for a European or African to have knowledge of their neighboring countries because these countries are typically smaller and more interdependent on each other. More business is conducted between them, but even apart from trade, a casual citizen wishing to go on a leisurely vacation will often want to leave their country to go elsewhere. Until the Schengen convention in Europe, you typically needed a passport to go to another country. If you're a Brit (or Dutch or Norwegian or Swedish) and you wanted to go to the beach, you'd go to Greece or Spain. If you wanted world-class skiing, you'd go to Switzerland (or maybe Austria? Germany?). Family vacation, maybe Paris. Etc.

Contrast this with the United States. Being large and geographically diverse, you can do basically any kind of recreational activity you want without leaving the country (and until Sept 11, you could return from Canada or Mexico without a passport--maybe you still can?). Skiing? Colorado, Canada, etc. Beaches, Scuba Diving? Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, etc. It's often said that "only" X% of Americans have a passport compared to Europeans. Do you really think the Brits that go to Alicante to party are really interested in Spanish culture? Or that the Swedes going to EuroDisney want to practice their French? Americans can indulge themselves without going abroad. We just don't need to do so for that many things.

Third, addressing your first point that American media and politics extends American points of view further than those of other countries. This is definitely true, but I think the issue has more to do with the nature of our educational system. It's true that basically all nations teach a curriculum that is relevant to that country's interests, and portrays its own history in a favorable light. But other nations typically manage this at the national level--schools all across the country may teach the same stuff from the same book. Contrast this with the states, where each state and school board may use different materials and emphasize different periods of history. When this curriculum is managed on a national level it creates a perception in that country that this is "common knowledge" that everyone should know, "and if you didn't learn it in school, you're ignorant of history." Thus, when a European meets an American who doesn't know some fact they do, they chalk it up to "ignorance" rather than "different country, different priorities."

And for the reasons I mentioned above, other nations will necessarily include more about former colonies, wars that country fought in, etc. American schools do teach that stuff to a degree, but because of the American ethos around the Constitution (as another commenter mentioned), our schools focus more on its history and implications than they do the Prussian War.

So, doesn't all this prove Americans are ignorant of world? That is inherently a value judgment--what should people know? Are we going to say that matching names to countries on a map indicates world knowledge? Naming world leaders? Exchange rate of dollar vs. Euro? The name of the last French King? Or the pursuit & recognition of individual freedoms under the American system? It's your call.
posted by Brian James at 11:26 AM on November 18, 2005 [1 favorite]


The great passport debate was done yesterday in AskMe.
posted by grouse at 11:32 AM on November 18, 2005


Who uses the Euro

What, you mean more Europeans know who uses the Euro? They must be some supergeniuses over there! In other news, I scored above everyone else here in knowing what pants I'm wearing right now!
posted by dagnyscott at 11:39 AM on November 18, 2005


ummmm... dagnyscott, more people in Sweden and France found the US on a map than Americans...
posted by Cosine at 11:42 AM on November 18, 2005


I got all those answers correct, even though it claims I got the third one wrong (AQ and Taliban). Originally, and now, the answer for Taliban is Pakistan, and also now for AQ. Stupid quiz writers.

I'm glad to hear this. I, too, missed all but this one. I'd learned the answer was Pakistan somewhere along the way, and was surprised when the quiz told me it was Afghanistan. I feel vindicated. I am an American who got 100%!

(I should note that although my comments in this thread might make it seem the contrary, I actually do feel that most Americans are woefully ignorant about everything except for television and pop music. It's just that I happen to think they're no different than most of the rest of the world in this regard.)
posted by jdroth at 11:43 AM on November 18, 2005


The Taliban started in Afghanistan, went to Pakistan and came back to Afghanistan, the question is correct. Mohammed Omar and his small group started the Taliban after an incident at Sang Hesar, near Kandahar, they later fled to Pakistan where they trained and equiped a force of men.

Al-Qaeda grew out from the Maktab al-Khadamat, a Mujahidin organization in Afghanistan.

While both groups grew strong in, and were aided by, Pakistan they both certainly have they origins in Afghanistan.

The question is correct.
posted by Cosine at 11:53 AM on November 18, 2005


I think Omar and the others were all products of madrassahs in Pakistan.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:00 PM on November 18, 2005


If you can't get 100% on that test - besides the incorrectly scored Taliban question - you should, like, not talk anymore.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:04 PM on November 18, 2005


Yah, I see that Omar wasn't--but I think that Taliban is directly descended from the madrassahs, and the madrassahs orginated in Pakistan.

I'll concede the point but I think it's important to see the origins of the Taliban as being ultimately in Pakistan and not a home-grown Afghani thing.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:05 PM on November 18, 2005


Yeah, I'll certainly agree it's debatable and the question could have been better worded.
posted by Cosine at 12:06 PM on November 18, 2005


Cosine, the question is misleading if you're conversant in Taliban history. To say that it's solely an Afghanistan thing is to forget Omar's recruitment in Pakistan.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:07 PM on November 18, 2005


Oh, well, you guys hashed it out; never mind.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:07 PM on November 18, 2005


I was thinking after the British Stereotypes thread that it's not that Americans are any more ignorant of the rest of the world than anyone else. Most people only know what they need to know about other countries.

I think everywhere else in the world gets so much American culture that it somehow feels rude that America doesn't know about all of our countries, even though they're just doing the same as us.
posted by lunkfish at 12:10 PM on November 18, 2005


lunkfish, people in other countries knew more about the US than Americans too.
posted by Cosine at 12:13 PM on November 18, 2005


AskMetafilter: Your country sucks.
posted by TeamBilly at 1:18 PM on November 18, 2005


Why does Cosine have such a boner for proving American ignorance? We get it.
posted by Falconetti at 1:20 PM on November 18, 2005


Hey Falconetti, watch the news tonight, news from a source outside the US maybe, and see if you can't understand a little frustration with American ignorance.

That is not to say I dislike America, I love it, I really do, like Cohen said "the cradle of the best and of the worst" so much great culture, so many great people, I should have pointed out in my first post that I really do like Americans, there is not shortage of intelligent, level-headed Americans around and I honestly meant no disrespect.
posted by Cosine at 1:26 PM on November 18, 2005


and, as you can see by my various spelling and grammar mistakes, I am also not trying to say I am all-knowing either.
posted by Cosine at 1:28 PM on November 18, 2005


I don't know why I lashed out at you Cosine, since I basically agree with you. I just wanted to say boner.
posted by Falconetti at 1:36 PM on November 18, 2005


Yeah, I thought your comment was pretty funny too actually. lol
posted by Cosine at 1:44 PM on November 18, 2005


I don't belive that americans are any more ignorant than other people in general, but I think the key difference, the thing we're complaining about is, attitude. It's complacency, it's not having a sense that culture is relative.

I distinctly remember when I was about nine or ten visiting France and seeing kids in school uniform on a Saturday. My mother explained to me that they had Thursday afternoon off and went to school on Saturday mornings.

My response? "That's STUPID!"

It's not stupid at all, is it? They do the same number of school hours as me, just at different times. But I was nine. Anything I didn't know about, anything different, was STUPID!

And that seems to be the way a lot of Americans see the world.

Yes, it's easier to understand that there are different people out there who do things different ways in Switzerland than in Indiana, because there are different people just over the mountain.

But the fundamental idea, that there are many different peoples, many different cultures, many different ways of doing things in the world, and yours is just one of many -- Americans for the most part don't seem to have that.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:49 PM on November 18, 2005 [1 favorite]


Well, what I think you're describing is "tolerance" which, in my opinion, is essentially a combination of respect and empathy. And I'm not sure I would agree that Americans are much worse than most. I think everyone is pretty bad, even those who give it lip service.

I truly believe that the heart of the matter is the "Rome" effect. We Americans are notably the way we are because we pretty much believe we're the center of the world, like the Romans and China did/does. If we weren't the "hyperpower", the other factors would still be in play (geographic isolation, etc.) but the willfull ignorance wouldn't be as strong.

Anyway, I think all the different surveys and tests people have mentioned here pretty much solidly demonstrate that Americans are notably ignorant about foreign affairs of all kinds, especially compared to Europeans. And I'd be willing to bet money that there's a vast difference between public school curriculums with respect to this subject between American schools and European schools, et al.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:28 PM on November 18, 2005


all the different surveys and tests people have mentioned here --

Actually, I think we're all referring to only two surveys (one in 1988, one in 2002), both done on behalf of National Geographic.
posted by russilwvong at 3:49 PM on November 18, 2005


(With due respect to Will Ferguson)1 I think it’s dangerous to confuse being less ignorant than Americans with not being ignorant at all. Yes, Americans are ignorant but so are a great percentage of any country - While America undoubtedly needs to do a lot of work to improve itself, other countries’ bragging rights are also not so great.
1 "Canadians confuse being less hated than Americans with being better liked." - Ferguson
posted by Staggering Jack at 5:34 PM on November 18, 2005


I bet many Canadians know more about the American Bill of Rights than the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
fwiw, I don't think so.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 7:24 PM on November 18, 2005


"Canadians and those of other races"?

I like that phrasing.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:08 PM on November 18, 2005


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