If I didn't know Sid Caesar was one of the Kings of Comedy
I too would have thought he was a Roman Emporer
Or at least invented the Caesar salad in Tijuana.
We're a proud people, proud of our ignorance
Sunday, March 5, 2006
According to a survey published last week, Americans don't know squat about the First Amendment, but they are adept at naming members of the Simpson family of cartoon characters. They know all the judges on American Idol, but they can't name the rights guaranteed to them in the Constitution.
This is the nation that is actively exporting democracy around the world, and democracy runs on the idea of an informed electorate. As it turns out, we have an informed electorate; it's just that the things those voters tend to be informed about don't appear on ballots.
We've misplaced our attention span somewhere, along with our history, our literature and our understanding of where we are in the world, geographically speaking. To our credit, though, most of us can name that girl who disappeared in Aruba, though we're foggy on just where Aruba might be. Ditto Iraq.
We will, however, fight for our rights anywhere in the world, including places we can't find on a map, even though we are not at all sure what those rights are.
In that recent survey, for instance, 1 in 5 Americans believed that the Bill of Rights protects our right to own pets. That's a right worth importing to nations far from our shores, even if it's not a right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. In fact, rumors are circulating about plans for American intervention in Iceland, a nation believed to be actively hostile to pet ownership.
The survey did not cover some of the other beliefs held by Americans. For instance, 1 in 6 Americans believes that the Constitution guarantees the right to have a Wal-Mart within 20 miles of every inhabited dwelling. And 1 in 2 Americans believes that the Constitution requires that we must remove our shoes before being allowed to board an aircraft, a ritual derived from the world of magic. And a majority of Americans believes that the Founding Fathers mandated that basic cable had to include the Larry King show. Half of the population under 30 believes that gravity is just another scientific "theory," like evolution.
But seriously, folks, there's nothing new about American ignorance, which may be why the news media hasn't made much of this story.
Twenty years ago, I surveyed my college classes in Washington State and was surprised to learn all the things they knew that weren't so. I had students who thought Heinrich Himmler dreamed up the Heimlich maneuver, and others who thought J. Edgar Hoover invented the vacuum cleaner. Camp David was in Israel, according to some, and a majority of others could not correctly identify the century in which the American Civil War took place. One student thought Sid Caesar was a Roman emperor and, inexplicably, a student who was always proclaiming his status as a born-again Christian thought Christ had been born in the 17th century. When I suggested that he, of all people, should have known the answer to that question, he replied: "It's not important that I know when Christ was born, only that he is my savior."
Some readers may remember the "cultural literacy" fad of the 1980s, an attempt to reform education that went pretty much nowhere. The idea was that there should be some base of common knowledge bestowed upon all students, and the arguments began about just what that base of common knowledge should be. For almost a decade, academics fussed about this question in their journals, at their conferences and in their committee meetings, and then, when they couldn't agree, they just sort of said "the hell with it."
So, as the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. A survey taken by the National Geographic Society in 2002 revealed that 30 percent of young Americans thought the United States had a population of 1 billion people or more. Fewer than half could pick out France, the United Kingdom or Japan on a blank map of the world. And young Americans were the least likely of students tested throughout the Western world to know that al Qaeda and the Taliban were linked to Afghanistan, not Iraq. Lots of our military people still believe that, according to a recent news report.
Abraham Lincoln, a president of some country or another at some indeterminate time in the fog-enshrouded past, once said, "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time." Let's hope Honest Abe was right about that, but it surely gets easier to fool more of the people more of the time when they are as ignorant as Homer Simpson, the cartoon character who is more recognizable to most of us than our most-sacred rights as citizens.
Jaime O'Neill, a retired college teacher, is a writer in Magalia (Butte County). Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org