A Nation of Dunces?

Has it really gotten this bad? Apparently so, laments Susan Jacoby in her opinion piece in The Washington Post this past Sunday, “The Dumbing Of America: Call Me a Snob, but Really, We’re a Nation of Dunces.”

She argues the U.S. has become anti-intellectual, using evidence such as decreased reading amongst the young and “the erosion of general knowledge” including geography. She retells the story of FDR urging Americans to look at maps of the Pacific to better understand the challenges of WWII. The result was maps selling out around the country. Contrast that one finding of a 2006 National Geographic-Roper survey. Almost half of Americans 18-24 years old “did not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made; a third consider it” not at all important to know a foreign language.”

The discussion continues, stressing Americans do not think it matters that we don’t know things, what she calls “anti-rationalism.” What she writes rings true in geography. People say they love maps, but they know little about geography. Recently I saw an adult unable to point to Europe on a world map. That person was not arrogant about it, rather was embarrassed. However, the lack of knowledge, with or without the arrogance, is a danger to our society. Jacoby challenges the presidential candidates to make it an election issue, and it should be. It should also be a concern of people in business who will have to deal with these dunces as they enter the work force.

It is high irony that in the information age, we have grave concerns about knowledge.

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