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Stupid, ignorant Americans? - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Stupid, ignorant Americans?
A rant of my own. I meant to do it yesterday and forgot (oddly, I got sidetracked doing math at work).

Yesterday at lunch, I was listening to an immigrant hostess and her native-born manager having a conversation about how little Americans know about her home country of Brazil.

Hostess: And of course, we know a great deal about America, but Americans don't know anything about Brazil!

Manager: It's true, it's true. Americans don't know anything about other countries.

Hostess: It's a great country--I like it here--but you really don't know much!

Is this really a realistic picture of the situation? I mean, yes, I'm sure it's true that a Brazilian student knows more about America than an American student knows about Brazil, unless it's a special interest for some reason. Also, I'm sure that a Nepalese student knows more about America than an American student would in general know about Nepal. But would it be equally true that the Brazilian student knows more about Nepal than the American student, or that the Nepalese student would know more about Brazil?

I don't know that it's not true--maybe Nepal and Brazil are great trading partners with vast influence on each other's cultures that I'm not familiar with--but it strikes me as unlikely. America trades frequently with Brazil and, for good or ill, is a heavy cultural influence everywhere, so other countries tend to have more exposure to us, and because of the exposure, they know more. Are we really less likely to be informed about countries which have a big impact on us than other countries are? Or do students in other countries routinely have better social studies education about countries not especially involved with their own?

American students are expected (in most places) to know European history, particularly English history up to the 1700s, plus of course the world wars. Given our difficulties with the Muslim world, students are also expected to study Muslim history (that was a big chunk of our non-Western history curriculum even in 1984). In Asia, we study China and Japan--major trading partners and cultural influences, as well as the origin of many immigrants--and get information on the course of colonialism in the context of studying the Vietnam war. We learned about Gandhi in India, naturally. And reports are regularly required on other countries, often students' ancestral lands, and get a very slapdash run-through of South and Middle American history, as well as colonialism in Africa and some generalized history of the pre-colonial African kingdoms. Australia tends to come with general study of the British Empire.

It's nothing vastly in depth in a lot of cases, and I think more is needed--history should be a major focus in the schools, if not the major focus--but is it really that much worse than students in other countries get about countries that don't have a lot of influence on them? In looking up British history curriculum when I was planning out Shifts, I noticed that Americans get a lot more British history than Brits get American history, as far as school goes! And this is appropriate--the U.S. began as a British colony and would have been happy to continue being one if it hadn't been for some severe disagreements about taxation without representation and so on... disagreements based in understanding of the principles of the English Enlightenment. Not knowing British history up to the 1700s, you may as well also not bother with American history; we had some other influences, but nothing on remotely the same scale. Our return influence is roughly analogous to occasionally buying Mum a new dress (which she may or may not like), in comparison to having been raised, fed, and clothed for many years. The impetus for learning history is to catch up on this story we all get dumped into the middle of--Last week, on World History... and now...--so people will tend to use their limited time on the subject to study the threads of history that have shaped the world they live in. The Norman Conquest was a bigger shaping influence on the U.K. than the American Revolution.

I don't know if I have any great wrap-up point. I think I finally just heard one too many people leveling this accusation (and one too many Americans saying, "Yeah, we really are lazy, stupid, and ignorant, aren't we?"), and I got to thinking, "Really? Is this really the case?" (Probably compounded by having overheard another conversation--like any dialogue-fiend, I'm a compulsive eavesdropper--in which a southern woman was sitting in the middle of a Boston bar loudly complaining about how rude Northerners are. Uh, sweetie--next time I'm traveling through Tennessee, should I give that a try to see how graciously everyone there takes it when their culture and neighbors are gratuitously insulted? Er, tangent.)

I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of Americans who don't learn the history that's taught to them. But are we really asked to learn less about other countries, or just less about some particular countries than those countries are asked to learn about America? I can see where the resentment on the latter comes from (it boils down to us being more influential than influenced), but it's still not a fair accusation.

I feel a bit...: thoughtful thoughtful

63 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: February 4th, 2005 01:02 am (UTC) (Link)
On top of that, a lot of what people who are not Americans "know" about America is from television shows -- which, no matter what they're labelled, bear only a passing resemblence to reality.

I spent most of fifth and sixth grade studying South America, btw...
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 4th, 2005 01:10 am (UTC) (Link)
I spent sixth grade filling in thematic maps of all of the continents, with major imports exports from everywhere. Now that you mention it, I don't even remember what fifth grade was! It could easily have been South America.
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 4th, 2005 01:19 am (UTC) (Link)
It's hard for me to say because I think I like history more than most people and, like you, I'm a librarian. Now, I believe there's no such thing as a dumb question. If you need to ask, you don't know. If you're scared to ask, how will you ever know? Bunt, I've been asked a lot of questions where I had to remind myself that, just because I knew a lot about something, doesn't mean everyone else knows a lot about something (or anything about it, for that matter).

I've also lived in a foriegn country. Most of their TV shows, like ours, were incredibly dumb; and people watched a lot of them. As far as knowledge of other lands goes, I once saw a local student ask a friend of mine if, as an American, he hated black people. OK, quick lesson for those of you who don't know this. Before you ask someone if he hates a particular ethnic group, have some idea what people of that ethnic group look like. It will spare you much embarrassment. Trust me on this.
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 4th, 2005 01:21 am (UTC) (Link)
Sorry, didn't sign the above.

Elli
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titti From: titti Date: February 4th, 2005 01:22 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't think the problem is history as much as geography. In most European, and South America countries, geography and geopolitics (depending on the level of education) is mandatory. However, in the US, there is a lack of understand of the world and of the US itself.

I'll give you an example. French 101 in college, the professor says in French: Paris is the capital of France. What is the capital of the US?

The student turns around and answers NYC is the capital of the US. Statistical studies show that 3 out of 4 people can't name the 50 States. Most of those people can find the states in a map (and I don't mean Idaho, but states like NY, California). The article was in the NY Times a while back, but if I look back to my school days, it's reflective of what was being taught.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 4th, 2005 01:27 am (UTC) (Link)
Idaho's easy, though I don't think I'd be able to distinguish Nebraska from Kansas by shape alone! I think the question, though, is could a Parisian do better with similarly shaped provinces of France, or an Indian with the states in India? We do have to learn the 50 states--for heaven's sake, the blank maps for tests still feature in school nightmares--along with rivers and lakes and all kinds of other things; the question of whether it survives until college is something else altogether.

Any American student who lists anything other than D.C. as the capital, though, needs a severe headknock. How in the world would you do that? Even primetime TV knows better.
riah_chan From: riah_chan Date: February 4th, 2005 01:57 am (UTC) (Link)
I sometimes feel like we get a bad double standard... we are expected to be as interested in other countries as they are in us. When we don't measure up, some people take offence.

I also think of it as a size issue... most people are interested in things that are close to them... like I know a fair amount about Nevada, Utah, and Northern Arizona. That is only part of the U.S. but it is a larger area than many counties.
leelastarsky From: leelastarsky Date: February 4th, 2005 02:00 am (UTC) (Link)
I really don't want to upset you Americans but, speaking very broadly, I would agree with them. From my experience, the Global view of Americans is that they seem arrogantly insular and ignorant of the rest of the world. Look how long it took for the recent Tsunami catastrophe to be recognised in your news services, let alone by your govt.

And, to bring it right down to a fannish level - they changed the language in the HP books for the American market! Not just the spelling, the language! If that doesn't tell you something...

That said, the 'generalised dumbass American' is not likely to be found here (in this particular thread, or probably even LJ), because they're not generally readers. By that I don't mean they're illiterate, but suggest that fanboys/girls are less ignorant than a large percentage of the populace, for the simple reason that they like to read, question, research and learn.

My personal experience of Americans abroad has not been good either. Before I travelled I thought Americans were the 'best thing since sliced bread', and spent my teen yrs desperately wishing I could live in the US. After a holiday in the UK, surrounded by rude, arrogant American tourists, I did not feel kindly or respectful at all. (in fact, after a short time, the tour group I was with - which consisted of mostly Aussies and Kiwis - proceeded to go out of their way to offend said busloads of Yanks. Childish, but very amusing at the time. ;~P )

I like to think I am intelligent enough not to tar all Americans with the same brush (and dearly love a lot of you!), but my 13yo summed it up recently when he observed the day after the tsunami- '5000 people died when the WTC happened and the world stopped. 50,000 are dead from this and the Yanks are talking about their xmas sales??'


rabbitandjinx From: rabbitandjinx Date: February 4th, 2005 02:28 am (UTC) (Link)
Part of it is geography, of course. Americans (and especially American television!) can be incredibly insular. But the country is so huge that looking at us is like being one of the blind men with the elephant. The newspapers I read (I don't watch tv news if I can help it) were full of page after page of the tsunami, and it was the top story on the websites of the local tv stations. Yes, the Christmas sales got mentioned -- on page twenty four -- because so many jobs have gone overseas consumer sales are one of the important economic indicators here. But that doesn't mean the tsunami got ignored.

As for Harry Potter and language *sigh* that has been going on in both directions for a very very long time, for both adult and children's materials. (As in I have murder mysteries from the 1930s which the UK and US editions don't quite match.) It annoys me too. But it doesn't always happen, and yes, American kids can be thrown by the British terms and vice versa. One of the good things about Harry Potter is that the attitude has been questioned.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 4th, 2005 04:54 am (UTC) (Link)
The question isn't whether or not Americans are bad about other countries--that's a given--but whether or not other countries are especially better in a fair comparison. Do people in other countries know more about countries that don't have a big impact on them than we do?
missfahrenheit From: missfahrenheit Date: February 4th, 2005 02:29 am (UTC) (Link)
I noticed that Americans get a lot more British history than Brits get American history, as far as school goes!

I didn't get to cover any American history at all until GCSE level, and then it was limited to the 1920s, the depression and War In General. As for British history I remember studying Vikings, Romans, Saxons, Normans and anyone else who invaded for a bit, Middle Ages and pesants revolts wheer we dressed up like commoners and walked around the Tower of London for a day, Victorians, more of the Victorians, Elizabethans, even more of the Victorians, the World Wars, and then just local history (I come from one of the older settlements in Kent- we have a castle, a cathedral and a dockyard that built the HMS Victory). Maybe we've just had more years to have history in.

When I went to America on a school trip we were taken on a tour and shown a few builings that we were told were extremely old- they were from the Victorian era, and given that our school was older than that I can't say anyone was really very impressed.
On the other hand though, I was flitting around London today with two of my flatmates, and in Trafalgar Square one of them looked up and asked who the man on top of the pole was. While I may remember studying a lot of British history, it's clearly not true for everyone else :)
beaustylo From: beaustylo Date: February 4th, 2005 03:42 am (UTC) (Link)
To be perfectly honest, I have never learned anything in public school about South America other than some brief history of the Incas. My history education in public school focused on ancient history, particularly the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans, with only about a week on ancient Asian cultures. This was followed by a brief history of the middle ages and the renaissance, and ended with the French Revolution. Interestingly, I actually know more about the French Revolution than many French people I've met. On the other hand, almost all history I was ever taught about England was linked in some way to U.S. History and how we became what we are today.

Furthermore, history education in the U.S. in general seems to be centered primarily on American history. I wouldn't say that it is because we are self-centered or anything of that nature but rather that it is a tradition we have continued since our nation was born over 200 years ago. When we broke ties with our European origins, we also decided to focus not on that past (which many immigrants would have rather forgotten) but on our new future as a nation. Also, there is so much about America that is very unique to what the rest of the world knows. In Europe, when you say something is old you might think thousands of years and in America it would be perhaps a century. And while others have mentioned that we have to study 50 states, I don't know that any other country could quite understand what that really means. It's not like studying regions or provinces, it's like studying countries. Each state in the U.S. is very unique with its own history, dialects, government, laws, taxes, industries, personalities, etc. Not to mention that most states are as large or larger than many countries. And most Americans think of themselves as New Yorkers, Michiganders, Californians, Texans, etc. before they think of themselves as Americans.

All of this being said, I do feel bad that we don't know more about other countries and current events. And I do feel that our media is biased and does not show world events adequately enough (a situation that the majority of Americans are unhappy with). I started going to the BBC for my news but found that even their news was filled primarily with U.S. stories or stories about the royal family rather than world events.

As to some of the arguments that have been mentioned, I remember seeing news broadcasts all day for weeks on end immediately following the tsunami (as in the day and the hour that it occurred). I do fear though that September 11th might have toughened Americans in general to disasters. September 11th was so horrifying to us for so many reasons and we're told by our government practically every other day that terrorists are going to find some way to kill us all (poisoning our water systems or the air we breathe are common threats) that it's hard for us to be shocked by anything anymore - we're becoming numb to it which could be a very dangerous thing. But that doesn't mean we don't care, even if our government was slower to respond than other nations, the American people were not. My own company has raised over $300,000 from the employees alone and many millions were raised in my community just a couple of days after the event.

As to the Olympics, don't you want to see events where you can root on your countrymen? And events you're familiar with? I, for one, can sympathize with the Olympics not showing the events you're interested in because my sister is one of the best fencers in the U.S. and they never show fencing in the U.S. because it's not a popular sport here and few Americans are ever exposed to it. But I don't blame the networks or America, they have to serve the majority of their viewers.
sophonax From: sophonax Date: February 4th, 2005 04:01 am (UTC) (Link)
and one too many Americans saying, "Yeah, we really are lazy, stupid, and ignorant, aren't we?"

I. Hate. This. More than just about anything. I don't like it when people of other nationalities bash Americans, but usually I can forgive it because they're often generalizing based on faulty or incomplete information. But when Americans themselves are so eager to say that British English is "realer" and more valid than that ugly bastard American English, that American manners are boorish compared to the European, that the American media are biased and propandistic while the European media are enlightened and perfect (by the way, I fully believe that the American media are biased and propagandistic; I just don't think the Europeans are any better), I have no choice to conclude that most of these people are just so pathetically anxious to be loved by everyone that they'll cheerfully capitulate to any form of abuse dished out, just to prove they're not like those "ugly Americans" that everyone seems to hate, never questioning that maybe the reasons people hate Americans aren't necessarily good ones. It makes me sick, really.

Re: Americans' knowledge of other countries, I agree with your assessment of American history education, but add the caveat that that's how the system is *supposed* tc work: that doesn't mean it does. Sadly, lots of people seem to be built to resist any education they're given as much as if they were wearing bullet-proof vests. I also agree with other commenters re: the woeful state of American geography education. I don't know who decided that this subject wasn't important, but I'd like to smack him with a dead fish.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: February 4th, 2005 04:45 am (UTC) (Link)
I have a couple of (American) friends who do this (and more - Canadian flags on the luggage and so forth) and it drives me bats. I think it's part of the reason I tend to get overdefensive when I hear the "Americans don't know nothing from nothing" meme; compensation, you could call it :). The reasons they usually give for the self-hating approach are "Oh, we have such a horrible history, we've oppressed XYZ groups, fought these illegal wars, racial discrimination, etc etc," and while the facts they're stating are true, they seem to forget that we're not exactly the only offenders. Personally I dislike the whole "collective guilt" thing, but I find it especially weird to have a friend putting a Canadian flag on his luggage because he feels ashamed of slavery and racial discrimination when he's going to travel in...Germany. Again, I hate collective guilt no matter who's being slammed, but it seems odd to apply it for one but not the other.
ide_cyan From: ide_cyan Date: February 4th, 2005 05:03 am (UTC) (Link)
It's a matter of empire. Economic, political, cultural, military, and so on, and so forth. The populations of dominant countries simply don't need, as a whole (though their leaders do, or their puppeteers and agents do, anyways), to learn about the countries under their empire, whereas dominated populations must, as a matter of survival, have a certain degree of knowledge about those who have power over them, and are inevitably affected by the prestige and radiating self-importance of those empires.

While it does feel insulting for a citizen of an empire, such as the USA, to be called lazy and ignorant by a citizen of one of the countries the USA exploits, and may not reflect accurately at all on the character of the person individually, it is because of the exploited labour of those "colonies" that the citizens of the USA have a higher standard of living. It is because the lives of the citizens of the empire are easy that the lives of people in third-world countries are hard, just as it is because the lives of the higher classes are easy that those of the lower classes are hard.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 4th, 2005 05:36 am (UTC) (Link)
Still not the point, nor one that is generally disputed. The question asked is, do the citizens of these countries have a higher level of knowledge not about the U.S., but about countries which have the same level of influence on them as they have on the U.S.?
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 4th, 2005 08:13 am (UTC) (Link)

At the most basic level...

I think, unfortunately, most students in other countries DO have more knowledge of the countries which have no effect on them than do most Americans... and it starts at the most basic level.

If you give some average American students and some average, say, French or Indian students (assuming a comparable relative quality/facility of education, i.e. NOT comparing Exeter kids to Marseilles immigrant dockworkers' kids struggling with a non-native tounge) a map of the world and ask them to find, let's say, Tanzania (a country which never had a specific colonial tie to the sample countries, and thus an equally non-influential state), the Americans would come out very far behind. Never mind talking about Zanzibar or the spice trade!

I say this based on my experience in a perfectly good Midwestern high school and on (non-America-bashing) conversations with graduates of Asian and European high schools who had some occasion to attend (good) public high schools in the US. It is anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but it certainly doesn't contradict any of the studies that repeatedly show the US educational system lagging behind most other industrial nations not only in math and science, but in history and geography. Furthermore, for my job, I travel frequently to interview people all around the country. I wish I could say that the woman who proudy declared her support of our decision "to invade Argentina" post- 9/11 was an exception to the norm in her grasp of global geo-politics (and yes, she'd been to college). And no, she wasn't just misspeaking.

It should not be considered America-bashing to take a stern look at what we are and are not learning as a culture; we may collectively declare inconsequential the areas of knowledge in which our high school graduates, on average, lag behind their peers, but there will certainly be dissenting views.

Thank you for your writing, by the way. You do a wonderful job.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 4th, 2005 08:25 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: At the most basic level...

I find it very unlikely that this is the norm. There are certainly gaps, but no--mistaking Argentina for Iraq is not something you're going to find in ten random Americans on the street. Now, art history--that, we've got a serious problem with. Music history.

And I'm not sure I could spot Tanzania on an unmarked map now, because I've been out of school for awhile, but I know I was required to know it in school, and I went to a bad school (well, at least by New York standards) in an isolationist small town, so I would also consider it highly unlikely that I got a superior education than the majority of the country. Heck, my mom thought our geography was so bad that she felt a need to supplement it with a "globe game," in which I spun the globe with my finger on it and had to find out information about whatever place my finger was when it stopped. But that was above and beyond the obvious point of having to know the countries of each continent.
neotoma From: neotoma Date: February 4th, 2005 04:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Americans certainly are ill-served when it comes to keeping up to date on international news. Europe gets fair coverage, and Asia as it effects the global economy, but otherwise coverage is scatter-shot at best.

For example, CNN has two different broadcasts every day -- one for domestic consumption and one for international. The filter is inherent in the system.

The history/social studies curriculum (in public schools at least) is heavily weighted towards European history. That's not too surprising, since we're closer culturally to Europe than to Asia or Africa; it does mean that those areas do get less attention than they deserve, though.
maple_clef From: maple_clef Date: February 4th, 2005 05:08 pm (UTC) (Link)

Very thought-provoking

This is an extremely interesting point; I'm afraid I too am normally guilty of thinking of the US as slightly oblivious to the niceties of global relations! But, as you say, the issue here isn't whether Americans are 'ignorant' (and in any case, that sort of generalisation I always find rather dangerous) or not, but rather the relative awareness, as kind of a cross-cultural see-saw...

And I find I'm not sure, since you put it like that. It's almost a macrocosm of high school; the US is the popular kid - everyone knows who they are and what they get up to. But in real terms, no-one 'knows' them any better than the shy retiring types. I think in truth it's really a matter of individual perspective.
affabletoaster From: affabletoaster Date: February 4th, 2005 06:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Speaking as a Canadian, I am afraid for once I disagree with you. I think American education (or at least that of Iowa, which I experienced from 4th grade on) is sadly lacking in the social studies area in terms of other countries. We'd spend a week on another country, perhaps, but never did we study my own home, Canada. When I moved here many people--including my fourth grade teacher--asked me all sorts of crazy questions about the Frozen North: "Do you live in igloos?" "Do you worship the queen?" "Did you have running water?" "Do you speak Eskimo?" (No, no, yes, and, um, French?)

We learned about the American Civil War (which was called THE Civil War, because there would, of course, never be any civil war elsewhere) every year until 9th grade. In sixth grade we squeezed in the first and the second world wars, Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and (surprisingly) a little about Moses and the Old Testament. Seventh grade was the geography of Australia, South America, and Asia, but nothing about culture. Eighth grade was U.S. Governing practices and the 2000 election. Ninth was the World Wars again. Tenth was geography again. Eleventh was Humanities (mostly focusing on the ancient civilizations) and Grade Twelve is U.S. Gov't. There's a distinct lack in current events and culture of countries which are at all similar to the United States. Never once did we look at the way the way most of the countries in the developed world functioned today. Ask any student in my class what a parliament is, and they'll give you a blank look, unless they happen to be owl enthusiasts. House of Lords? ("A temple?") Prime Minister? ("Kind of like a king, right?")

And even if the history of these countries is taught, that doesn't tell much about how they are today. Mostly what I get when I point out how little one of my friends knows about Canada is that my country isn't as powerful and therefore not as important. Why would we need to know about our next door neighbor? Or England, our mother land? Everyone over there talks funny anyway.

I know that there are those who are better educated and know more than that, but a vast majority really do fall into that sterotype. People are usually thrilled to find out I'm Canadian in Iowa, because they fancy it's like being from another planet. Not really. We just have better candy. ;)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 4th, 2005 08:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I lived on the Canadian border as a small child and again as a young adult (walking distance), so I can't really identify with that much. It's true that we didn't study Canada much (aside from the failed invasion in the war of 1812), but we certainly had heavy history of England and quite a lot on both world wars. And I went to a bad school--when I got to college, my classmates were much better prepared, to a point where I was often embarrassed at how little I knew. And one was Iowan. ;)

But the question I'm really wondering about is, does a Canadian necessarily know more about the imports and exports of Brazil than I do? Having flitted back and forth across that particular border quite a lot (both Buffalo/Ft. Erie and Niagara Falls/Niagara Falls), I can't say that I noted a vast difference in attitude. I never got into a question about Brazilian exports, though, so maybe it's a major point of education?

On the Civil War, I think it's just that if you're in an American history class, that's the only thing it's likely to be, and it doesn't have any other special label (unless you're in the South, where it might be "The War of Northern Aggression").

I think that history classes are always--and should always--be basically, "How did we get here?" After all, as Tolkien put it, we love first what we are suited to love, and history is what teaches us to love. That's going to mean that they'll depend greatly on where "here" is.
bethan_b_bad From: bethan_b_bad Date: February 4th, 2005 07:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that it varies; inquisitive kids with an interest in the world are always going to know more than less-interested kids, so it's hard to say how much the population of any country knows about another. Generally, though, I think the US is much more insular than other countries, including Britain. For instance, I have yet to meet an American who knows for certain that there are/were any non-American soldiers in Iraq; most of my British classmates (I'm sixteen) could tell you that as well as British soldiers, there are small amounts of Spanish and Japanese soldiers there- or at any rate there were Spanish soldiers there until they had an election and voted in a Government who didn't support the war. Having said that, there are still stupid British people who don't have a clue about other cultures.
In History, we're taught America 1910-1929, British WWII Home Front, America's Racial Problems (Civil War-1990 Outline Study) and Germany between the wars; other schools teach Russia under the Communists, the Cold War, America in WWII, The Decline of the British Empire and other international topics.
On holiday in America last year, no Americans had heard of my country (Wales) and I was followed round by a fourteen-year-old girl from Michigan who kept asking 'do you have TVs in Britain?', 'do you have DVDs in Britain?'. Also, I noticed that during the Olympics the TV news didn't mention any medal-winner (or even many of the competitions) that didn't have American involvement, whereas we got the lot, as far as I could tell.

Anyway, I always enjoy your rants; may I friend you?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 4th, 2005 07:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sure, you can. I like friends.

When it comes to little kids, I think they have only a vague idea about the war at all. But since questions about Spain's withdrawal from the war after the election were the subject of steaming-at-the-ears editorials (I recall one wondering if the Spanish had forgotten that one of the things America was being punished for was the Reconquista of Andalusia), I doubt many adults don't know.

I think Wales is in an odd position--we have large numbers of Irish-Americans, so we have a grasp on Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Scots were also a pretty big immigrant group, plus, hey, men in kilts with bagpipes... hard to forget. And of course, England is England. But we've had much less kind of cultural feedback from Wales. So we learn about it in school--that's part of general geography--but it ends up being crowded out by other images and people don't make an immediate connection.

On the Olympics, they've tried a few times to broadcast the full spectrum--running it on different stations, running it more or less all day, etc. There was an attempt at something called a "triple-cast" and so on. But people are mostly interested in a handful of sports. They are also the ones that Americans tend to medal in, but I think that Americans tend to medal in them because they're interested in those sports and put energy into them. Although we did get quite a bit of weightlifting coverage (I'm a compulsive Olympics-watcher, and even though I have no clue whatsoever about weightlifting, I watched it, entranced), and that seemed to be largely between Greece and Russia. And like I said, we watched figure skating and gymnastics when our teams were still junky (aka, before the Communist-bloc coaches started defecting and taking over our training programs). We were obsessed with Nadia.
jesspallas From: jesspallas Date: February 4th, 2005 11:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
By sheer coincidence, just after reading this thread, I picked up Bill Bryson's "Notes From A Big Country" flicked to the chapter I left off on and found him expounding on this very subject, so I thought I'd share the relevant quotes. For those who haven't read it, this book is a series of articles written by an American Travel writer for a British newspaper on returning to America after living in England for twenty years. This isn't my opinion, it's his (my opinion is, alas, I haven't the foggiest and wouldn't care to judge on something so delicate when I have so few facts from both sides at my disposal which is why I haven't weighed in on my own behalf) but these quotes seemed appropriate to the debate. I hope you find it interesting:

A few years ago an organisation called the National Endowment for the Humanities tested 8000 American high school seniors and found a very large number of them didn't know, well, anything.
Two-thirds had no idea when the US Civil War took place or which president penned the Gettysburg Address. Roughly the same proportion could not identify Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill or Charles De Gaulle. A third thought that Franklin Roosevelt was president during the Vietnam War and that Columbus sailed to Amercia after 1750. 42% -this is my favourite - couldn't name a single country in Asia....
Now don't get me wrong. I don't for a moment think that Americans are inherently more stupid or brain-dead than anyone else. It's just that they are routinely provided with conditions that spare them the need to think, and so they have got out of the habit.
Partly you can attribute it to what I call the "London, England" syndrome, after the American newspaper practice of specifying the country as well as the city in its datelines... American life is full of these little crutches, sometimes to a quite astonishing degree...
The idea is to spare the audience having to think. At all. Ever. I was recently asked by an American publisher to remove a reference to David Niven "because he's dead and we don't think he'll be familiar to some of our younger readers."
Oh, but of course.


That's the gist of the article/chapter. Again, this is Bill Bryson's opinion not mine! The dots indicate where I had to cut out the lengthy examples that I haven't time to type out. :)

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 4th, 2005 11:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
I read these things all the time, and they are part of what has me so pissed off--they're so out of tune with the country I know and love that I can't help but wonder about the statistics-gathering habits.

Further, while I don't argue that our educational system is perfect (far from it; it annoys me greatly), at issue is the whole "lazy, stupid, ignorant American" stereotype, as though we are somehow more lazy, stupid, and ignorant than any other group of human beings who ever lived. I don't buy for an instant that people in other countries randomly tested on things of roughly the same influence them would magically do better. People are people; they all forget what they learn in school if it's not something they're exposed to all the time. If there's some study that shows much better results about what students in Brazil (sorry to pick on Brazil; this just started with a Brazilian hostess) know more about, I don't know, Mongolia, than American students know about Brazil, it might mean something. But without a control group, it means nothing at all, except that, yes, obviously, we need to improve education, because the comparative question isn't relevant--there's an absolute value to improving education. Where I get annoyed is at the thought that somehow we're worse than everyone else about this, and I just don't buy it.
sabrinanymph From: sabrinanymph Date: February 5th, 2005 02:14 am (UTC) (Link)
This strikes me as very similar to another post that I had from someone on my friend's list that was from Poland but is currently in the United States. She'd had a run in with someone who had basically complained about people in the United States not knowing the capitals of European countries or even where they are, but she then pointed out how many Europeans would be able to give the names of the fifty states plus capitals? Much of it is a matter of geography and what is important to the country who is doing the teaching.

Much also depends upon the school people go to and the interest of the teachers in geography and other cultures. I have not studied every culture in depth, countries in Africa being probably my weakest point, but I've studied a number of them. I've read books, I've looked at festivals, and I could put most of the European countries in their proper place in the world map. I can also name you all fifty states and their capitals which is something not even every AMERICAN person can do!

I think there are lazy Americans. People who don't know what the capital of their own country is much less anything about Brazil, Canada, Yukoslavia, etc. But I don't think laziness is confined to the United States and I get very frustrated when people try to imply that it is.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 5th, 2005 05:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Thank you. That was pretty much the sum of the rant.
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