The Programme for International Student Assessment just released the results of its 2018 survey of 79 countries. Six-hundred thousand 15- and 16-year-olds were assessed on internationally agreed upon criteria in math, science and reading. The U.S.’ results in this highly regarded global survey range from simply interesting to utterly alarming.
China emerged as the top performer in all categories. That’s interesting and, as near as I can tell, a well-deserved result. The U.S. ranked 37th in math; 18th in science; and 13th in reading. That’s alarming, yet went largely unnoticed. Perhaps that’s because it’s unremarkable relative to past performance.
It’s worth remembering that these are not just fun statistics. These are our children, and in our increasingly interconnected and globally competitive world, their future is beginning to look a little iffy.
We’ve come a long way since Thomas Jefferson asserted: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
In 2018, at a get-out-the-vote rally in Las Vegas, Michelle Obama told her audience that actual knowledge is overrated as a prerequisite to good citizenship. After all, all you need in order to vote is to “be a citizen,” “have opinions” and want “a say in what happens in this country.” Biographically she offered that “I’ve been voting since I was 18 years old — and trust me — I didn’t know nothing about nothing at 18 years old.” Yes indeed, all you need today is to “have opinions.”
On the other side of the aisle, Donald Trump is a living, tweeting example of the transformative power of a rigorous education. “I went to the best colleges for college” the 45th president of the United States offered, because “I have a very good brain.” As a result, “I know words ... I’ve got the best words.” And he’s not alone, because as a country, “We got more money. We got more brains. We got better houses, apartments. We got nicer boats.” Somewhere in the churchyard of St. Martin’s, Winston Churchill is spinning.
Of course none of this started with Obama or Trump. The rot was already well-established before those two decided to make a mockery of the idea of an informed citizenry. As early as 1980, Isaac Asimov observed that “there is a cult of ignorance in the United States … winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
In my nearly 30 years as a professor or dean, I’ve seen this slide into the abyss accelerate. Sooner or later, we will reach the point at which the general population’s regard for simple, unbiased knowledge and for clear and critical thinking will no longer be recoverable. The primacy of each individual’s “truth” will obviate any need for objective truth, feelings will guide that ”truth,” and it will be celebrated as once we celebrated academic and practical achievement. History is replete with examples of what happens when basic respect for knowledge and perspective evaporates and fabulosity reigns. In the U.S., it’s getting late early.
A 2019 poll by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center revealed that only 39% of Americans can name the three branches of government. As of the center’s 2017 survey, 37% could not name any right guaranteed by the First Amendment. In 2018, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reported that only 1 in 3 Americans would pass the U.S. citizenship test.
A 2018 survey conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany revealed that nearly one-third of all Americans and more than 4 in 10 millennials do not know which war the Holocaust was associated with. Fortunately, according to a 2019 American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) survey of civic knowledge, while 37% of college graduates think Benjamin Franklin invented the light bulb, fully 96% know that Lady Gaga is a musical performer. Why should we expect anything different? ACTA’s 2019-20 “What Will They Learn?” report showed that only 18% of colleges and universities include an American history or civics course in their general education requirements.
It seems more than likely that if we continue down this path, we are at risk of becoming entirely ignorant of important lessons so painfully taught by previous generations. Uncritical, socially alienated and susceptible to the demagoguery of charismatic leaders, as a collective we risk becoming incapable of informed, concerted resistance to very bad ideas. That will not lead anywhere you’d like to live.
As James Madison wrote, “A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both.” Fortunately, at least for now, we still have the nicest boats. Tragedy to follow.