Morris Berman on a dumbed-down America

In light of the 2014 midterm elections, I am sharing a passage from Morris Berman’s book from a few years ago, The Twilight of American Culture. Berman has generously agreed to let me share this passage, which is about the deplorable state of ignorance of the American people. The facts and data in this passage are a bit old, but all signs suggest that things have gotten worse since then, not better.

The Twilight of American Culture, pp. 33-40.

Turning to Item (c),The collapse of American intelligence, we find a picture that is unambiguously bleak. The following data are going to seem invented; please be assured, they are not.

– Forty-two percent of American adults cannot locate Japan on a world map, and according to Garrison Keillor (National Public Radio, 22 March 1997,) another survey revealed that nearly 15 percent couldn’t locate the United States (!). Keillor remarked that this was like not being able to “grab your rear end with both hands,” and he suggested that we stop being so assiduous, on the eve of elections, about trying to get out the vote.

– A survey taken in October 1996 revealed that one in ten voters did not know who the Republican or Democratic nominees for president were. This is particularly sobering when one remembers that one of the questions traditionally asked in psychiatric wards as part of the test for sanity is “Who is the president of the United States?”

– Very few Americans understand the degree to which corporations have taken over their lives. But according to a poll taken by Time magazine, nearly 70 percent of them believe in the existence of angels; and another study turned up the fact that 50 percent believe in the presence of UFOs and space aliens on earth, while a Gallup poll (reported on CNN, 19 August 1997) revealed that 71 percent believe that the U.S. government is engaged in a cover-up about the subject. More than 30 percent believe they have made contact with the dead.

– A 1995 article in the New York Times reported the results of a survey that revealed that 40 percent of American adults (this could be upward of 70 million people) did not know that Germany was our enemy in World War II. A Roper survey conducted in 1996 revealed that 84 percent of American college seniors cannot understand a newspaper editorial in any newspaper, and a U.S. Department of Education survey of 22,000 students in 1995 revealed that 50 percent were unaware of the Cold War, and that 60 percent had no idea of how the United States came into existence.

– At one point in 1996, Jay Leno invited a number of high school students to be on his television program and asked them to complete famous quotations from major American documents, such as the Gettysburg address and the Declaration of Independence. Their response in each case was to stare at him blankly. As a kind of follow-up, on his show of 3 June 1999, Leno screened a video of interviews he had conducted a few days before at a university graduation ceremony. He did not identify the institution in question; he told his TV audience only that the students he had interviewed included graduate students as well as undergraduates. The group included men, women, and people of color. Leno posed eight questions, as follows:

1. Who designed the first American flag?
Answers included Susan B. Anthony (born in 1820,) and “Betsy Ford.”

2. What were the Thirteen Colonies free from, after the American Revolution?
One student said, “The East Coast.”

3. What was the Gettysburg Address?
One student replied, “An address to Getty;” another said, “I don’t know the exact address.”

4. Who invented the lightbulb?
Answers included Thomas Jefferson.

5. What is three squared?
One student said, “Twenty-seven;” another said, “Six.”

6. What is the boiling point of water?
Answers included 115 degrees ?.

7. How long does it take the earth to rotate once on its axis?
The two answers Leno received here were “Light years” (which is a measure of distance, not time,) and “Twenty-four axises [sic].”

8. How many moons does the earth have?
The student questioned said she had taken astronomy a few years back and had gotten an A in the course but that she couldn’t remember the correct answer.

It is important to note that not a single student interviewed had the correct answer to any of these questions. Leno’s comment on this pathetic debacle says it all: “And the Chinese are stealing secrets from us?”

– A 1998 survey by the National Constitution Center revealed that only 41 percent of American teenagers can name the three branches of government, but 59 percent can name the Three Stooges. Only 2 percent can name the chief justice of the Supreme Court; 26 percent were unable to identify the vice president. In the early 1990s, the National Assessment of Education Progress reported that 50 percent of seventeen year olds could not express 9/100 as a percentage, and nearly 50 percent couldn’t place the Civil War in the correct half century–data that the San Antonio Express News characterized as evidence of the “steady lobotomizing” of American culture. In another study of seventeen year olds, only 4 percent could read a bus schedule, and only 12% could arrange six common fractions in order of size.

– Ignorance of the most elementary scientific facts on the part of American adults is nothing less than breathtaking. In a survey conducted for the National Science Foundation in October 1995, 56 percent of those polled said that electrons were larger than atoms; 63 percent stated that the earliest human beings lived at the same time as the dinosaurs (a chronological error of more than 60 million years;) 53 percent said that the earth revolved around the sun in either a day or a month (that is to say, only 47 percent understood that the correct answer is one year;) and 91 percent were unable to state what a molecule was. A random telephone survey of more than two thousand adults, conducted by Northern Illinois University, revealed that 21 percent believed that the sun revolved around the earth, with an additional 7 percent saying that they did not know which revolved around which.

– Of the 158 countries in the United Nations, the United States ranks forty-ninth in literacy. Roughly 60 percent of the adult population reads as much as one book a year, where book is defined to include Harlequin romances and self-help manuals. Something like 120 million adults are illiterate or read at no better than a fifth-grade level. Among readers age twenty-one to thirty-five, 67 percent regularly read a daily newspaper in 1965, as compared with 31 percent in 1998.

– In a telephone survey conducted in 1998, 12 percent of Americans, asked who the wife of the biblical Noah was, said “Joan of Arc” (reported on National Public Radio, 13 June 1998.)

– In 1997, as a hoax, the attorney general of the state of Missouri submitted a proposal to an international academic accrediting agency (not identified) to establish an institution he named Eastern Missouri Business College, which would grant Ph.D’s in marine biology and genetic engineering, as well as in business. The faculty would include, inter alia, Moe Howard, Jerome Howard, and Larry Fine–that is, The Three Stooges; and the proposed motto on the college seal, roughly translated from the Latin, was Education Is for the Birds. The response? Academic accreditation was granted.

Now, this story was reported on the radio program “Car Talk,” hosted by National
Public Radio, and I have no idea whether it is true. It itself could be a hoax. But what I
find interesting is that I am unable to dismiss it out of hand, a priori, as a joke. In fact,
it could very well be true–which ambiguity itself is a sign of the times.

– In 1998 the Massachusetts Board of Education instituted a literacy test for teachers, pegged at the level of an exam for a high school equivalency diploma. Of the eighteen hundred prospective teachers who took it, 59 percent failed. In response to this, the interim commissioner of education, one Frank Haydu III, announced that the passing grade would be lowered. The board finally reversed the decision, and the commissioner resigned. But that 59 percent of a large group of potential teachers had severe problems with high school spelling and punctuation, and that an educational administrator would declare this no obstacle to the performance of their jobs, are as good indicators as any of the twilight phase of our nation.

– In a similar vein, when the College Board, which administers the SAT exam to high school seniors applying to college, discovered that the average verbal score had dropped from 478 in 1963 to 424 in 1995 (this on a scale from 200 to 800,) it “recentered” the scoring so that 424 became 500, and 730 became 800 (a perfect score.)
? According to the Wall Street Journal (31 March 1989,) only 10 percent of applicants in Chicago were able to meet the minimum literacy standard for mail-clerk jobs, and the Motorola Corporation reported that 80 percent of all applicants screened nationally failed a test of seventh-grade English and fifth-grade math.

These kinds of horror stories are multiplying in our culture at an alarming rate, and they are corroborated by the most casual observations that many of us now make on a daily basis. It is as though America has become a gigantic dolt-manufacturing machine. We now see common words misspelled on CNN, for example, or on labels in supermarkets (CAESER SALAD.) Below are some personal anecdotes; I am guessing you have a list of your own.

Item: A fancy restaurant I had lunch at in Salt Lake City, bearing an elegant carved wooden sign done in Art Deco style, listing hours of operation, with the word Sunday spelled “S-u-n-d-y” on it–actually carved into the wood. A sign outside of a hospital clinic in Washington, D.C.: INFANT, CHILDERN, & ADULT CARE.

Item: A visit I made a few years ago to several creative writing classes at a college in the Midwest, only to discover that not a single student in any of these classes had ever heard of Robert Browning, whereas I was memorizing “My Last Duchess” when I was in high school. A colleague at this same school telling me that one of his students, a twenty-year-old male, told him that he had never read a novel.

Item: The growing inability, which I have observed over nearly three decades of teaching, of the majority of undergraduate students to analyze an argument, or identify the evidence for an argument, or construct a grammatically coherent sentence. Essays turned in with sentences such as “In this paper I are going to show that . . . “ My asking one student, in all innocence, what her first language was, only to be told it was English.

Item: A listing in the Portland Oregonian (10 April 1998,) under “Literary Events”: “Hear works from William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot read allowed.” (Such a notice is itself, one might venture to say, a literary event.) An announcement on National Public Radio (early in 1999) that they would be interviewing Edmund White, author of a book on Marcel “Prowst” and recipient of a “Guh-genheim” fellowship.

Item: A phone call I make to the foreign currency department of a major commercial bank because I have received a bill from Holland and need to know the guilder-dollar exchange rate. The clerk can’t find a listing for Holland because, as it later turns out, it is listed as the Netherlands. “Is Holland the same as Denmark?” she asks me.

Item: I am asked to give a lecture at a southwestern university on the “crisis of American intelligence,” and the talk is written up for the school newspaper by a student in her late thirties. In an article of fewer than 250 words, there are seven errors of elementary grammar and one completely incoherent sentence. (I am guessing that this was not a deliberate attempt to satirize the lecture, which would, in fact, have been wonderful.)

Item: An interview I have for a job as an editor of publications for a national higher education association. The association–I’ll call it the NA–has, as part of its declared mission, “the improvement of the quality of liberal arts education.” What it means by this, however, is not the preservation of any type of core curriculum or academic standards, but the moving of students toward “social action” (vaguely defined) and the acquiring of hands-on skills useful for jobs in the twenty-first century. (For this purpose, the NA receives heavy corporate funding.) In the course of the interview, I raise the issue of knowledge for its own sake of knowing what makes oneself, and society, tick. The NA president, who is conducting the interview, stares at me for a moment and says, “Well, that’s fine, if one is interested in a withdrawn or contemplative life.” I say, “I don’t think it necessarily leads to that.” “What else would it be good for?” she asks, almost angry now. And, much the way I might have to explain the concept to a college freshman, I reply, “Well, ideally, at least, such an education changes your sensibilities. Its aim is the transformation of the psyche. Students can be very active in the world, but they have a much larger understanding of what the world is about, and how they fit into it.” My interviewer nods imperceptibly; it’s obvious she has no idea of what I am talking about. And I think: This woman is a leader in the field of higher education, and she has literally no idea of the deeper meaning of a liberal education. Whereas my influence on higher education is virtually nonexistent, hers is enormous. It’s not that through her influence students learn to scoff at a nonutilitarian notion of a liberal education; rather, they never get to learn that such a notion even exists.