Are American Teenagers Really This Stupid?

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by Kaitlin Gray

 

BREAKING NEWS: Italy gains Independence from Europe! Sergio Mattarella leads his country’s long-awaited revolution in a surprising turn of events . . .

Sadly, with my tagline, I’ve probably already convinced about half of you that Italy just became a country. By the way, did you also know that ‘gullible’ is currently written on the ceiling above your head?

For the remainder of intellects that saw beyond the sarcastic heading of this article, you may be thinking “seriously, who would actually believe that?” But listen, because I’m not just making assumptions here. In a recent conversation with one of my exchange student friends from Italy, Laura Callegari, I was astounded to hear of the bizarre questions she’s received, from students at Westlake, since she arrived here.

“People keep asking me if Italians kiss in the same way, and that’s probably the question I’ve received the most often. (It’s funny, is there more than one way to kiss?) It’s not the worst one, though.

“During my first few weeks at school here I had a lot of people asking me questions about where I was from. I remember this one kid asking me about what language I spoke in Italy, and another kid who wanted to know what country Italy was in.
“I think the worst was when someone asked me, ‘How long does it take to get from Italy to Europe?’ . . . I mean, come on! Are people really this stupid?”

It’s embarrassing to think that American teenagers lack both the knowledge and the respect to learn about cultures outside of our own. Laura isn’t the only frustrated exchange student at Westlake this year. Among other exchange students from our school with whom I’ve been able to speak with recently– coming namely from Poland, Cambodia, Spain, and Germany– a similar disappointment has been notably present in each of them after coming to a place that doesn’t seem to know a noodle from a pasta, or Chicken Curry from Cured Chicken.

“Lots of people don’t know where Germany is,” said Alina Wilmann, a foreign exchange student speaking of her home country. “Lots of people ask me if we have pizza. They’ve almost asked me every time if we have this one food.”

(Wait, but isn’t pizza a delicate German cuisine? Hold the phone.)

Americans, and especially American teenagers, seem to be of a general opinion that America is the greatest country on the planet. This thought process can be a very good thing when it motivates youth to educate themselves about the place they live in, developing a certain sense of pride that will declare, “I’m proud to be an American!” This attitude was what our Founding Fathers fought to preserve for us, and what our parents and teachers have often tried to instill deep within our cores. This notion is a beautiful power.

However, this opinion can also take a very ugly turn when it is used as an excuse to be close-minded about the rest of the world around us. Apathy has been on an exponential rise since we’ve had greater access to technology, and since a sense of entitlement springing from the “Me, Me, Me” generation has become commonplace. In his article 10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America, Mark Manson says,

“I think the greatest flaw of American culture is our blind self-absorption. In the past it only hurt other countries. But now it’s starting to hurt ourselves.”

We are growing increasingly unaware of what is happening around us– a source of utter terror when considering these ramifications for future generations.

My concern has been swelling as I’ve built friendships with foreigners. Many of these people have travelled to several countries besides their own, speak multiple languages, and have an impressive knowledge of their country’s unique history. Marveling at their versatility, I covet their awareness of culture. I’ve often felt negligible in the presence of these travelers as a teen speaking English alone, having never traveled outside the U.S., and comfortable only with my single way of living. It’s the culture I’ve been raised in, a culture so absorbed in itself that it has forgotten to acknowledge the rest of the world it’s a part of.

Defeat met failure when I began looking at data. While trying to gain a glimmer of hope for my ignorant nation, I became morose. Consider, with me, these seven astonishing statistics:

  1. In a recent survey of American teens, 63% could not find Iraq on a map (despite being at war with them), and 54% did not know Sudan was a country in Africa.1
  2. 55% of Americans believe that Christianity was written into the Constitution and that the founding fathers wanted “One Nation Under Jesus.”2
  3. According to a Washington poll given in 2006, a range of American citizens were asked if they knew the year during which 9/11 took place. 30% of those surveyed were unable to answer the question correctly, and it was only five years after the attack.3
  4. Although 40% of people (a relatively high amount) were able to correctly name all three of the United States branches of government— executive, legislative and judicial— a far lower percentage knew the length of a Senator’s term. Just 25% responded that these terms stretch for six years. Only 20% of these same individuals knew how many Senators there were.4
  5. 2006 AP polls revealed that a majority of American people were unable to name more than one of the protections guaranteed in the first Amendment of the Constitution — which include speech, assembly, religion, press and “redress of grievances.” Just 1 in 1000 could name all of these five freedoms. However, 22% of those polled were able to come up with the name of every member of the Simpson family.4
  6. Despite being a constant fixture in school curricula, 30% of Americans in a survey didn’t know what the Holocaust was.4
  7. An “impressive” 45% of Americans were able to correctly identify what the initials in GOP stood for: Grand Old Party. The rest probably didn’t know who GOP was.5

In the words of Rick Shenkman, just how stupid are we?

“As Americans, we have this naïve assumption that people all over the world are struggling and way behind us. They’re not. Sweden and South Korea have more advanced high speed internet networks. Japan has the most advanced trains and transportation systems. Norwegians — along with Swedes, Luxembourgers, the Dutch and Finns — make more money. The biggest and most advanced plane in the world is flown out of Singapore. The tallest buildings in the world are now in Dubai and Shanghai (and soon to be Saudi Arabia).”4

To preserve our nation, our antiquity, and our egos, it’s probably about time we learn about our own history. Moreso, it’s about time we realize where we stand in the world, and who we stand with. This Earth isn’t ours alone; in fact, it’s home to many cultures of people, living in ways we can scarcely imagine, eating foods we’ve never even heard of, and sleeping in beds thousands of miles away from ours. Isn’t that a cool thought?

If you want to join me in the fight against American ignorance, here are some tips I’ve assembled to get you started:

  1. Make friends with someone not of your same race or nationality. Ask them questions about their culture.
  2. Imagine your dream all-expenses-paid vacation. Do some research about that place; get to know it on a whole new level.
  3. Try a new type of food you’ve never had before.
  4. Take a tour of a museum.
  5. Actually pay attention in your history classes.
  6. Watch a movie about another culture. Bollywood is a great place to start, I have to say.
  7. Learn common phrases in another language of your choice, and practice them.
  8. Watch the news. If you don’t have cable, you can stream KSL for free on your computer to learn about what is happening in Utah.
  9. Download the FoxNews or CNN app on your mobile phone to become the first to know about local and national updates.
  10. Ask your parents, teachers, and other trusted adults about their political opinions.

 

There are so many ways to get to know the world around you. A deep sea of knowledge is at your fingertips at every given moment; what will you do with that kind of power?  

 

Sources:

  1. Roach, John. “Young Americans Geographically Illiterate, Survey Suggests.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 2 May 2006, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/05/0502_060502_geography.html.
  2. Stone, Andrea. “Most Think Founders Wanted Christian USA.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 13 Sept. 2007, usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-09-11-amendment_N.htm?loc=interstitialskip%22.
  3. Amrani, Ssandr El. “Poll: 30% of Americans Don’t Know Which Year Was 9/11.” The Arabist, The Arabist, arabist.net/blog/2006/8/10/poll-30-of-americans-dont-know-which-year-was-911.html.
  4. Shenkman / TomDispatch.com, Rick. “Ignorant America: Just How Stupid Are We?” Alternet, Alternet, 1 July 2008, www.alternet.org/story/90161/ignorant_america%3A_just_how_stupid_are_we.
  5. Taintor, David. “Poll: Majority Of Americans Don’t Know What GOP Stands For.” TPM. TPM, 04 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.
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President of the Journalism Club 2016-17. Founder of ThunderZone. I'm a lover of classical cello, salubrious sushi, and wondrous words. YAY WESTLAKE! Follow me on Instagram @kaitlingrayy // Twitter @kaitlinn_gray