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The Results Are In: America Is Dumb and on the Road to Getting Dumber

Blame religious fundamentalism and the poor quality of science education in America's schools.

Photo Credit: bikeriderlondon


The success of National Geographic’s Cosmos might appear to offer a glimmer of hope that America is ready to break free of the anti-intellectualism movement that has left this country in the wake of other developed nations when it comes to scientific literacy.

But the deep structural and cultural obstacles in American society for attaining intellectual enlightenment will erase any short-term good news moments like popularity of a TV show.

America remains a scientifically ignorant nation for two reasons: the resurgence of fundamentalist religion during the past 40 years, and secondly, the low level of science education in American elementary and secondary schools, as well as many tertiary colleges.

While television ratings for Cosmos may have stunned media critics and your average fundamentalist, “Americans continue to poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution, scriptural inerrancy, the presence of angels and demons, and so forth.”

This week, Gallup released a poll showing 42 percent of Americans still believe God created human beings in their present form less than 10,000 years ago. Last week, the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire published a study showing only 28 percent of Tea Party Republicans trust scientists.

It gets worse. More than two-thirds of Americans, according to surveys conducted for the National Science Foundation, are unable to identify DNA as the key to heredity. Nine out of 10 don’t understand radiation and what it can do the human body, while one in five adult Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth.

A 2008 University of Texas study found that 25 percent of public school biology teachers believe that humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth simultaneously.

“This level of scientific illiteracy provides fertile soil for political appeals based on sheer ignorance,” writes Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason.

Christian fundamentalism is based on the conviction that every word in the Bible is literally true and was handed down by God himself. In most Western developed nations, Christian fundamentalists represent a minority, loopy fringe. In America, however, one third believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, while nearly 60 percent believe the Armageddon predictions in the Book of Revelation will come true.

Amusingly, fundamentalist Christians are evidently as ignorant of the Bible as they are of science, given a majority of Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible. “How can citizens understand what creationism means, or make an informed decision about whether it belongs in classrooms, if they cannot even locate the source of the creation story,” asks Jacoby.

The great obstacle to educational and rational enlightenment is America’s disparate educational system. The Constitution asserted no federal power over education. In other words, states are free to spend their own tax revenue as they see fit. The reliance on property taxes to fund public education has produced an ever-widening gap between those educated in the historically more economically prosperous liberal North versus those schooled in the poorer religious South. Jacoby says it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of such regional and local disparities in the formation of American attitudes toward intellect and learning.

Today, for instance, New York spends $19,000 per student per year on elementary and secondary education, whereas Tennessee spends less than half that amount ($8,200). States such as Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana each spend less than $3,000 per student.

“Decentralization was wonderful for the initial diffusion of high schools,” said Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard who helped write The Race between Education and Technology, one of the most comprehensive analyses of the spread of the American educational system throughout the 20th century. “But it created big geographic inequality.”

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