The Whys of American Ignorance

Since the social upheavals of the Sixties, the American Establishment has sought to constrain critical thinking through a variety of techniques, from propaganda to government secrecy to the celebrated ignorance of Fox News. But there are broader societal pressures as well, notes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

In 2008, Rick Shenkman, the Editor-in-Chief of the History News Network, published a book entitled Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter. In it he demonstrated, among other things, that most Americans were: (1) ignorant about major international events, (2) knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it, (3) were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country, and (4) were readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears and public relations babble.

Shenkman spent 256 pages documenting these claims, using a great number of polls and surveys from very reputable sources. Indeed, in the end it is hard to argue with his data. So, what can we say about this?

The Death of Socrates, as depicted in an 18th Century painting by Jacques-Louis David.

One thing that can be said is that this is not an abnormal state of affairs. As has been suggested in prior analyses, ignorance of non-local affairs (often leading to inaccurate assumptions, passive acceptance of authority, and illogical actions) is, in fact, a default position for any population.

To put it another way, the majority of any population will pay little or no attention to news stories or government actions that do not appear to impact their lives or the lives of close associates. If something non-local happens that is brought to their attention by the media, they will passively accept government explanations and simplistic solutions.

The primary issue is “does it impact my life?” If it does, people will pay attention. If it appears not to, they won’t pay attention. For instance, in Shenkman’s book unfavorable comparisons are sometimes made between Americans and Europeans. Americans often are said to be much more ignorant about world geography than are Europeans.

This might be, but it is, ironically, due to an accident of geography. Americans occupy a large subcontinent isolated by two oceans. Europeans are crowded into small contiguous countries that, until recently, repeatedly invaded each other as well as possessed overseas colonies.

Under these circumstances, a knowledge of geography, as well as paying attention to what is happening on the other side of the border, has more immediate relevance to the lives of those in Toulouse or Amsterdam than is the case for someone in Pittsburgh or Topeka. If conditions were reversed, Europeans would know less geography and Americans more.

Ideology and Bureaucracy

The localism referenced above is not the only reason for widespread ignorance. The strong adherence to ideology and work within a bureaucratic setting can also greatly narrow one’s worldview and cripple one’s critical abilities.

In effect, a closely adhered to ideology becomes a mental locality with limits and borders just as real as those of geography. In fact, if we consider nationalism a pervasive modern ideology, there is a direct connection between the boundaries induced in the mind and those on the ground.

Furthermore, it does not matter if the ideology is politically left or right, or for that matter, whether it is secular or religious. One’s critical abilities will be suppressed in favor of standardized, formulaic answers provided by the ideology. Just so work done within a bureaucratic setting.

Bureaucracies position the worker within closely supervised departments where success equates with doing a specific job according to specific rules. Within this limited world, one learns not to think outside the box, and so, except as applied to one’s task, critical thinking is discouraged and one’s worldview comes to conform to that of the bureaucracy. That is why bureaucrats are so often referred to as cogs in a machine.

That American ignorance is explainable does not make it any less distressing. At the very least it often leads to embarrassment for the minority who are not ignorant. Take for example the facts that polls show over half of American adults don’t know which country dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or that 30 percent don’t know what the Holocaust was.

We might explain this as the result of faulty education; however, there are other, just as embarrassing, moments involving the well educated. Take, for instance, the employees of Fox News. Lou Dobbs (who graduated from Harvard University) is host of the Fox Business Network talk show Lou Dobbs Tonight. Speaking on March 23 about gun control, he and Fox political analyst Angela McGlowan (a graduate of the University of Mississippi) had the following exchange:

McGlowan: “What scares the hell out of me is that we have a president . . . that wants to take our guns, but yet he wants to attack Iran and Syria. So if they come and attack us here, we don’t have the right to bear arms under this Obama administration.”

Dobbs: “We’re told by Homeland Security that there are already agents of Al Qaeda here working in this country. Why in the world would you not want to make certain that all American citizens were armed and prepared?”

Despite education, ignorance plus ideology leading to stupidity doesn’t come in any starker form than this. Suffice it to say that nothing the President has proposed in the way of gun control takes away the vast majority of weapons owned by Americans, that the President’s actions point to the fact that he does not want to attack Syria or Iran, and that neither country has the capacity to “come and attack us here.”

Finally, while there may be a handful of Americans who sympathize with Al Qaeda, they cannot accurately be described as “agents” of some central organization that dictates their actions.

Did the fact that Dobbs and McGlowan were speaking nonsense make any difference to the majority of those listening to them? Probably not. Their regular listeners may well be too ignorant to know that this surreal episode has no basis in reality. Their ignorance will cause them not to fact-check Dobbs’s and McGlowan’s remarks. They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth.

Unfortunately, one can multiply this scenario many times. There are millions of Americans, most of whom are quite literate, who believe the United Nations is an evil organization bent on destroying U.S. sovereignty. Indeed, in 2005, George W. Bush actually appointed one of them, John Bolton (a graduate of Yale University), as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Likewise, so paranoid are gun enthusiasts (whose level of education varies widely) that any really effective government supervision of the U.S. gun trade would be seen as a giant step toward dictatorship. Therefore, the National Rifle Association, working its influence on Congress, has for years successfully restricted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from using computers to create a central database of gun transactions.

And, last but certainly not least, there is the unending war against teaching evolution in U.S. schools. This Christian fundamentalist effort often enjoys temporary success in large sections of the country and is ultimately held at bay only by court decisions reflecting (to date) a solid sense of reality on this subject. By the way, evolution is a scientific theory that has as much evidence to back it up as does gravity.

Teaching Critical Thinking?

As troubling as this apparently perennial problem of ignorance is, it is equally frustrating to listen to repeated schemes to teach critical thinking through the public schools. Of course, the habit of asking critical questions can be taught. However, if you do not have a knowledge base from which to consider a situation, it is hard think critically about it.

So ignorance often precludes effective critical thinking even if the technique is acquired. In any case, public school systems have always had two primary purposes and critical thinking is not one of them. The schools are designed to prepare students for the marketplace and to make them loyal citizens.

The marketplace is most often a top-down, authoritarian world and loyalty comes from myth-making and emotional bonds. In both cases, really effective critical thinking might well be incompatible with the desired end.

Recently, a suggestion has been made to forget about the schools as a place to learn critical thinking. According to Dennis Bartels’s article “Critical Thinking Is Best Taught Outside the Classroom” appearing in Scientific American online, schools can’t teach critical thinking because they are too busy teaching to standardized tests.

Of course, there was a time when schools were not so strongly mandated to teach this way and there is no evidence that at that time they taught critical thinking. In any case, Bartels believes that people learn critical thinking in informal settings such as museums and by watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. 

He concludes that “people must acquire this skill somewhere. Our society depends on them being able to make critical decisions.” If that were only true it would make this an easier problem to solve.

It may very well be that (consciously or unconsciously) societies organize themselves to hold critical thinking to a minimum. That means to tolerate it to the point needed to get through day-to-day existence and to tackle those aspects of one’s profession that might require narrowly focused critical thought.

But beyond that, we get into dangerous, de-stabilizing waters. Societies, be they democratic or not, are not going to encourage critical thinking about prevailing ideologies or government policies. And, if it is the case that most people don’t think of anything critically unless it falls into that local arena in which their lives are lived out, all the better.

Under such conditions people can be relied upon to stay passive about events outside their local venue until the government decides it is time to rouse them up in some propagandistic manner.

The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors. They are called gadflies. You know, people like Socrates, who is probably the best-known critical thinker in Western history. And, at least the well educated among us know what happened to him.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

13 comments for “The Whys of American Ignorance

  1. socrates2
    April 9, 2013 at 11:53

    Outstanding piece!
    Speaking of ideologies, wasn’t it economist Robert Heilbroner (Behind the Veil of Economics) who first asserted, and all but proved, that in fact capitalism was an _ideology_?
    Doesn’t Noam Chomsky further assert in his _Year 501: The Conquest Continues_ that capitalism finds and opens markets in a finite world first with a handful of beads, then at the point of a gun when the natives resist?
    Didn’t the godfather of public relations, the legendary Edward Bernays, in his wonderful and candid classic, _Propaganda_, tell us how to make war palatable and even desirable to the American public?
    Indoctrination, total immersion, ideological and geographic isolation indeed seem to doom those not interested in “things” that they feel don’t impact on them. And our betters wouldn’t have it any other way.
    At some level I weep that provocative, debate-generating pieces such as this one remain marginalized in the far depths of cyberspace when in a better world they would appear as op-ed pieces in the Sunday edition of a major metro daily…

  2. softball
    April 9, 2013 at 08:36

    That the American public is ignorant of history is a real shame. That they are great at trivial pursuit but ignorant of the American system of government (basic civics) is serious.

    That they are ignorant of geography and foreign cultures is perhaps understandable. I hated geography in junior high, and foreign cultures are often presented as underdeveloped villagers on TV. This would not be too big a problem of itself.

    However, the fact that the US government has between 700 and 1000 military bases around the world makes this an enormous problem FOR THE REST OF THE WORLD. Our uniformed class is trained to view the rest of the world as un-American not just as not Americans. A rifle sight becomes their view point for other cultures. Un-American becomes sub-human. Asians turn into gooks. Arabs into rag heads. Latinos into wetbacks. Muslims into terrorists.

    A population ignorant of the world, that supports uncritically where we send our ignorant soldiers, is bound to turn out badly for everybody.

  3. ORAXX
    April 8, 2013 at 16:56

    It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that ignorant people are easier to manipulate than informed ones. The state of American education is not an accident.

  4. Bob Loblaw
    April 8, 2013 at 14:12

    Ignorance is Strength
    Americans ignore because we are taught to. Exactly as Lawrence illustrates, our education system trains us to obey, fear, and depend on the Authority to determine our fates.

    John Taylor Gatto wrote THE essay that forever ruined my idea of the American educational system, The Six Lesson Schoolteacher.
    And this was over 20 years ago, today’s Texan domination of the schoolbook industry especially makes for a brainwashed product than any previous American generation.

    Another illustration of the effect ignorance has on our possible future is the cinema work that never made it to the big screen, Idiocracy.
    But then, maybe we have already arrived.

  5. delia ruhe
    April 8, 2013 at 05:29

    There are so many ways to stupefy a population, and I am certain that the American government and the billionaires and corporations that rent it on four-year leases know them all. One of those many ways is to make sure that “critical thinking” remains part of the rhetoric but definitely not the practice. The author’s point about teachers who are too busy teaching to the standardized tests to teach critical thought is well taken.

    But stupefaction is something handed down from generation to generation, and if there is such a thing as a teacher who, him or herself, can think critically, they are not likely to choose teaching as a profession — not in the USA, at least. And if one does happen to slip into the system, they will eventually find themselves out of a job — kicked out of the system by stupefied parents, who don’t want their children knowing more than they do, or by terrified administrators, scared of losing their jobs too.

    When I tell my students that it is my responsibility to encourage them to think beyond anything I am capable of thinking myself — that is, after all, how knowledge advances — they look at me stupidly, either incapable of understanding what I mean, or scandalized by such “radicalism.”

  6. Geraald Perdue
    April 7, 2013 at 14:21,,,, The Nation,In These Times, The Progressive, The Progressive Populist, Democracy Now and many other liberal outlets of information continually contribute to ” The Whys of American Ignorance”. None of these information outlets will seriously consider 9/11 as an act of State(the American Government) rather than an Arab conspiracy. Even though the official version of what happened to The World Trade Center buildings contradict Newton’s Laws of Motion and the Laws of Thermodynamics.

  7. Eddie
    April 6, 2013 at 19:13

    Excellent article. Another example of daily rejection of ‘critical thinking’ is the embracing of religion and belief in an omniscient/omnipotent being. Rationally examine that and one quickly comes to an atheistic conclusion, which makes the individual ‘less popular than a terrorist’ (as a poll a few years ago noted).

    What I found especially refreshing and resonant about this article was that intelligent/liberal writers tend often to write with a tacit assumption that ‘if ONLY people knew the TRUTH they would reform XXXX’ (enter whatever liberal/left/intelligent topic you wish). As I get older, I’m becoming more-and-more convinced that a significant minority (possibly a majority) of the electorate (who could, ultimately, change the political landscape in any democracy IF they voted accordingly) are not just accidentally unknowledgeable, they are intentionally so and will reject any efforts to remedy that situation. As I see it, ONLY when there is some political trauma will things be susceptible to significant change, and then people tend towards a default belief in authority figures (like most social/pack animals).

    • Dayavati
      April 6, 2013 at 22:00

      Wasn’t 9/11/01 enough of a “political trauma”? Or how about North Korea threatening nuclear war? Weren’t the hydrogen bombs dropped on Japan ample political trauma?

      People will remain ignorant until they are personally threatened. I don’t know why they aren’t feeling threatened at this time with NDAA, the economy, the too-big-to-fail banks and financial institutions, the rise of poverty in the U.S.,the loss of homes for millions of families throughout the country.

      I’m afraid that by the time the people finally wake up, it’ll be much too late, as it may be so already.

  8. Ralph Crown
    April 6, 2013 at 12:10

    Simple ignorance is one thing. The untrue assumptions cited in this piece (repeated by McGlowan and Dobbs) are disinformation, i.e., bad data that is created and spread to produce specific results. By keeping people afraid about having their guns confiscated and about terrorists (both are very remote threats), the propagandists can manipulate this suggestible demographic in other ways. It’s naive to pass it all off as blissful ignorance.

      April 7, 2013 at 14:14

      Excellent response! FOX, as does all corporate media, has an agenda to propagandize. The fact that FOX “News” programs’ ratings are falling somewhat is very small consolation, because ALL corporate media promotes the Empire, directly (NCIS, etc.) and indirectly (commercials extolling the over-consumptive, unsustainable American Way of Life). However, unlike the consequences of ignorance about evolution and U.S. government, the consequences of massive ignorance and passivity when it comes to climate disaster are dire and extremely threatening to all of us, as Wall Street and Fossil Fools continue to bribe politicians to do nothing about catastrophic climate chaos.

      • hammersmith
        April 9, 2013 at 09:53

        Thank goodness for MSNBC….

        • Frank Carmazzi
          April 10, 2013 at 11:45

          Another stupid ignorant libtard why don’t you people just Die!

          • lindam
            April 11, 2013 at 08:29

            You have just become evidence for the fact that schools are failing to teach critical thinking. Manners and civility should be taught at home, but obviously you missed out on that.

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