american intelligence

i read recently an article citing data from a general test given to a polling-sized sample of american seniors. the test involved general information of what would seem to me to be juvenile knowledge (how many days are required for the earth to orbit the sun; approximately how far from the united states is cuba; who is the supreme court chief justice; the emancipation proclamation did what; etc). the results were very scary. does anybody know if such a test has been given and how one might get the results. having a journalism background i have conducted street interviews doing just this thing, but always ascribed the dismal results to the ‘oprah’ crowd who wanted to be interviewed on tape. any thoughts?


Bill Bryson listed results of a high school test in his book “Made in America”.
He said, basically, that american high school shildren were as thick as pig dribble.
(Answers like - WW1 was in the 19th century.)

His book may contain a cite, but I don’t have it to hand.

Retention of ‘knowledge’ is only a very small part of what I would define as ‘intelligence’ though.

There was one done in britan a while back where over half the people polled didn’t know whether the earth revolved around the sun or the sun around the earth (worse than chance!)

American Intelligence



Bryson’s study was from “National Endowment for the Humanities”. Here are the relevant paragraphs - the article is reproduced here.

Having read most of Bryson’s output, I can confirm that he’s scrupulous about citing research.

I agree with Mangetout that knowledge does not intelligence make, but there is clearly something going wrong somewhere, as this survey by the Washington Post shows (of course it’s not just the US):

My pet theory is that most of one’s general knowledge these days is derived from the TV; therefore the quality of that medium is what needs to be addressed, not just education.

wow. o.k., found some relative stuff. thanks everybody. curious though, does it rather scare the hell out of you that these people can vote? (at least you americans.)

How do citizens of other countries stack up in similar polls?

Although it would still be flame bait, the title would be better suited as “American Ignorance”.

Don’t have any surveys, but Private Eye magazine maintains a weekly page dedicated to the stupidity of the British public, entitled “Dumb Britain”. Always good for a giggle.

jjimm: Well, at least “the hanging baskets” is close to “the hanging gardens”.

“The Hanging Baskets of Garbylon”. Sounds like a Star Trek episode.

Perhaps it’s not so much a measure of intelligence, but a measure of what the public thinks of as important knowledge. I’ll bet most of these people could give you all the details about what’s going on with Britney or Tom Cruise or Hilary…

Of course, that sounds supremely unimportant to me, but then, how important is it to most people that the Earth goes around the sun, rather than vice versa? Even Sherlock Holmes didn’t care (and yes, I know he’s a fictional character).

What worries me is that these people don’t think of history or geography as being relevant [insert rant here]. That removes thier ability to understand current events.

You know, I’ve often wondered about these tests. I don’t know anyone that dumb as to get thee questions wrong. Yes, I understand that this a pretty small statistical sample, but I’ve often had my doubts about these tests. Perhaps people simply don’t read these questions or something. I can’t believe that 40% of the US population couldn’t name the Veep.

To paraphrase a famous Australian Prime Minister…“it is my melancholy duty to inform you that…” many Australians are just as ignorant as the Americans or Britons mentioned above.

There are three major commercial free-to-air TV networks here, all of which specialise in pumping out the lowest common denominator of so-called entertainment. I refer to it as “mindless media for the masses, or air-time for air-heads”.

Each year they all tout their great new line-up of shows, 95% of which comes second-hand from the US. Anything that appears to be an original idea is usually copied verbatim from an existing show elsewhere in the world. Current affairs are dumbed down to the level of the worst in Fleet Street tabloid jounalism. News services are just as bad. World news is limited to a very US, British and European perspective, with only an occasional glimpse elsewhere.

You have to look to public broadcasting to find anything that doesn’t eventually insult one’s intelligence, but most of the public reject it as being “elitist or highbrow”.

Is it any wonder they are dumb when they are fed on mediocrity?

I also wonder about how these tests are conducted. Teenagers don’t tend to take things like all seriously, I’d wager there’s a lot of lying on the answers.

IMO, these studies are crap. They’re almost always intended as sensationalism, and they are usually conducted with some sort of agenda lurking in the background (more funding for public schools being the most common).

Seriously, this strikes me as the scientific equivilent of those Jay Leno “man on the street” bits, where he asks people obvious questions and gets stupid responses.

I don’t think we can put the blame on the idiot box. I’m very knowledgable on current events, politics, and history…and I get much of my knowledge (esp. on current events) from television.

The info is broadcast…it’s just that your average American would rather watch Friends. If they were regular viewers of the evening news, they’d be up on most gov’t & geographical info. So it’s not really the quality of the medium…it’s more about the quality of interest of the American public. And I don’t think that Americans are much different than the rest of the world in this regard.

OK, devil’s avocado here, Mr Frink - in the UK, until very recently (most people) had only four or five channels available. It was therefore more likely that your average couch potato would catch a documentary or the news whether they wanted to or not - whereas with more choice, it’s quite possible to avoid anything informative whatsoever (I speak as one who has lived in the US as well as the UK).

Too many Joeys, not enough Chandlers. :smiley: