A Fatal Self-Absorption
by Fred Reed
If I were to speechify to a conclave of Tea Partyers, “America is the free-est…the most democratic…the best educated and most dynamic country the world has ever known, an example to all mankind,” the assembled would hoot and hooroar and applaud in dizzy exaltation. Here is the soul of the American approach to existence, bottomless self-admiration devoid of knowledge or curiosity, wrapped like a psychic burrito in the patriotism of overwrought middle-schoolers. And there are many, many of them.
We face rule by pajama party. Saints preserve us, someone with the foregoing understanding may become the president of the (for a few moments more) most powerful, erratic, and ignorant country on the planet. Among presidential possibilities we now have Rick Perry, Michele Bachman, Sarah Palin and, in the Great Double-Wide on Pennsylvania Avenue, Precedent Obama – political epiphytes all, fantasists, tent-revival Christians, provincial governors, inward-looking certitudinous naifs. The difference between Americans and Mohammed Ali is that when he said, “I am the greatest!” he was.
Suppose, though, that realism intruded its ugly head. Suppose that to the Tea People I spoke as follows. “Yes, you are right. We are most astounding democratic. I cannot doubt it. Just to satisfy my thirst for understanding, can you give me three ways in which America is more democratic than, say, Japan, Germany, or Australia? More free than France, Switzerland, or Uruguay, wherever that is?”
But I am cross, and a curmudgeon.
Are Americans the “best educated”? Or do they just think that they are? I submit, and could back it up with countless surveys of “college graduates,” that the US is not nearly as schooled as it thinks it is, and doesn’t come close to Japan.
From the Wikipedia on functional illiteracy, “In the US, 14% of the adult population is at the “below basic” level for prose literacy… and 22% are at that level for quantitative literacy. Only 13% of the population is proficient in these three areas – able to compare viewpoints in two editorials; interpret a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity; or compute and compare the cost per ounce of food items.”