A lot of reaction to the “How Stupid Are We?” column last week, including one comment quoting the late George Carlin: “Just think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize that half of them are even stupider.”
That would be “more stupid,” George, not “stupider,” but it wasn’t a good choice of words on my part either. “Ignorant” would be more accurate than stupid. Stupid means unable to learn. Ignorant means not having an opportunity to learn, or worse - refusing to learn. As a teacher, I called that "willful ignorance."
Jay Leno showcases popular ignorance with his “Jaywalking” series, stopping people on the sidewalk and asking questions like: “In what country is the Panama Canal?” and they don’t know. He asks “What countries border the United States?” and people guess: “Australia?” On and on it goes.
Schools issue diplomas, degrees and certificates to people who have completed a prescribed course of study. I can’t tell you how many small business people complained to me as a local teacher that young people who have graduated from local high schools could not fill out simple job applications or read a ruler on a job site. They paid a big portion of our property taxes which funded our schools and they were angry.
Colleges are no better. Admission standards are so weak that a big percentage of freshmen must take remedial English and math courses for no credit. As long as applicants have high school diplomas and qualify for federal grants and subsidized loans, they’re in. Many enroll in watered-down, pointless majors such as “Gender Studies”; Queer Studies; “Fashion Design”; and courses like “Cyberfeminism” (Cornell) and “The Science of Superheroes: (UC Irvine) that cost thousands. When I saw signs and interviews of people at “Occupy” demonstrations last fall complaining about their student loan debt, I wondered what it was they had studied. If they majored in Women’s Studies and couldn’t find a job, whose fault is that?
Our economy still reels from the housing bubble, but next on the horizon is the student-loan bubble. With average debt over $25,000, there’s more than a trillion dollars of shaky loan debt out there. The biggest default danger, however, is the United States itself. As a republic, our leaders are elected by the people. Stupid people elect stupid leaders. Beginning with the New Deal, accelerating during the Great Society, and culminating with Hope and Change, those leaders made promises they couldn’t keep. Voters believed them, which brings us to the biggest indicator of collective American stupidity: our steady march to bankruptcy.
Most people stop believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy by about third grade. By the end of fourth grade, Americans used to know basic arithmetic until the federal government began “fixing” public education. We cannot depend on that being true anymore, but I think we can still say that a majority know it by the end of eighth grade. Why then does a majority of Americans continue to elect and reelect leaders in Washington who borrow or print 40 cents of every dollar they spend?
Knowing that basic arithmetic, how can a majority of Americans continue to believe the federal government can borrow and print money for decades into the future to pay unfunded mandates in Social Security and Medicare approaching $100 trillion? It defies logic.
Remember the learning process around Santa Claus? We liked the myth of a kindly old man who could give us anything we want, magically. As long as we behaved, he would grant our requests. We started to have doubts about him in first or second grade when we questioned the likelihood of an old man with flying reindeer and a flying sleigh delivering all those toys around the world in one night. We still wanted to believe it though, so we pushed the doubts away. Our parents wanted us to believe it too so they reinforced the myth with ever more elaborate explanations of how it really was possible and we should keep on believing it.
Politicians do that too. They insist that people can retire at 65 with full benefits and free medical care for twenty-five years until death at 90 or so. President Obama and congressional Democrats assert the only thing that might derail the gravy train is tax cuts for greedy rich people.
When Congressman Paul Ryan pokes holes in the myth of Social Security’s and Medicare’s sustainability, when he says we cannot believe the Santa Claus-Democrats we sense that he’s right, but we don’t want to give up the myth. We know it’s stupid, but we really, really want to believe it - so we do. Will a stupid majority reelect stupid leaders in November? Time will tell.
As Forrest Gump put it: “Stupid is as stupid does.”