STEPHEN SMITH: Clueless: Americans Growing Up Ignorant About the World
Ten years ago, I was visiting in the Baltimore-Washington area and agreed to accompany two of my sister's Australian friends on a trip to Mount Vernon.
They were eager to tour the home of our beloved first president, and I hadn't been there since I was a child.
To make sure the trip went smoothly, I dialed information to get the phone number to check on the visiting hours at one of our country's foremost tourist attractions.
I listened to the obligatory automaton: "What city and state?"
I wasn't sure if Mount Vernon was in a city so I replied, "Mount Vernon, Virginia."
"Please hold while the operator checks for that number."
"What city and state?" the human operator asked.
I said again, "Mount Vernon, Virginia."
Dead air -- then, "I don't show a listing for a Mount Vernon. Do you have a name?"
"Well, you might check under George Washington, the father of our country," I suggested.
Again, there was silence, followed by another question: "Do you have a middle initial?"
Granted, these days an information operator might be anywhere on the planet, but I'm reasonably sure the operator I was talking to was an American. In fact, she sounded Southern.
I'm not much in favor of anecdotal evidence that moves from the particular to the general, and I'm reasonably sure most Americans know Mount Vernon is the home of our first president, George Washington. But a middle initial? Come on.
It wasn't long after the George Washington snafu that I was teaching a freshman composition class in which we were going to discuss an essay by Bruce Catton entitled "Grant and Lee: A Study in Contrasts."
"All right, who was Grant?" I asked the class of 25 college students.
Not a flicker of recognition.
"No one knows who U.S. Grant was?"
"Anyone know who Robert E. Lee was?"
"Surely, someone in the class knows who Robert E. Lee was."
Finally, a student in the back of the room raised his hand. "He was a general in the Civil War."
"That's correct," I said. "Can you tell me the year in which the Civil War began?"
Emboldened, the same student answered, "1889."
I'm constantly amazed by how little Americans know about their own history and culture -- much less the histories and cultures of the world -- and it seems to me much of the anguish we are suffering is a result of this ignorance.
The vast oceans that surround us provide a degree of protection, but they also segregate us from much of the world and from a working knowledge of other cultures. How many native-born Americans speak a language other than English?
Nowhere has this lack of knowledge been more apparent than in our wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
We didn't understand the culture of the Vietnamese as we went stomping through their country, and the average American hasn't an inkling of the forces at work in a country as diverse as Iraq.
Obviously, the Bush administration shared this ignorance -- and managed to stir in a little arrogance to thicken the stew.
"Bring 'em on," Bush snarled when asked about the rising insurgency in Iraq. Those brash words and Bush's "In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed" will haunt us forever.
I'm reminded of the 1958 bestseller "The Ugly American" by Lederer and Burdick, which is a study of our ignorance and arrogance.
Sadly, our assumptions and attitudes about the rest of the world haven't changed since that prophetic book slipped from the best seller list -- albeit the obvious examples of our ignorance have grown more apparent and more frequent.
We are, finally, victims of our own chest-pounding chauvinism (look up "chauvinism" in the dictionary), a desperate ethnocentrism (check out "ethnocentrism" while you're at it), and an ignorance that seems to know no bounds.
By the way, George Washington had no middle name.
Stephen Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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