Like a parent who always reminds you that your cousin Vicki is smarter than you, people keep turning out surveys to show just how stupid we are.
A geography survey shows that a lot of us cannot find the United States on a blank map, a history survey reveals that many Americans think Columbus discovered America a week ago Wednesday and a math survey points out that a significant number of us can't add significant numbers.
Hardly a day goes by that somebody doesn't produce a survey to remind us of what we don't know:
Sixty percent of high school students don't know when the Korean War started.
Sixty-four percent of Americans believe the Constitution establishes English as the national language.
Just 10 percent of the 13-year-olds studied can figure out the radius of a circle.
Fewer than half of all Americans knew that the Contras were fighting in Nicaragua.
The only thing better than pointing out how stupid Americans are, is to point out how stupid they are in relation to people from other countries. It's not bad enough that no one in the United States has any idea where the Black Sea is, but every single person in Sweden can find it while blindfolded. The Swedes can even tell you how many gallons of water it holds.
And of course, with every bad survey comes the required hand-wringing. There are the predictable calls for an overhaul of the education system, and somebody labels the results a "national tragedy." There are usually appeals to national pride: If things don't improve, we'll all be speaking Japanese by the year 3000.
Can things really be this bad?
Consider the geography test. It was sponsored by the National Geographic Society, and the results were so bad that the society president called the people who took the test "the lost generation" because they didn't know where they were.
How bad was it?
About 75 percent couldn't find the Persian Gulf, nearly half couldn't find Central America and more than half couldn't even come close to guessing the current American population. If it sounds discouraging, cheer up: The results are almost exactly the same as a test given 41 years ago.
The Educational Testing Service, which gives the College Board entrance examinations, reports a slight decline -- about 5 percent -- in test scores over the past 20 years, but the number of people taking the test has risen by more than 10 percent, and the people who give the test say the scores have gone down because of the wider number of people taking the test.
Americans are reading twice as many books as they were 10 years ago, and there are twice as many general-circulation magazines. We might not be able to find the Persian Gulf, but almost all Americans are aware of the problems with the ozone and two out of three know what acid rain is and what it is doing.
Is it bad that 58 percent of high school students can't identify William Shakespeare as the author of "The Tempest" or encouraging that 42 percent do recognize one of his lesser-known works?
For some reason, high school students are a favorite target of the surveys. They are always being blamed for society's shortcomings. Within the past year, top federal officials have called for more classes in math, science, geography and history for high school students. Nobody has called for more drivers' education classes, although there is obviously a need.
Why do high school students keep giving those silly answers? For one reason, they have to give them. The National Endowment for the Humanities test eliminated the "I don't know" response, which forces people to say things like Abraham Lincoln wrote the Bill of Rights (13 percent in 1986) instead of checking "I don't know."
The larger problem is that everyone assumes there was once a golden age of education in the United States when teachers were paid well, students learned everything, and America was just ducky. Usually they assume this golden age took place when they were in school and has steadily declined ever since. That's not true.
A national study in the late 1940s called the school system an "educational wasteland" and called for a return to basics.
A decade later the Russians launched Sputnik and instead of blaming the American rocket scientists who couldn't get anything off the ground, the country turned on the education system, calling for more math and science. In the 1960s there were more calls for educational reform. The result was the addition of electives, such as mystery writing, and a reduction of required courses.
Last year, when Lynne V. Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, blamed "progressive educators" for the ills of the current school system, she was borrowing a line from 1940s education critics.
The schools are little more than a reflection of society. If there are drugs in society, there will be drugs in the schools. Violence in society is going to spill over into the schools. And even the national preoccupation with athletics has a profound impact on secondary education. Consider that one out of five Iowa history teachers was hired as a coach.
Beginning around 1910, there was a movement to increase the number of years students spent in school. Almost all students must stay in school until they are 16. At the same time, the school system pushes students along by age, not by what they have learned. As late as 1910, most 14- to 17-year-olds were still in elementary school. When they had finished learning the course work for that year, they moved to a higher grade. Otherwise, they stayed until they learned.
Today, we have a group of students who don't belong in high school classes and don't want to be there, and we wonder why they don't do well on tests.
There are reasons Americans don't do well on surveys.
First, you may wonder why people from other countries do better.
Are they smarter?
Nah. People from other lands don't have to remember as much as Americans. Do people in Sweden have to remember what night "China Beach" has been moved to, or the names of the managers the New York Yankees have had since George Steinbrenner bought the team? All they have to remember is what color their Volvo is so they can tell it from all the other Volvos. That's why they can remember where the Persian Gulf is.
Second, there's a lot of bad information floating around out there. For example, Americans spent a decade listening to Jimmy Carter and George Bush tell us what a wonderful person Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu was. Then, all of a sudden, it turns out he was a cruel dictator, a bum, another Hitler. So what happens when you get this question on a survey:
Nicolae Ceausescu was:
A. a wonderful guy.
B. a terrible guy.
C. a former manager of the New York Yankees.
D. a star of "China Beach."
Sure, the new answer is B, but a lot of people probably have the old answer, A.
There is a corollary to the bad information rule: the things-keep-changing rule. Just about the time you figure out who the Contras are and what they were doing, they hold an election in Nicaragua and the whole thing changes. And what about those Lithuanians? You spend all that time learning that the poor Lithuanians were conquered by the Russians. Now, the president won't recognize the Lithuanians because he's supporting the Russians. Try to put that in a multiple-choice question.
Third, nobody ever actually uses the information on these surveys. In your whole life has anyone ever asked you where the Persian Gulf is located? They might ask where the nearest gas station is, but no one asks where the Persian Gulf is. Every survey wants you to figure out the circumference of a circle. But since you left school have you ever figured out the circumference of a circle? There are billions of people in this world who needlessly know what Pi is.
Finally, there is too much to know. There should be some sort of federal guidelines for what is important to learn. Is it more important to know that Marla Maples's father is now married to a woman the same age as Marla? Or should we spend our time learning that Ulysses Grant's first vice president was Schyler Colfax?
Information keeps coming. Even if you know the same number of things as your grandfather, the number of things to know has tripled. Therefore you appear to be only a third as smart. Remember when all you needed to know to be healthy were the seven early warning signs of cancer and to eat your vegetables. Now there are hundreds of rules: Eat fiber, don't eat cholesterol, and at least once a day somebody warns you not to share hypodermic needles.
We also need easier questions. Whatever happened to "If George had four apples and gave two to Monica, how many apples would George have left?" Here are a couple of math questions given to students from 4th to 12th grades:
The number of tomato plants (t) is twice the number of pepper plants (p). Which equation best describes the sentence above?
A. t (EQ) 2p.
B. 2t (EQ) p.
C. t (EQ) 2 + p.
D. 2 + t (EQ) p.
Which of the following are equivalent equations?
A. x + 2 (EQ) 9 and x - 2 (EQ) 9.
B. y - 3 (EQ) 7 and y + 5 (EQ) 15.
C. z - 6 (EQ) 3 and z (EQ) 3.
D. 1 + 2 (EQ) x and w + 1 (EQ) 2.
The answer to the first question is A and the second answer is B, but don't ask why.
On math and science tests, the best advice is to guess that the answer is either A or B. The people writing the tests want to be sure they write down the correct answer among the choices, so they put it first or second so they don't forget.Figuring out other kinds of tests is actually easier. Keep in mind that the government agencies that put on these studies are going to be looking for publicity. You don't see the director of the National Endowment for the Humanities standing up and bemoaning the failure of students to figure out equivalent equations.
No, they are looking for questions that are snappy and can make students and the educational system look bad. What makes people look worse than not being able to find their own country on a map? So there, you know that every geography test will ask you to find your own country.
The U.S. Constitution provides endless embarrassment for test-takers. Everyone thinks it contains things it really doesn't -- like the guarantee of a job. Take a quick look at the Bill of Rights before taking any test.
If the question asks who wrote anything before 1800, say Thomas Jefferson. Between 1800 and 1900, guess Abraham Lincoln and after 1900, say Franklin Roosevelt.
If you are asked who wrote something, it's best to go with Shakespeare. If it's poetry, say Robert Frost. If it has an American sounding title, go with Mark Twain or Tennessee Williams.
But the best advice is to refuse to take any national standards test until the people who will be announcing the results agree to take the same test.