Today David Swanson posted to his blog under the title “War for Dummys”. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I once used a ‘UNIX for Dummys’ book to beat a co-worker at solving a mysterious problem. It was kind of humiliating, but it was only 1 problem, and “I Won!”. Learning ‘for Dummys’ is more a reference to the student’s state of mind than the content of the book. David was inspired by an article in the Washington Post where several academics from Ivy League colleges posted the results of a visual survey of Americans ability to find the Ukraine on a world map. The results were pretty pathetic, but not surprising. Only 16% got it right. The median error was 1,800 miles.
This result reminded me of something that happened to me 7 o 8 years ago when I still had a corporate software development job. At the time,I was ‘internationalizing’ the user input screens for a variety of products, i.e. formatted them with up to 17 different languages, and regional preferences. I thought it was rather fun, and a nice change from writing the program to control your power supply or communication cable on an 8 bit micro. Anyway, there were some bizarre shortfalls in interacting with other staff members to make sure all of our requirements were met.
One day, I was on a conference call with a domestic product manager, a young Hispanic man from LA, and our European product manager somewhere in central Europe. We were confirming which countries I needed to create interfaces for, and there was some question about the Portuguese interface. I said “Do you or don’t you want to cover Brazil?” The young man from LA said, “I don’t know. Where’s Brazil?” After a period of silence, he British woman said, “Don’t ask me. It isn’t here.” As I was choking back my laughter, grateful that it was a phone call and not a video conference, I said “Really?” And the young man said “Really. Where is it?” I took a deep breath and said “Its in the South America Group.”. “Oh. yeah, we have to do that,” he replied.
On returning to my desk, I asked the secretary who happened to sit beside me “Where’s Brazil?” She said, “I don’t know. I never paid attention in Social Studies. School was so boring.” Shortly thereafter, my son, an occasional high school student with a drug problem called. I asked him “Where’s Brazil?” There was a cautious silence on the line. I said “Really. it’s Ok. This isn’t a trick question. Just answer the question if you can..” “Istn’t it in South America,” he asked? “Like on the big bulge?” “Good boy,” I replied. “You get the golden ticket.” And I thought, “Well, I must have done something right.”
All American students should be required to play “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” until they can solve the cases easily. “Carmen Sandiego” targets middle school kids, but that may be exactly where most people are in relation to geopolitical studies and world history. I thought Social Studies and History were intolerably boring, myself. I didn’t care one iota which general won which battle in the civil war, and I didn’t find the out of context, out of date figures on agriculture and industry in various foreign countries very interesting either. Our language choices were French, Spanish and Latin. Latin! That’s where I started because it was (kind of) the language of my ancestors (some of them). The way Spanish was taught, it might as well have been Latin.
Maybe we could have online geography contests where you get a a $10 or $20 gift card reward if you can name all the countries on the map. There is a map online where you can practice if you don’t care about rewards. We could do it with languages as well. Too busy? Maybe you want to wait until the gift card is offered. it’s your loss, though. Really. What kind of democracy can we have if we don’t have the minimum basic education to even evaluate what we are told about the foreign policy our government spends most of our money on? How can we vote for proxies to represent us if we don’t understand what they are doing, and don’t know enough to know if they understand it?
People shouldn’t have to be offered a personal reward for basic education about the world we live in, but before you get it, there isn’t going to be any other reward you understand. Education is empowering, but if you don’t have it, how would you know? If you think you have an education, but it doesn’t empower you, then you are looking at power in the wrong way or you aren’t really educated.
It would be nice if a more meaningful education were offered to children, but it seems a fading dream in today’s society where the social contract appears to be collapsing on all sides. As bad as some aspects of my public education were, it was enough to give me a foundation for whatever I wanted to think about later in life. When I was in school, I couldn’t imagine a world without public education for all. And yet, it wasn’t true in much of the world beyond my personal horizons then, and it is collapsing on my doorstep right now.
It’s a shame. The studies in yesterday’s Washington Post clearly show that the less people know about the world, the more likely they are to choose war. It is a shame. Turn that around and you have, “the less people know about the world, the more they fear it.” Ignorance is not bliss. It is hunger and fear and weakness. However, ignorance is not an incurable disease either. If we have the courage to walk past the troll on the bridge, we can begin to know the world. If we choose to know the world, we can change it.