Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Does ignorance matter? Who knows?

Twenty years ago I took a bus from Montreal to Albuquerque. I love bus travel, because it it economical and environmentally responsible, but also because one meets interesting people. On this particular trip I sat for about a thousand miles next to a young woman whose husband was in the army. She herself was going to college. We talked about places we had visited, and she said she had been to Niagara Falls. Somehow in the course of that part of the conversation, she volunteered the information that Niagara Falls is located on the border between California and Canada. I pointed out that there are two states between California and Canada and that Niagara Falls is actually on the border between New York State and Ontario. She seemed fairly confident that I was mistaken about this, so both of us agreed to change the subject rather than argue about the disputed location of a water falling off a cliff.

At the time, I was amazed at that one student's geographical ignorance, and I wondered how she had managed to get into college. Now, twenty years later, I almost take it for granted that when I mention Korea, Japan, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Thailand, Afghanistan, Iraq or Turkey to a college student, he or she will have only a dim idea of where those places on, aside from perhaps knowing that they are on planet earth. I also take it for granted that it is not for an unwillingness to learn geography that students know so little about it; the responsibility for their ignorance, I assume, falls on their teachers and on the news media. (If you live in the United States, think quickly. When's the last time you saw an in-depth news report about any country outside the United States? When's the last time you saw Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Chihuahua or Sonora on a weather map?) According to a CNN storynearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 24 still cannot find Iraq on a map.” (Hint: it is nowhere near the California-Canada border.)

n February 15, 2008 Bill Moyers interviewed Susan Jacoby, author of a book entitled Age of American Unreason. In that interview Jacoby says “without a base of knowledge of how things are you can't really have a reasonable talk about how things ought to be.” The United States has become a nation in which even the allegedly educated—even the educators themselves—have a startling lack of knowledge of history, geography, the arts, world literature and the ways of other cultures.

Rudy Giuliani, former presidential candidate, once said in a debate that if the United States had a health care system like Canada's then Canadians would no longer be able to come here for decent health care. He also called America's health care system the best in the world. No one challenged him. No one, either his opponents or the newsman moderating the debate pointed out that Canada does not have a health care system. Health insurance schemes are managed by the provinces, not by the Canadian government, and each province has a different way of offering affordable coverage to everyone. Moreover, medical care in Canada is generally quite good, often better than what is available in the United States, and always far more affordable. So the answer to Giuliani's question is that if the states in the United States had health care systems like those in Canadian provinces, Canadians would continue to stay in Canada to get excellent health care—and Americans would stop trying to buy their pharmaceuticals in Canada, where a reasonable ceiling is placed on the profits that pharmaceutical companies can make. But how many Americans know enough to challenge a political candidate who makes inaccurate and irresponsible claims?

Democracy works only when the electorate is educated enough to make reational decisions based on a knowledge of reality and on an ability to imagine workable alternatives to the status quo. An ignorant electorate has no access to knowledge as a guide and so is prone to being swayed by untutored emotions, by rumors, by charisma, and by well-crafted manipulation.