In Defense of American Ignorance

I’m going to do something today that might shock even myself.  I’m going to defend the ignorance of my fellow Americans in several areas.  In general, I’m opposed to ignorance.  In fact, I will have to overlook several perfectly valid counterpoints in order to play this role of devil’s advocate.  What you are about to witness is something which may not happen again, but for the sake of argument, it is happening right now.

It is all too easy to point out the deficiencies in the average American’s knowledge about our world, and if it’s easy for me, it’s even easier for foreigners.  Most Americans are more likely to know about the exploits of Kim Kardashian than Angela Merkel (the Chancellor of Germany and current champion on Forbes’s “100 Most Powerful Women” list).  But as I’m about to show, there are perfectly understandable reasons for this state of affairs beyond simple stupidity.

Foreign Affairs

It is a source of regular annoyance to many foreigners that while they are well aware of the political and cultural situation in the U.S., many Americans are unable to return the favor.  Even U.S. presidential candidates occasionally fall into this trap.  However, this does not mean that Americans are obtuse.  Rather, they are largely victims of their own success.

As the biggest political and economic power in the world for at least the past two decades (and probably much longer), anything America does tends to make news around the world.  Go ahead: visit the website of any major foreign news outlet and at least one of the stories on their front page will have to do with the United States.  (I just checked Le MondeDer Spiegel, CCTV, and Al-Jazeera to make sure.)

Who are some foreign leaders Americans are likely to know?  Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Hamid Karzai would probably be on that list.  Why?  Because they get a good amount of news coverage here.  Does anyone know who the Prime Minister of Japan is?  No, because they change so often that even those who pay attention are likely to get confused.  (Don’t worry – I haven’t forgotten you, Shinzo Abe.)


In addition to politics, the U.S. is also culturally dominant.  Take France for example.  The French are notoriously protective of their domestic film industry, but above you can see a picture I took at cinema in central Paris back in fall 2008.  Half of the movies being advertised were American films or at least English language.  However, most Americans only have access to French films through Netflix.  Should it surprise us that foreigners know more about how Americans live than vice versa?

Non-English Languages

This clip from the film Inglorious Basterds pokes some fun at the common impression that Americans are clueless when it comes to any language other than their own.  Indeed, Europeans are more likely to be bilingual or even trilingual than anyone hailing from the U.S. (except for first or second generation immigrants).  This could be seen as proof that Americans are simply uninterested in meeting foreigners on their own ground and insist that everyone learns English in order to communicate.  Certainly there is some of that attitude out there, but the true explanation is much more practical.

If you live in Europe, you can’t travel very far without entering a different country, and due to the highly splintered nature of European politics throughout much of that continent’s history, whatever country you cross into probably speaks a different language.  In contrast, the U.S. was from the beginning a large country in which everyone was encouraged to speak the same language.  Many Americans can drive for 1,000 miles without entering a foreign country, and even if you happen to live close to Canada, most Canucks speak English as well.

The past few decades have seen an increase in the number of Spanish speakers in the United States, and despite constant demands for these immigrants to learn English, Americans have not simply ignored this growing trend.  In states with high Spanish-speaking populations, school children are commonly given lessons in that language from a young age.  Those who interact with these people on a daily basis find it in their interest to speak at least a moderate amount of Spanish.

To sum up, Americans haven’t avoided learning foreign languages simply because they don’t care.  Most of them simply aren’t required to speak anything other than English, except for the rare occasion on which they go on vacation somewhere abroad.  Thus, there is no sense of urgency to learn a foreign language.

Domestic Politics

It’s bad enough that Americans are uninformed about political developments in other countries, but the sad fact is that most of us don’t pay very close attention to what is going on within our own borders.  People like me who are political junkies tend to complain that the vote of a person who doesn’t pay attention is worth the same as our own.  We assume that many people are in effect duped during election season by politicians who capitalize on their lack of knowledge about the political process.  There may be some of that going on, but it should hardly surprise us.

The average person has much better things to do with their time than pay attention to what is going on in Washington, D.C.  The brain space that I am using to store names of senators, Supreme Court cases, and an endless array of government acronyms are being used by others for whatever it is they do with their lives: driving their children to ballet lessons, installing braces on a pre-teen’s crooked grin, or keeping track of the ever changing orders of a table of guests at Red Lobster.

Besides, as some of these people would undoubtedly argue, nothing that an average citizen does is likely to have much of an effect on the chaos in Washington.  It could be that this is not so much a case of apathy as a sign of the endless frustration of going to the polls every four years and seeing little if any progress.  “Wake me up when they decide to get their butts in gear,” the average American might say.

Football (the non-American kind)


Photo by Wikipedia user Neier

Smarter people than myself have devoted a lot of time to considering why Americans just can’t get excited about football, the one sport that seems to unite much of the world.  If we’re so dominant in other competitions, why is it that we lost to Ghana in the last World Cup?  Is it a sign of American arrogance that we feel too important to be bothered with “the beautiful game”?

There are two easy explanations for our lack of interest in what we call “soccer”.  The first is that we have too many other sports.  America has a professional league for just about every organized athletic activity.  Not only do those sports take away potential soccer viewers, but they also steal potential soccer players.  While many American children play in youth soccer leagues, they typically turn to more American games like basketball, baseball, or American football when they get older.  The fact that an American football team requires many more players could also explain why less of us continue playing soccer in high school and college.

In addition, Americans regularly complain that there is not enough scoring in soccer/football.  Hockey is similar in this respect, and it has now gotten pushed almost entirely onto cable channels rather than the major U.S. networks.  Also, where are all the commercial breaks that allow us to get that Bud Light we’ve been craving (because of the commercial breaks), then get up to use the bathroom (because of all that Bud Light) without missing any of the action?  Our attention spans cannot handle 45 uninterrupted minutes, apparently.

Metric System

Why is America the last developed country to not be using the metric system?  Such a complaint is often heard both inside and outside the United States.  For most things, we use a variation of the old British imperial system of measurement.  Unlike the metric system, it is not all divisible by a nice even 10, so it is easy to see why many consider it to be inferior.

 I do not have a good explanation for this one that will absolve us of any possibility of national arrogance.  Maybe we are disturbed by the fact that the same French Revolution that came up with the metric system ended up being a disaster.  Maybe we are troubled that countries which buy their gas (err, petrol) by the liter end up paying far more to fill up their tanks.  Maybe we see in the constant references to 10 some kind of sinister secret code.  Maybe we are afraid that a European common measurement system will end up being as problematic as the European common currency.

 In school, we are taught the basics of how to convert our imperial units into metric ones, but most of us forget by the time we are old enough to drive in Canada.  As the saying goes, if you don’t use it, you lose it.  Just have some patience, foreign friends.  In a few more hundred years, we may sell milk in two liter bottles along with soda.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of American Ignorance

  1. Perhaps those raised in the U.S. prefer the mental gymnastics that come with multiplying and dividing by 3 and 12 or 8 and 16. Who wants to simply move a decimal point to the right or left when a brain can be exercised with a more challenging calculation? And who would want to shovel snow at 0 C when he or she could instead shovel at 32 F? Balmy by comparison.

  2. I remember when the U.S. had a whirl at changing to the metric system. This was supposed to be “enlightenment.” We were going to simplify life and get in step with the rest of the world. After a year or so of trying, we were all so confused, we hated it. So, it went the way of 8 track tape, and was quietly forgotten.

  3. I would make a counter argument for foreign affairs. The US has had a treaty with Japan since the close of WWII that we would protect them. Shinzo Abe has an uncanny knack of making the other Asian countries around him unhappy – examples are Korea and the issue of comfort women, and China with regards to war crimes (think Nanjing), as well as occupation of Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. Our president is doing a lot of talks with the Asian nations to boost trade, but we are also on the hook in case of conflict with some of these nations. These issues never seem to show up in US news though.

    I think your thoughts on language is accurate, as well as football.

    To your last point –

    Most people focus on temperature – To be truly mathematical and scientific we would use an absolute scale like Kelvin, neither F nor C in its current state. In that case divide or multiply by 10 makes no sense. I would argue that F is a better indicator of human comfort – It makes sense 0F is cold, 100F is hot.

    Other than cost there is no reason to remain in the imperial system. So many of our drawings and manual machine tools + tool heads are in imperial units that a conversion would be very costly. No established business is interested in paying to convert these machines unless there is a benefit, and right now there isn’t one. I can make a part just as well in imperial units as I can in metric ones, but all my tools are in imperial.

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