It always makes me laugh when students at Georgetown mock their peers in Georgetown’s other schools – the McDonough School of Business is full of slackers, in the popular view, and the School of Foreign Service is a bastion of overachievers. Even at a university of Georgetown’s caliber we conveniently forget that we were all once the same – high-achieving, bright, burdened with Advanced Placement courses and devoted to science camp. We separate ourselves on the basis of intelligence (or the lack thereof), loathing to be considered once again the nerds we were in middle school. Even in this academic world, we can’t bear to be considered that greatest evil of the geeky sixth-grade lunch table – “too” smart.
When I first studied the American Civil War in fourth grade, I was astounded to discover that my parents, educated in communist Yugoslavia during the 1970s, knew more about the Battle of Gettysburg than I ever would. By elementary school, they knew the capitals of every state in the United States. (Most American adults can’t say the same.)
eanwhile, when I told a fellow student at my high school – an academically rigorous, application-only magnet school in Virginia – that I was Croatian, he stared at me blankly and asked, in all seriousness, if Croatia was a vegetable. When I told him it wasn’t, he shrugged, indifferent.
I don’t think it was entirely his fault – blame it on a lack of interest in geography, a poor public school system and American hegemony. Quite simply, I’m not bothered by what we don’t know but by the fact that it is increasingly socially acceptable for us not to know it.
Jay Leno goes Jaywalking and we’re content to laugh at people who think that residents of Amsterdam are called Amsterdanians and that Mount Rushmore is the tallest mountain in the world.
It’s not funny – it’s downright sad. Rather than encourage the pursuit of knowledge and intelligence, we pat ourselves on the back and nonchalantly tell ourselves that it’s perfectly acceptable not to have even the most basic knowledge.
As a country, we’ve become particularly inept at mathematics. How many times have you heard someone – even someone with many years of education under his or her belt – tell you, unperturbed, that they don’t know how to add fractions or handle percentages because math is just too hard?
According to a study by The Washington Post, 84 percent of American middle school students would rather clean their rooms, eat their vegetables, take out the garbage and go to the dentist than do their math homework. It’s no wonder that American students lag behind the rest of the world in achievement in math when, everywhere you look, shortcuts exist that allow us to think less and less.
Our entire culture is enabling us to become a society of mindless drones. I can spend my money without a second thought because when I go to the mall, the little placard under the sale sign tells me the new costs of every reduced item in an organized chart. (How else would I know what 30 percent off amounted to?) Cell phones come equipped with tip calculators – because percentages are impossible to manage on regular calculators – so that you can easily give the correct gratuity.
Why bother with that little nuisance known as “thought” when you can get a machine to do it for you? I spent more time in my calculus class learning how to use my graphing calculator than I did actually learning calculus.
y favorite manifestation of our nation’s collective disinterest in intelligence is exemplified by the 2004 poll that found that more than half of undecided voters indicated that they would rather have a beer with President Bush than with the opposing presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Perhaps I have fallen victim to the same sort of mindset that resulted in former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’s loss to the first President Bush – that being knowledgeable, articulate and experienced are primary qualifications for the presidency.
Of course, “likability” has its place; but at the same time, it distresses me to know that a majority of Americans would forfeit intellect for the friendly next-door neighbor when it comes to politics and international affairs.
Some pundits claimed that Bush won because he was seen as a regular guy – but I don’t want a regular guy as the leader of the free world, I want the best-equipped person available.
What’s so scary about being smart, then? Classical scholars in ancient Greece and Rome exalted the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom as the most worthy goal in a well-lived life. Our values have changed – today, Americans perpetuate a culture in which being intelligent is immediately equated with being nerdy, elitist, snobbish and out of touch. Plato called knowledge the food of the soul, but unfortunately, it seems like we “U.S. Americans” aren’t that hungry.
Ena Dekanic is a sophomore in the College. She can be reached at dekanicthehoya.com. Crying Over Spilled Milk appears every other Tuesday.
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