When former president George W. Bush asked the question, “Is our children learning?” (Florence, South Carolina, January 11, 2000), somehow I suspected that the status of education in the United States was unlikely to improve over the next few years, and that ignorance in America would continue to flourish. A few days ago I encountered some particularly humorous examples of such ignorance while reading through the Friday Funnies section of the Casey Daily Dispatch (the remainder of the linked article makes for an interesting read as well, although the other subjects addressed are much more serious). Supposedly these questions and answers were from previous student responses to the GED examinations dating back to 2000, although I was unable to track down the primary source for them.
Question: Name the four seasons.
Answer: Salt, pepper, mustard, and vinegar.
Q: Explain one of the processes by which water can be made safe to drink.
A: Flirtation makes water safe to drink because it removes large pollutants like grit, sand, dead sheep, and canoeists.
Q: How is dew formed?
A: The sun shines down on the leaves and makes them perspire.
Q: What causes the tides in the oceans?
A: The tides are a fight between the Earth and the Moon. All water tends to flow towards the Moon, because there is no water on the Moon, and nature abhors a vacuum. I forget where the Sun joins the fight.
Q: What guarantees may a mortgage company insist on?
A: If you are buying a house, they will insist that you are well endowed.
Q: In a democratic society, how important are elections?
A: Very important. Sex can only happen when a male gets an election.
Q: What are steroids?
A: Things for keeping carpets still on the stairs.
Q: What happens to your body as you age?
A: When you get old, so do your bowels and you get intercontinental.
Q: What happens to a boy when he reaches puberty?
A: He says goodbye to his boyhood and looks forward to his adultery.
Q: Name a major disease associated with cigarettes.
A: Premature death.
Q: What is artificial insemination?
A: When the farmer does it to the bull instead of the cow.
Q: How can you delay milk turning sour?
A: Keep it in the cow.
Q: How are the main 20 parts of the body categorized (e.g., the abdomen)?
A: The body is consisted into 3 parts – the brainium, the borax, and the abdominal cavity. The brainium contains the brain, the borax contains the heart and lungs, and the abdominal cavity contains the five bowels: A, E, I, O, U.
Q: What is the fibula?
A: A small lie.
Q: What does “varicose” mean?
Q: What is the most common form of birth control?
A: Most people prevent contraception by wearing a condominium.
Q: Give the meaning of the term “Caesarean section.”
A: The Caesarean section is a district in Rome.
Q: What is a seizure?
A: A Roman Emperor.
Q: What is a terminal illness?
A: When you are sick at the airport.
Q: Use the word “judicious” in a sentence to show you understand its meaning.
A: Hands that judicious can be soft as your face.
Q: What does the word “benign” mean?
A: Benign is what you will be after you be eight.
Q: What is a turbine?
A: Something an Arab or Shreik wears on his head.
Reading through the above responses reminded me of some funny videos I had seen a few years earlier which also featured humorous examples of ignorance. The clip below is similar to one that I had posted on this site back in 2008, but this later version has accurate subtitles added so that you can clearly understand what is being said.
Then I found this more recent two-part video that was apparently part of a high school project produced by Andre Fiorito. The production staff goes to Woodlands Mall in Houston, Texas and asks several different people a series of “common knowledge” questions, most of them relating to history and geography topics. Although the first question in the list, “If Iraq is in the Middle East, what is in the Middle West?”, was deemed too vague and confusing by most readers (the answer could be anything from “United States” to “Central America” depending on one’s idea of “the West”), the rest of the questions were fairly straightforward. For the benefit of our readers, I will list all of the questions with the correct answers below the two videos.
1. If Iraq is in the Middle East, what is in the Middle West?
Answer: Apparently intended to be “the United States”, although the concept of a “Middle West” in geography is rather vague.
2. What is the religion of Israel?
3. How many sides does a cube have?
4. Who won the French and Indian War?
Answer: the British.
5. Who is our vice president (referring to the United States as of 2011)?
Answer: Joe Biden, formally Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.
6. Name the seven continents.
Answer: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Antarctica.
7. Name the first three presidents of the United States.
Answer: George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.
8. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? Who signed it first?
Answer: Thomas Jefferson wrote the original draft, although others assisted in editing the final copy. John Hancock was the first signatory.
9. Name a country that starts with the letter “U”.
Answer: Any of the following: United States, United Kingdom, Ukraine, Uruguay, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, or Uzbekistan.
10. What is the biggest state in the United States of America?
Answer: Alaska (by land area) or California (by population)
11. If you are in a race and you overtake the second person, what position are you in?
Answer: Second place.
12. How many sides does a right triangle have?
13. Which state did KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) originate from?
14. What religion do Muslims follow?
15. What religion are Buddhist monks?
16. How many states are in the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii)?
17. What currency is used in the United Kingdom?
Answer: The pound sterling (GBP).
18. Whose portrait is on the 10 dollar bill (of the United States)?
Answer: Alexander Hamilton.
Perhaps inspired by the videos above, another group of friends decided to conduct a similar social experiment, once again going to a shopping mall and asking random people a few simple questions about the world, the United States, and mathematics/science topics. As you can see, most of the respondents are utterly clueless about basic facts that most of us were supposed to have learned back in high school (or earlier).
Here are the correct answers to the questions from this video (I have omitted the ones that were already asked in the previous videos — you can scroll up a little to find those).
1. What language do they speak in Iran?
Answer: Persian (official, also known as “Farsi” or “Parsi”), along with several other regional languages.
2. How long is a U.S. Senator’s term?
Answer: Six years.
3. In mathematics, there is a famous number called pi. What is it?
Answer: Pi is a constant number that represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. The value of pi is approximately 3.14159, with a decimal representation that never ends or settles into a repeating pattern.
4. Who was the first president of the United States?
Answer: George Washington.
5. How many continents are there?
6. Who is the president of France?
Answer: Francois Hollande (currently, as of 2013), but was actually Nicolas Sarkozy during the time of the video’s production in 2011.
7. What is the biggest star in our solar system?
Answer: The sun.
8. What is the most populous country in the world?
9. True or false: Alaska is a country.
10. Name two countries that border the United States by land.
Answer: Canada and Mexico.
In addition to the general cluelessness about subjects like history and geography, many Americans also display an astonishing ignorance on financial matters. Besides for spending money on frivolous things with money that they do not actually have and thereby losing even more money through interest charges on their credit cards, most people also seem completely unaware of the value of precious metals, as the videos below clearly demonstrate.
In one of his many interesting social experiments, Mark Dice offers to give away a one-ounce gold coin (Canadian Maple Leaf) if people can guess the value of the coin within a range of plus or minus 25 percent. At the time of this video, gold was still trading for “only” $1,150 per ounce. Yet in spite of the fact that gold has been used as a form of money and has been well known as a valuable and treasured metal for centuries, no one even comes close to guessing the correct price for the coin.
More than three years later on February 5, 2013, Mark Dice again returns to the streets of Oceanside, California to see if the people have become any smarter, or at least more aware about the gold prices. By this time the gold price has risen to over $1,600 per ounce, but this does not seem to have caught anyone’s attention as the guesses are all still well below the mark. One person managed to guess higher than all of the 2009 respondents with an attempt of $590, but this was the closest that anyone was able to get.
Perhaps not surprisingly, ignorance in America also extends to the political realm, as this report from Russia Today, which was produced during the 2012 election cycle, aptly illustrates.
The report also makes an important point that bears repeating. It is not just the fact that people do not know so many things that is disturbing; it is the fact that so many people, even people who aspire to become president of the United States, do not think that they NEED to know these things and will not even bother to look them up! In other words, we seem to have as much of a problem with apathy as we do with ignorance.
Occasionally even the mainstream media (which I am not normally a fan of, to put it mildly) notices the disturbing level of ignorance in the American population. This report from CNN points out a few interesting tidbits that Rick Shenkman exposed in his book Just How Stupid Are We?, a scathing review of American political ignorance.
- Only two out of five voters can name the three branches of the federal government.
- Only one in seven (approximately 14 percent) of Americans can find Iraq on a map.
- Only one in five Americans know that we have 100 senators.
Following up on this theme, we should note that the combination of apathy and ignorance can be dangerous because it makes people especially vulnerable to propaganda and manipulation. This was demonstrated by yet another one of Mark Dice’s provocative videos where he interviewed several people under the assumption that President Obama had found some nuclear warheads, the so-called “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs), in Iraq. He asked people what they thought about the situation in general and sometimes asked them whether or not they thought that Republicans in Congress were giving him enough credit for finding the nonexistent weapons. Amazingly, many people went along with this and actually acted like they knew what he was talking about. Not a single person ever questioned or challenged him on the veracity of this apparent “fact”.
Returning to the question posed by the previous American president, “Is our children learning?”, I think we can make at least one conclusion from all of this. Yes, Mr. Bush, our children “is” learning — but what is being learned may not resemble anything that we had ever intended to teach.