Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Otherize Part 2: Some Thoughts on America

So a while back I wrote a blog post about the word otherize. This post is an extension of the first and sort of an informal mind dump about the topic. When talking about the word otherize, I generally associate the “other” as someone from a different culture/nationality. What happens when the other is just someone who goes against the norms of their country? What if the social norms of a society don’t reflect the majority (ie America is seen as a male nation but the majority of the population is women. Or, Americans are typically associated with businessmen but the majority of employees are not businessmen)?

Today James C. Kenny, the former US Ambassador to Ireland, visited my history class. In his opening comments Kenny, having read part of a political science textbook used at my school, said that the book had important knowledge about how to be an American. Maybe he said something about being a good American. Readers, what qualities do you think define any/all American or makes a “good” American?

After Kenny’s comment I began to think about all the people in America who don’t know political science and all of their constitutional freedoms. They can be good Americans too, and that portion of the population probably makes up the majority. Maybe Americans should begin to reshape their norms, and maybe Americans could be better represented as not knowing their own history (sorry if that was offensive). Ambassador Kenny said that his job was to serve represent America. I understand what he meant politically, but most Americans don’t have the same knowledge of U.S. laws and history.

Take a look at this survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. The elite college history survey says, “ACTA commissioned the Roper organization — The Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut — to survey college seniors from the nation’s best colleges and universities as identified by the U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings. The top 55 liberal arts colleges and research universities were sampled during
December 1999. (For a list, see Appendix A.)

How did seniors from our nation’s top colleges and universities do? They flunked. Four
out of five — 81% — of seniors from the top 55 colleges and universities in the United States
received a grade of D or F. They could not identify Valley Forge, or words from the Gettysburg
Address, or even the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution.
• Scarcely more than half knew general information about American democracy and the
• Only 34% of the students surveyed could identify George Washington as an American
general at the battle of Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution.
• Only 42% were able to identify George Washington as “First in war, first in peace, first in the
hearts of his countrymen.”
• Less than one quarter (23%) correctly identified James Madison as the “father of the
• Even fewer — 22% of the college seniors — were able to identify “Government of the
people, by the people, for the people” as a line from the Gettysburg Address — arguably one
of the three most important documents underlying the American system of government.
• Over one-third were unable to identify the U.S. Constitution as establishing the division of
power in American government.
• Little more than half (52%) knew George Washington’s Farewell Address warned against
permanent alliances with foreign governments.
What do they know? They get an A+ in contemporary popular culture.
• 99% know who the cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead are.
• 98% can identify the rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg.” (Full Article)

Are most American’s unaware that we value freedom and education but don’t seem to understand the core teachings of United States history? Understanding political science is an ideal for the “good” American, but is this ideal attainable. Maybe be the other, more pop culture oriented American, is a more applicable contemporary representation of most Americans. I would say this is a major blow to United States legitimacy.

1 comment:

  1. Lauren,
    I'm not sure if the survey you cite above is an accurate measure of "good Americanness." A business major whose last history course might've been US history 5 years previous as a high school junior shouldn't be expected to know details about the revolutionary war any more than a US history major should be expected to know about various business models.
    There's a clear difference between knowing minutiae (with some exceptions) of American history, and not understanding how our government works, and what its core values are.
    Regardless of how we define it, most Americans probably aren't "good" scholars of their own history, but we should seek to define that measure in terms of core values and senses of purpose, not knowledge of Yorktown.