Are Americans dumber than Europeans?

February 20, 2009

Dear Cecil:

In a Straight Dope staff report I read online, the writer kindly reminded readers that € is the symbol for the euro. As a European, it seemed to me to be unnecessary until I recalled the old stereotype that we, the Europeans, so enjoy believing about the general American populace: that they're stupid and/or blind as far as the rest of the world is concerned. So, my question to you, an American who is no doubt not stupid or blind as far as I know, is how close to the mark are we Europeans in assuming that Americans are generally dumb? Where do "y'all" rank globally? And, while we're on it, where do European countries rank? And, if it turns out we were all wrong about our neighbors across the pond, is there a reason why Europeans would spread such filthy lies about your noble and intelligent nation? Please help restore my faith in America.

Cecil replies:

You think we're stupid? Just because we let a smirking doofus steal our presidential election and lead us into a bogus war? Come on, that was years ago! Let bygones be bygones. Besides, didn't we just elect the most fab president ever?

Maybe you think we're stupid because a bunch of slicks who went to our fanciest schools just trashed the banking systems from here to Iceland (sorry 'bout that), after which we gave them a ton of money so they could take home huge bonuses and laff it up while the rest of us eat tainted peanut butter. OK, OK, mistakes were made. But we gave you the Internet, didn't we? Jeez, cut us a little slack.

Actually, Geert, as unbelievable as it seems, you can't find much solid evidence that Americans are any dumber than Europeans or the rest of the world, for that matter. Not saying we're not — just that proof is hard to come by, mostly because of the utter impossibility of even defining, let alone measuring, smartness and dumbness.

In IQ and Global Inequality (2006), a couple of European academics named Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen took a stab at ranking the intelligence quotients of 190 countries. Not surprisingly (given that Western scientists cooked up the tests), they found the U.S. and other industrialized nations clustered right around the average score of 100. They listed the mean IQ of the U.S., France, and Denmark at 98, Germany at 99, the UK and the Netherlands at 100. At the top of their list were Japan, Taiwan, and China at 105, North and South Korea at 106, and Hong Kong and Singapore at 108. Of course the very idea of the intelligence quotient is highly controversial, and some of the authors' figures have been roundly criticized; in certain cases they seem to have been little better than guesses. If you want proof that Europeans are smarter than Americans, help yourself, but me, I'm not so sure.

Maybe we can use literacy as a measure of smarts. According to the CIA (and we all know how smart they are: intelligence is their middle name), adult literacy in the United States is about the same as in Australia, Canada, and Europe. If you want to use higher education as your yardstick, the U.S. fares a little better: a 2005 study by the Educational Policy Institute showed the U.S. had the highest college attainment rate of 13 peer countries (10 in Europe plus the U.S., Canada, and Australia), with 31 percent of those between ages 25 and 34 having completed a four-year degree.

But even if Americans aren’t innately dumber than Europeans, that doesn't mean we ain't ignorant. The question before us asks if Americans are "stupid and/or blind as far as the rest of the world is concerned," and on the second part of that formulation we have to plead guilty as charged. All it takes is a vacation to know that Europeans are way more likely to speak our language than we are to speak theirs, and to know and care a lot more about our business than we do about theirs. Why? Probably because we’re greedy, smug, and self-centered. But in our defense let me point out that we live in a big, big country. Travel 500 miles in Europe and you might go through several languages and national histories. (And only ten years ago you would have needed several currencies.) If I travel 500 miles, I'm in Pennsylvania. Or Nebraska. Same language, same money, same media, same bad food. As a nation we're just a little unclear on the concept of foreign countries.

Besides, we apparently don't really need to know much about the rest of the world. According to Baylor University polling, 55 percent of Americans believe they have an advantage that surely outweighs any intellectual deficiencies:

A guardian angel.

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References

Baldi, S., Jin, Y., Skemer, M., Green, P.J., and Herget, D. (2007). Highlights From PISA 2006: Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Science and Mathematics Literacy in an International Context (NCES 2008–016).National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.

Dean, Cornelia. “Scientific Savvy? In U.S., Not Much.” New York Times, August 30, 2005.

Lynn, R. and Vanhanen, T. IQ and the wealth of nations. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002.

National Endowment for the Arts. To Read or Not To Read - A Question of National Consequence. 2007.

National Geographic Education Foundation National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literary Study May, 2006.

Prothero, Stephan Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - and Doesn't New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Usher, A. & Cervenan, A. (2005). Global Higher Education Rankings 2005. Toronto, ON: Educational Policy Institute.

Vogel, Gretchen. “Asia and Europe Top in World, but Reasons are Hard to Find.” Science, New Series, Vol. 274, No. 5291 (Nov. 22, 1996), p. 1296.

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