Ignorance Not Just an American Trait

By Jason Menard

Har-dee-har! A recent survey reported on by the Associated Press shows that Americans are geographically challenged. And while it’s certainly tempting to sit on our high horse and chuckle over our dunderheaded friends to the south, in many ways, we’re no better.

The survey of 510 people interviewed in December 2005 and January 2006 showed that one-third of the respondents couldn’t find Louisiana on a map – despite the recent blanket coverage of Hurricane Katrina. On top of that, only 14 per cent believe speaking another language is a necessary skill, 60 per cent couldn’t find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, and almost half couldn’t find the Indian subcontinent on a map of Asia.

Time to guffaw right? Hey, what about that episode of Oprah recently that cast its supercilious eye on the education system in the U.S. and juxtaposed American students and their counterparts in the Far East reciting the first five American Presidents. Guess which group fared well.

But, as President Bush once so aptly put, “Fool me once, shame on, shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.”

Are we truly any better? We like to think that we are, but is it really true. While we love to show how enlightened we are by displaying our understanding and knowledge of American history and politics, how well do we know our own country?

Quick, name the first five Canadian Prime Ministers. Can you do it? Chances are you could name off Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe before you could ever nail Canada’s first five. OK, Sir. John A. is a given. And you’ll get double points for noting that he served twice. But really, did you honestly get Mackenzie, Abbott, Thompson, and Bowell? If you did you’re a better Canadian than I, because I had to look them up. Hell, I’m proud that I know who Charles Tupper is, but don’t ask me when he served.

We grow up learning an overview of Canadian history. We go over the three Cs of Canadiana: Cabot, Cartier, and Champlain. We cruise through the War of 1812, we learn about the British North America Act and Confederation. But does the average Canadian know any more about his or her own country than our neighbours to the south?

As Canadians, we often mock Americans as being almost xenophobic in their analysis of history. If it ain’t red, white, and blue, it doesn’t matter to you appears to be the model. But in a classic example of what it is to be a Canadian, we focus more on the history south of the 49 th than we ever do our own history. We complain when we’re ignored on the global stage, but we ignore the stories we’ve penned in our own back yard.

We externalize. We validate ourselves by what others think about us, as opposed to how we feel. That’s why we take such an active interest in the world around us – we’re desperate to make sure we’re a player on the global stage. Our ability to find other countries on the map reeks more of desperation than a commitment to intellectual pursuits.

Whether it’s Canadian TV, music, film, history, or even — to an extent – politics, we need outsiders to validate our experience. Say what you want about what the Americans don’t know about the world. There’s certainly a lot we can learn from them about appreciating what you have on your own.

That’s not to say the American model is ideal. There should be a balance between national pride and global awareness. Ignorance in any form should not be tolerated. We should strive to learn more – more about the people around us, their languages, their cultures, and their history, in addition to all the things that have made our country great.

However, the high horse that we’re sitting on rocks violently. Our glee in reveling in American ignorance only masks the lack of introspection we’ve undertaken in examining our own faults. We’re no better, no worse – in fact, we’re the same in a different way. If the Americans are the noisy neighbours who come and go as they please, party all night, and generally disrespect even the existence of those who live around them, we Canadians are no better in being the neighbour that runs around to everyone’s home, snootily making comments, while our own home and family is neglected.

As the old adage states, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones – especially when we don’t even know who built the house we live in.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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