Are Americans Better or Worse Informed About the World?

At my neighborhood diner I had a short chat today with a charming and sharp waiter about news coverage in the U.S. and in other countries. The question came up, of course, whether Americans are more or less ignorant, or better or worse informed, about the world than are, say, Italians, the Dutch, or Sri Lankans. Most reasonably well informed Americans and foreigners think that the answer is that Americans are less well informed than, say, Europeans.

That doesn’t sound right to me, and I travel a fair amount and meet a lot of people. It’s true that fewer Americans have visited a foreign country than have, say, Dutch people. But that’s not a fair comparison, since the Netherlands is a pretty small country on a continent with a lot of other countries on it., whereas the U.S. is one of three nation states on the north American continent and is really, really big, both in terms of geography and in terms of population. How many Europeans can name or locate the states of the United States or the Provinces of Canada? Not that many.

It’s also true that American high school students are less well informed than high school students in, say, Germany or France. But that’s also not a fair comparison, since almost 100% of the U.S. population goes to “high school,” while the percentage who attend Gymnasium or the equivalent in Europe is much, much smaller. If you were to compare all 17-year-olds, that would be more revealing, and would probably show similar results to fairly posed questions.

It’s not that I’m nationalistic about the matter, but I simply think that the bad rap that people from the U.S. get abroad is largely undeserved. (And let’s not mention the sliming that the U.S. got from the French foreign minister, who insinuated before the UN Security Council that he was wiser and smarter because he came from an “older” country, as if the Republic of France were older than the United States of America, or as if the wisdom of a foreign minister is proportional to the length of time that the area his party governs has been ruled by a succession of kings, emperors, dictators, and politicians.)

3 Responses to “Are Americans Better or Worse Informed About the World?”

  1. Dear Sir,

    First, allow me to introduce myself; I’m Jelmer, 17, student(Gymnasium)from Holland.
    I enjoyed your article, but I believe it is wrong to compare the level European ‘Gymnasia’ to the level of American ‘High Schools’.

    In Europe there ar lots of different levels, Gymnasium, is the highest, but there are at least 4 lower levels. In America there is only one (High School), and I really doubt that 100% of the American youth can handle the level of Gymnasium.
    Last year, a guy from Canada camem over to Holland because his father had to work here and he joined my class (Gymnasium level). He said it was much harder here than in Canada.

    I find it also verry odd, you made that comparison, It would be better if you had done some research, and not just compared America to Europe.

    I will not start to discus who is smarter, Americans or people from European countries. As for the people who cannot locate or name states of the United States, that will depend from whom you would like to know; a person who has only
    finished primairy school of someone who gratuaded from unniversity

    About the French foreign minister; this is what most of the Frech people will act like, don’t blame them, let them think they are smarter, why should we bother?, let them be

  2. Tom G. Palmer

    Actually, Jelmer is not disagreeing with me, but agreeing. My point was that comparing the knowledge of high school students in the U.S. with that of, say, Gynmasium students in Germany is comparing apples and oranges, or perhaps comparing diamonds and quartz.

  3. I’m so sorry, I completly misunderstood your actual meaning. I never should have said that you had to do some research, that was very unthoughtfull and rude.
    Sorry again

    Keep up the good work.