During last week’s Miss Teen USA pageant, eighteen-year-old Lauren Caitlin Upton—now better-known as Miss Teen South Carolina—fumbled her way into infamy with a rambling, disjointed, and generally appalling response to a simple question, demonstrating to me that she is neither well-informed nor well-educated. But Caitlin Upton is merely a symptom of a larger problem.
That larger problem, my friends, is that Caitlin lives in a country where knowledge—especially the kind that may be acquired through schooling—is not valued. That’s why the most popular kids in school are never the top students. That’s why the smart kids get picked on. That’s why millions of people who can’t name the capital of Burundi flock to their TVs to watch beauty pageants instead of the international news. And that’s why, as a nation, Americans are woefully deficient in their knowledge of the outside world. Only 21 percent of Americans follow international news closely, while 65 percent admit they lack the background to follow overseas news. Ignorance is part of the American way of life and people like Caitlin Upton merely serve to illustrate this.
Basically, Caitlin’s ignorant because she can get away with it. How else could she have reached the age of 18 without having acquired sufficient English or logic or rhetoric or whatever other foundational skills one needs to answer a question as simple as the one she was asked? Clearly, she’s never had to! She’s pretty, she’s blonde, and that’s enough to have gotten her this far. Her inability to think or articulate opinions is irrelevant to her day-to-day life. As the Young Turks point out, Caitlin took fourth place in the pageant, despite her moronic response!!! Obviously, the message is that nobody cares that this woman is an idiot, as long as she’s pretty. Millions of Americans are getting that message loud and clear.
Caitlin is not unique. She’s not a bad apple or an anomaly or a black sheep. On the contrary, she’s a typical American teenager. Even worse, she’s an archetypal American teenager. She is the American teenager that millions of other American teenagers aspire to be like. And our values do little to help. Beauty pageants are elegant, elaborate affairs that showcase beautiful people wearing exotic costumes. Geography bees, on the other hand, are far less glamorous and receive far less publicity. How many high schoolers would rather win a geography bee than be Miss Teen USA?
Popular culture provides even more prosaic examples. Take country music legend Alan Jackson, for example, who proudly proclaims in a hit song that:
I’m just a singer of simple songs.
I’m not a real political man.
I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you
The difference in Iraq and Iran.
But country singers are by no means the only Americans who revel in knowing nothing about the outside world. The system is rotten from the top down, and even political figures go out of their way to prove how provincial they are. How many of our political figures can speak a language other than English? How many of them have lived or traveled abroad? In fact, to have done so is considered a political liability. Remember Sen. John Kerry, who challenged George Bush for the presidency in 2004? He caught flack for having lived in Europe, for being a Europhile, and for “looking French.”
Our ignorance of the outside world is not only a part of our way of life, it is an essential component of our very understanding of how we live. Ignorance allows Americans to believe that the US healthcare system is the best in the world, despite studies that rank it far behind those found in other countries. If the majority of Americans don’t even know the names of other countries or where on the map to find them, how can they be expected to know about social and economic systems in those countries? This same ignorance allows us to defend our petroleum-based economy while the rest of the industrialized world is exploring clean and renewable energy alternatives.
Most seriously, this ignorance enabled the Bush administration to successfully conflate Osama bin-Laden’s Al-Qaeda network with all Muslims and all Arabs. Only ignorant people could have been led to believe that a secular Ba’athist like Saddam Hussein would ever collaborate with a theocratic zealot like Osama bin-Laden. Yet this is precisely the argument put forward by the Bush Administration as a pretext for invading Iraq, and the majority of Americans—knowing next to nothing about the Arab and Islamic worlds—swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. Today, the people of Iraq are paying the price for our ignorance and gullibility.
In Caitlin’s case, the worst consequence of her ignorance was humiliation. For millions of other people the world over, the consequences of Americans’ ignorance may be far more dire.