To clarify my post below a little bit: I don’t think Americans are stupider than other people…though we may be stupider than we used to be. Indeed, I think the U.S. has been, historically, the repository for the smarter and more ambitious people from other countries–risk-takers, adventurers, those who felt suffocated by the absence of freedom or opportunity. That remains true today, especially among our hard-working recent immigrants.
But, I also suspect we’re suffering the long-term aftereffects of a prolonged period of affluenza–the period of peace (for the most part) and prosperity that lasted from the end of WWII to the beginning of the 21st century. During that time, we got lazy, lost the habits of citizenship…and began to fall behind educationally, in part because our primary and secondary schools remained mired in the industrial age…and also because our public schools never really were very good at educating those who weren’t hungry for knowledge (in the past, the mass of average students could find good-paying industrial jobs, which are no longer plentiful).
Clearly, education reform is absolutely essential–and the Obama Administration has, quietly, ramped up efforts to make the system more creative and responsive (despite resistance from teachers’ unions and other educational reactionaries). But the bottom line still stands: it is impossible to run a democracy without active, interested citizens. We have too few of those right now. The gap between the numbers who watch American Idol and those who watch the Lehrer News Hour will always be massive–but the number of people who don’t pay any attention to the news at all continues to grow….and all too many of those who do try to follow the news get their information from sources that feed their prejudices. I don’t think you can run a democracy or remain prosperous in a situation like that forever.