Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The problem with knowledge

This has to be one of the funniest things I have seen in a while. Poor Miss South Carolina in the Miss Teen USA competition has a hard time answering the question "Why do you think a fifth of Americans can't locate the US on a map of the world?".

To start with, you can't help but feel sorry for the poor girl. Public speaking is tough. It takes experience to overcome direction-less rambling when stumped.

But what is obvious when you look back at her initial reaction is that she was, well and truly, stumped. But why? The question seems so easy! It's obviously a polite way to ask why Americans are so culturally inept and ignorant of even their own place in the world (which isn't completely true). She could have just rambled on about the need for education, more cultural sensitivity etc, any number of PC buzzwords.

She didn't because she failed to deduce that this outwardly innocuous question had any deeper meaning. She was just trying to figure out why someone wouldn't know where the US was - of course it's due to the lack of maps!

The real problem is that the premise of the question is wrong. Not knowing where the US is on a map of the world is not an indication of ignorance or lack of 'worldliness', it's an indication that the knowledge itself is largely useless.

Why would you ever need to locate your country on a map of the world? Yes, there are exceptions, but for most people (at least a fifth of Americans) it's easy to conceive why this knowledge is redundant. And besides, what sort of test do you use? A blank map of the world with no city names and just coastline? Give anyone a globe fully annotated with landmark and urban center names and I am sure they are going to have no problem picking out NY and LA and guessing the US is in the middle. All the knowledge they need to store is that one is on the west coast and one on the east.

This issue reminded me of another test that seemingly showed a lack of attention to detail. When given 20 different versions of the face of a 1 cent coin (with different positioning of the inscriptions etc.), most Americans couldn't pick the correct one. Why? Because you don't need to know the exact features of the 1 cent coin, the knowledge is, again, useless. You just need to know how it differs from the other coins in your wallet, in size and shape, for the system to work.

And that's the problem with knowledge - it's easy to measure in the wrong way. In the case of Miss Teen South Carolina, her undecipherable ramblings might have made her the poster child for dumb blonds, but in my opinion, the question was as equally stupid.

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Anonymous said...

Such knowledge may be useless for most but the map of the world is rather beautiful and inspirational. To be able to visualise our place in the world, to see how our spot on the globe relates to other spots, makes us more than just functional creatures fumbling for a 5p. It tunes us in to the bigger picture. It may even make us sensitive to the miracle of our existence in this tiny outpost of the universe. I feel sorry for anyone who can't appreciate this - they really should know better.

Paul Soldera said...

I agree. But I can't help also wondering if that notion is the tyranny of educated people - why do we need to know our insignificance in the face of the vastness of the world or universe to appreciate our existence?

I wonder how happy those 1/5 of Americans are?