Your fancy book learnin’ (5×8 – 3/22/11)

What’s so bad about being smart, a river — or two — runs through us, remains of the winter day, how the world changed in a week, and Apple’s gay cure.


Newsweek recentl asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s citizenship test. Twenty-nine percent couldn’t name the current vice president (Joe Biden). Seventy-three percent didn’t know why the U.S. fought the Cold War (stop the spread of Communism). Six percent couldn’t circle Independence Day on the calendar (July 4th).

What’s going on here? The magazine — in How Dumb Are We? — tried not to hurt our feelings by pointing out that the U.S. political system makes it hard for Americans to catch up, but let’s be honest with ourselves: These statistics show we’re often not a bright — or at least a well-informed — lot.

Is this why politicians who spare the details often are more popular than those who dive into the data?

The current conflict over government spending illustrates the new dangers of ignorance. Every economist knows how to deal with the debt: cost-saving reforms to big-ticket entitlement programs; cuts to our bloated defense budget; and (if growth remains slow) tax reforms designed to refill our depleted revenue coffers. But poll after poll shows that voters have no clue what the budget actually looks like. A 2010 World Public Opinion survey found that Americans want to tackle deficits by cutting foreign aid from what they believe is the current level (27 percent of the budget) to a more prudent 13 percent. The real number is under 1 percent. A Jan. 25 CNN poll, meanwhile, discovered that even though 71 percent of voters want smaller government, vast majorities oppose cuts to Medicare (81 percent), Social Security (78 percent), and Medicaid (70 percent). Instead, they prefer to slash waste–a category that, in their fantasy world, seems to include 50 percent of spending, according to a 2009 Gallup poll.

Last week, we were reading one of those anti-NPR blog posts which made a case for preventing any federally originated money from being used to buy NPR programming (or MPR programming for that matter) and in its litany of transgressions it said “NPR once aired a story defending elitism.”

NPR didn’t air such a “story,” it presented a segment on Talk of the Nation with Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed, who had written a piece for his paper.But the “elitism” allegation still sticks as something that must be defended. We presume the word is misused and that the problem isn’t that people are smart, it’s that they are smug about it and nobody likes smug and more than people like the notion of others being stumped by the complexity of a calendar.

Just today, though, we find out that 1 in 4 kids in the Moorhead-Fargo area won’t meet national standards for graduating from high school. At a time when there’s criticism of teachers for not turning out kids that are as smart as we think they should be, why do we run away from our education and our fancy book learnin’? And why aren’t we more alarmed by our standing in the world when it comes to being informed?



The clap of thunder you may have heard overnight, and the steady drumbeat of raindrops as you woke up, is the signal that the flood season picture has no changed dramatically. None of the official river projections to know have considered the substantial rainfall (snowfall up north).

In St. Paul, officials have told the people living in the Upper Landing development — that’s the one that caused everyone to wonder “why are they building housing there? — to be prepared to leave.

Down in New Ulm, the Cottonwood continues to rise. David Berg took this picture for me:


The Cottonwood will rise at least another five feet before cresting on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, on the Mississippi River, it’s hard to believe the levee in South St. Paul might be threatened, though officials say it’s a possibility. This is at 7.52 feet, 14 feet below what it will be by a week from today (it rose by a half-foot overnight).


Of course, nothing draws the cameras like high water. Teresa Boardman of St. Paul snapped this yesterday. Almost in the water, but not quite.


This year, I’ll be collecting screenshots of TV reporters standing in the water when reporting on the flood. Be on the lookout, please.

We heard from John Kurkosky of Annandale the other day, who let us know he’s written a song about the 2009 flooding of the Red River in Fargo-Moorhead. Hear it here. He says Fargo officials have asked for permission to use it as the soundtrack in a video. Expect it on YouTube soon.


Today is the second day of spring, which serves as a reminder that we’re one day closer to next winter. That’s just the way the winter was this year. But reader Mike Finn took his motorcycle out for a ride yesterday and discovered there’s some might fine winter sculpture still being done by Minnehaha Creek.



Jon Stewart, who’s been off for a week, had a funny line last night, “When we left, the world’s biggest trouble spots were Wisconsin and the set of Two and a Half Men.” Then he asked a question that no reporter asked about the war in Libya: “Can we afford it?”Overnight, an F-15 crashed in Libya. The two U.S. pilots ejected safely. An F-15 costs about $30 million.

Meanwhile, there was a big media food fight last night when CNN’s correspondent in Libya called out FoxNews for reporting that journalists in Tripoli were used as human shields. Nic Robertson said the lone FoxNews employee never came out of his hotel to see what was going on.


Gay? There’s an app for that. And that’s got a University of Minnesota professor upset. Pediatrics professor Gary Remafedi says the IPhone app “to help people leave homosexuality” misrepresents his research, the U of M Daily reports today. Remafedi studied the demographics of adolescent sexual orientation in Minnesota.

Apple gave the app its highest rating.


Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced Monday that he is forming an exploratory committee as a first step toward running for president. Would sort of a president would Tim Pawlenty be?


Midmorning (9-11 a.m.) – First hour: America is a confident nation, and a nation of confident people. But sometimes that confidence means we overestimate our abilities. Midmorning looks at the roots of American immodesty.

Second hour: Guy Kawasaki is a man of the moment and a man of the future. He helped Apple achieve dominance, became a successful entrepreneur, and now is a Twitter sensation. His 10th book explains how to influence people while maintaining high ethical standards.

Midday (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) – First hour: Dr. Jon Hallberg answers medical questions.

Second hour: Conductor Sarah Hicks.

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: TBA

Second hour: Agnes Kamara-Umunna’s, author of “And Still Peace Did Not Come,” about the war in Liberia.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – Brock Savelkoul nearly died in an ambush in Iraq. Later, the former soldier would find himself in a showdown in a pasture in North Dakota. Savelkoul suffered from traumatic brain injury, got help from the Army, but then, he unraveled. He’ll share his story.

  • There is a strong anti-intellectual streak in this country, and always has been.

  • nt

    American anti-intellectualism is fairly well-known isn’t it? I think you guys did a call-in show on it in the last year.

  • Bob Collins

    This feels — to me — something different than mere anti-intellectualism.

    I mean, if somebody could point to where July 4th is on a calendar, we wouldn’t call that person an “intellectual,” would we?

  • Lindsay

    In a job interview once, my potential boss remarked that I seemed to be too smart for the job — mind you, not over qualified or too educated — too “smart.” I’m actually glad that he said that because it was a strong signal to me that I did not want to work there and later turned down the offer.

    I’m not sure what is going on with our culture. I’m hoping we can just chalk it up to people being nervous and flubbing an on-the-street question. Could the 6% who missed the Independence Day question be foreign-born residents who just haven’t learned the name for the holiday yet?

  • Tyler

    Bob, I think we’d call that person a “3rd grader.”

  • BJ


    It’s why we have an electoral college for president. And senate seats are 6 years. It goes way back. Say what you will about the founding fathers, they knew.

  • BJ

    @ Lindsay – I would guess that the foreign-born residents scored better, they almost always do on tests like this.

  • Bob Collins

    //Could the 6% who missed the Independence Day question be foreign-born residents who just haven’t learned the name for the holiday yet?

    It’s possible, although the questions come from the U.S. citizenship quiz.

  • Josh

    I don’t need some journalist in his ivory tower telling me the truth about history. Like a certain 6th district representative, I think the first shots of the revolution were fired in New Hampshire and the Founding Fathers abolished slavery.

  • Jim Shapiro

    To paraphrase HL Mencken, ” No one has ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

    For an explanation as to why, my favorite is by the late, great George Carlin:

  • Andrew S

    5% of US households don’t speak English. Probably 10% of any population is going to have trouble keeping their spit in their mouths. That’s nearly 15% of the population who aren’t going to know shirts from Shinola. I don’t think Americans are that much dumber than any other heterogeneous group of western people.

    Our real problem is that nearly 50% of US citizens are of below average! We need to enact some sort of legislation.

  • JackU

    @Andrew S: Do you have something to back up those statistics or are you an adherent of How to Lie with Statistics?

    @BJ: The elements of the American system of government that you mention were put in place to protect the country from “Mob rule”. It allows smaller states to band together to block undue influence of larger states. When the nation was founded Virginia and New York most likely could have survived on their own. NY was viewed as the state most likely to be able to “go it alone” and that’s why it’s residents where the direct target of the Federalist Papers. So the compromise (there’s that word again) was to provide enough power “assigned” to the States to temper the more democratic nature of the House of Representatives.

    As far as “anti-intellectualism” is concerned smart people are “the problem” until they are needed to solve some other more important problem.

  • Andrew S

    @JackU You could google “5% of US households don’t speak English” (really, copy and paste it from this post or the one above) and find that the data comes from the US Census Bureau.

    As for the percentage of people who have trouble keeping their spit in their mouths, I imagine that would be a highly subjective evaluation. 10% seems conservative to me, but your mouthbreather qualifications may be either broader or narrower.

  • BJ

    @JackU – Not sure if “Mob rule”, is different enough from “anti-intellectual” to have written so much.

  • Bob Collins

    The usual reminder: I don’t allow comments on other commenters. Speak to the issue, offer something intelligent, and contribute to an adult discussion.

  • I think this story about Mitt Romney using “nuanced” as an epithet dovetails into this discussion:

    Nuance comes from comprehension, from knowledge, and from intelligence.

  • BJ

    Sorry Bob. I’ve been kind of grumpy as of late. 🙂