A widely reported poll from the Pew Research Center pegs the number of Americans who believe President Obama is a Muslim at 18 percent. Matt Drudge and others prefer the "shock" Time-SRBI poll showing 24 percent holding this false notion.So what? Or rather, why isn't this a story about the deficiencies of our educational system rather than a story about President Obama? Why isn't it presented with some context about other crazy things believed by what used to be called the lunatic fringe?
About a fifth (or more) of the American public will believe anything. Twenty percent believe that the Sun rotates around the Earth, as the NYT reported a few years ago.
Dr. Miller's data reveal some yawning gaps in basic knowledge. American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.Since when have the opinions of the most ignorant and bigoted of our citizenry become so important, so worthy of headline attention?
When I went to school way back in the prehistoric era, schools still taught civics and history. The role of the public schools was thought to be the preparation of young people to take their place as citizens of a democracy. We were taught to read the news critically, to think for ourselves and to be wary of demagogues. Sure, this is a somewhat rosy picture, but at least that was the ideal.
Now we seem to expect less of our schools. It's not surprising that they've responded by abdicating their old role. Today, talk radio seems to have filled the vacuum, and our public life is infinitely poorer for it.