Playing catch-up after a crisis

Need-to-know stasis: Americans seem to stay ignorant until the last minute

Ideas: Global Knowledge

March 23, 2003|By Kevin Canfield | By Kevin Canfield,Special to the Sun

In the past several days, TV viewers have been hit with a barrage of information about troop preparedness and movement, the range and accuracy of American missiles, the speed and armament of our military aircraft.

War is a learning experience for the American public, and in this way it is no different from any number of local disasters and global calamities that force us to comprehend volumes of new information. Be it the recent space shuttle explosion, the brutal realities of 21st-century warfare or something as relatively inconsequential as a computer virus, many of us only learn about technology, science or geography when something goes awry.

"The sad part is it does apply to so many different areas, whether we're talking about technology and the shuttle, or knowing where Baghdad is only when the first troops hit the ground," says Kenneth C. Davis, author of the Don't Know Much About series of books on geography, history and other subjects. "It really does cut across the board."

This, unfortunately, is a longstanding problem. Blame it on our celebrity-obsessed culture, blame it on e-mail or TV. The fact is, there is a flood of new information out there every day, and we're able to digest only small bits of it.

The deluge of information forces each of us to become "specialists" who know lots about a few topics but virtually nothing about millions of others, said David Ochmanek, a senior defense analyst at the RAND think tank and the author of books about NATO and modern warfare..

"The more knowledge that is created, the more we become distanced from one another," Ochmanek said. "I think they say [15th-century Dutch theologian] Erasmus was the last person to have read everything. It's all been downhill from there in terms of Renaissance men and women."

Narrow world view

Because technology is, well, so technical, it is easy to understand why many of us had forgotten what little we might have known about the space shuttle until we watched another one explode in the sky. For similar reasons, almost none of us understand how modern wars are fought until one is at hand, or how our personal computers work until a virus hits.

But it is not only knowledge of technology that is acquired in dire circumstances. Take geography, a subject that, by comparison, might seem easier to master.

Arthur Getis, a geography professor at San Diego State University and the author of many books on the subject, says Americans' collective knowledge of global geography is "very poor -- especially for an advanced nation."

Polls have shown cautious support by Americans for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but Getis says we might feel differently if we possessed a more sophisticated understanding of geography.

"If the people of this country recognized that there are 6.5 billion on the planet, realized where they were and realized what their views and aspirations were, we might view this whole business differently," he said. "If we had more knowledge about the rest of the world and the importance of allies and friends, we might have thought twice about this."

These days, it seems, we have little excuse for not knowing more about a greater number of subjects. "We have means today of informing ourselves which are unprecedented," Keith Eiler, a historian and research fellow at the Hoover Institution, said.

We have round-the-clock cable TV networks. We've got the Internet and newspapers. We have libraries and bookstores stocked with thousands of new titles each year. So why is it that we need a war before we're able to find Iraq on a map?

"There are a lot of reasons," said Davis, "starting chiefly with the educational system. We don't do a great job of teaching a lot of these things, because we've reduced a lot of things to memorizing lists of facts, which are usually forgotten when the final exam is over."

Specialization

Most would agree that the media also bear some of the blame. We've spent much of the past decade fixated on O.J., Monica, Chandra Levy and other tabloid topics.

"The myth is that Americans don't know [about complex subjects] because they don't care," said Davis. "But I find there's an enormous appetite for information, an enormous appetite for learning, an enormous appetite for education. People just want it in a style that's more appealing than the way it was back in high school."

Where Davis is an optimist -- he believes that if information were delivered in a different fashion, it would be easier to process -- others are not so sanguine.

Said Ochmanek: "I think we're doomed to this world of increasing specialization and difficulty understanding each other outside of our own areas of specialization."

Kevin Canfield is a reporter for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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