American Common Sense
This article originally appeared in the Texarkana Gazette on October 25, 2009
Dr. Robert S. Owen, Professor of Marketing, Texas A&M-Texarkana, College of Business
It's happening again: An American is getting personal attention by calling Americans stupid. I was watching a TV talk show a few weeks ago and some attention-seeker made the claim that Americans are stupid because we don't know memorized rote facts that people in other countries know. Here was his proof: Almost everyone in the world can name the capital city and president of the US. But few Americans could name the capital city and few could name the president or prime minister or king or communist party leader or dictator of many other countries.
Well, I'm one of those stupid Americans, a Ph.D. professor and all, and I'm not ashamed. How about this: Could a resident of France, Spain, or Germany name the capital city and governor of Texas? Texas, as a state, is a larger land mass than any of these large European countries. Could someone in Ireland or Switzerland name the capital city and governor of Arkansas, a state twice the size of Ireland and four times the size of Switzerland? Could a resident of Singapore name the county seat of Miller or Bowie counties, each roughly the size of that country? I'm asking for nothing more than a fair, tit-for-tat comparison of what's being used as a measure of "stupid" for Americans.
If Texas was a country in Europe, it would be among the largest, behind Russia and Greenland in land area if you consider those to be part of Europe. If the Arkansas side of Texarkana was a country, its 32 square miles would be in a tie for size comparison with San Marino for the not-smallest country in Europe. You've heard of the European country of Monaco? It's one-fortieth the size of Texarkana AR, and I'll bet that nobody there has heard of Texarkana. So I'm supposed to be a stupid American because I can't name the presidents and capitals of countries that are smaller than a local state, county, or even city?
People around the world are familiar with American political figures and American issues because the United States is always in the world news. Just like Americans, people around the world will be less familiar with places, political figures, and issues that are not in their own news. When American presidents (plural) are awarded Nobel Prizes, they make the news around the world. Knowing who is the president of the US has nothing to do with being smart or stupid. It has a lot to do with who is among the most influential in shaping this world and who is making the world news headlines.
As a business school professor at another school in the past, I had a lot of students from one particular Asian country in my MBA classes. They always started with a cocky stereotype of American students as being lazy and lousy at math. But those students quickly found that they were in trouble on anything that required more than rote memorization -- which is just about everything in my MBA marketing courses. In my course, they could mechanically calculate memorized mathematical "formulas" to derive financial ratios and break-even points. But they lacked the ability to interpret these numeric results from a practical, managerial perspective. They could write reports in eloquent English to spit out facts, but they lacked the ability to structure a meaningful business analysis. I could give them a detailed checklist of things to find at the library and they would dutifully perform the task, but when asked to work as a member of a team to conduct a business analysis, they were unable to work with other people.
When I was a kid, we spent our summers doing things like picking teams to play baseball in the street or playing loud guitars with each other in somebody's garage. We spent that part of our American childhood learning to work as members of a team, learning to take and give leadership roles, learning to size up other kids for who was best to get a particular job done. We spent the summers fixing our bikes, helping our dads replace a toilet valve and paint a shed, and learning to run small businesses that started with a lemonade stand and moved on to neighborhood lawn mowing services. We weren't learning to memorize facts that never got used for anything practical; we spent a valuable portion of our young American lives learning leadership skills, how-things-work skills, and plain old common sense that differentiates Americans from a world that would criticize us for the leadership role that our country plays.
So the next time you hear someone bash Americans for being stupid, remind that person of our influence as a worldwide leader and educate that person regarding the practical, common sense knowledge and skills that put us in that position.