Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

America's problem: We're too dumb

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
updated 4:02 PM EDT, Mon October 14, 2013
LZ Granderson says Americans' poor level of skills hurts democracy at the voting booth.
LZ Granderson says Americans' poor level of skills hurts democracy at the voting booth.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson cites recent OECD report showing Americans ranking low on skills
  • He says lack of literacy, math skills provides a sobering take on U.S. democracy
  • Think how many voters are ill-informed and poorly equipped to make smart choices, he says
  • LZ: It's no wonder politicians are reading Dr. Seuss aloud on the floor of Congress

Editor's note: LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor who writes a weekly column for CNN.com. The former Hechinger Institute fellow has had his commentary recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He is a senior writer for ESPN as well as a lecturer at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- I'm a sucker for all of those man-on-the-street interviews that late-night shows do to reveal just how dumb Americans are.

It's fun to laugh at the people who struggle with simple math problems or are unable to find any country we're at war with on a map.

More than a few even get tripped up trying to name the branches of government.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

It's all fun and games until you remember that elections have consequences, and that many of those people who said they could name the president -- but not the commander in chief -- will soon be standing in a voting booth, armed with a ballot.

If you think government dysfunction is the country's No. 1 problem -- and according to a recent Gallup poll, a third of the nation does -- then maybe we should take those hilarious late-night interviews a little more seriously.

You see, while we were busy waving our angry finger at Washington, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its findings from the Survey of Adult Skills. The group's research measured the literacy, math and computer skills of 5,000 adults from 16 to 65 and compared those numbers with that of 21 other countries.

The good news is that we didn't finish last in anything.

Educational divide

The bad news is that we're in pretty sad shape when not finishing last is the good news.

Trailing every country in the survey except Italy and Spain in math is rough. But how the OECD's findings may play a role in elections and the economy is disturbing.

According to the report, "individuals who score at lower levels of proficiency in literacy are more likely than those with higher proficiency to ... believe that they have little impact on the political process." Also "in most countries, individuals with lower proficiency are also more likely to have lower levels of trust in others."

U.S. adults ranked 16th in literacy proficiency.

The OECD findings seem to be consistent with that of the U.S. Department of Education, which estimated back in 2009 that some 32 million adults lacked the proficiency to read a newspaper. This was captured by a witty USA Today headline about the findings: "Literacy study: 1 in 7 U.S. are unable to read this story."

That was kinder than the New York Post headline after the new OECD report: "U.S. adults are dumber than the average human."

An uneducated workforce is a hindrance to us all and an uninformed electorate is the thorn in democracy's side, taunting us with the words of Joseph de Maistre: "Every country has the government it deserves."

While it seems there's a chance we could be headed toward an agreement that will put an end to the partial government shutdown, we must not overlook the fact that the man most credited/blamed for the disruption was on the Senate floor quoting "Green Eggs and Ham" during his filibuster.

But this is not just a Republican problem. I can't help but notice the correlation between a more partisan nation and a more dumb-ass nation -- regardless of party. Remember Ted Cruz is not the first politician to drag Dr. Seuss into the mess that is Washington.

In 2007, during the immigration debate, Sen. Harry Reid read a piece from the New York Times that contained quotes from "The Cat in the Hat."

"And this mess is so big. And this mess is so deep and so tall, we can not pick it up. There is no way at all!"

Reid then went on to say: "Mr. President, some would say that is what we have in the Senate today -- a big mess. But if you go back and read Dr. Seuss, the cat manages to clean up the mess."

I used to think politicians such as Cruz and Reid quoted from children's books as a way to insult the intelligence of their political foes. Now I'm wondering if it's because they're afraid using big words would lose the rest of us.

When Gallup asked Americans what was the country's top problem, after dysfunctional government, the top-listed items were the economy (19%), unemployment (12%), the deficit (12%) and health care (12%) . Sadly education didn't crack the top five, despite being the one area that really links them all.

"Proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology rich environments is positively and independently associated with the probability of participating in the labour market and being employed, and with higher wages," the new OECD report stated.

Educators will tell you the best catalyst for prolonged academic success is early childhood education.

Among the 38 OECD and G20 countries that participated in a report released last year, we were 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds who are receiving early childhood education.

Hmmm, those late-night interviews aren't so funny anymore.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT