Rarely is the question asked (at least until a president of the United States asked it): "Is our children learning?"
Well - is them?
It's a question that nags at me, editor of an online magazine devoted to such things as the beauties and the befoulings of the Chesapeake Bay and the oceans - especially in times like these, when, as our president also says, "You're working hard to put food on your family." Really. What if, while I'm trying to make this project pay for the noodles with cream sauce and capers I'll heap on my loved ones this evening, what if the readers I want don't even know where the Atlantic and the Pacific is? I mean are.
Woe, the answers are in. They know less than fish. Fish, at least, can find the Pacific. That ocean's location, according to a survey by the National Geographic Society of 500 young American adults ages 18 to 24, is a mystery to 29 percent.
That's almost one out of three who can't find the shore, or name what they're looking at where the beach gets wet.
There'll be no sure answer from the 58 percent who can't find Japan, the 65 percent who can't locate France and the 69 percent who get lost looking for Great Britain. Half can't even point to New York on a map.
Five years and 4,000-some American deaths into a war, as National Geographic points out, only 17 percent could locate Afghanistan and fewer than 15 percent could find Iraq. And never mind the one in five Americans who, according to the National Science Foundation, think the sun revolves around the Earth.
Meantime, Stephen Prothero, chairman of the department of religion at Boston University, is lamenting that the U.S. is one of the most religious countries on Earth, but Americans know almost nothing about religion.
At the Pew Forum's biannual conference on religion, politics and public life, Mr. Prothero said he has to explain to his students that Matthew was an apostle, not a cast member of Friends. Recent surveys show, he added, that most Americans don't know Genesis is the first book of the Bible; one in 10 think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife; and a sizable minority believe Sodom and Gomorrah were a happily married biblical couple.
This is scary, Mr. Prothero notes, because politicians so frequently invoke religious reasons for their positions. Some knowledge of religion is necessary, he adds, "so we can flush out the demagogues who have a kind of religious invocation, where they're sort of invoking God or invoking religion without actually having a religious argument underneath that invocation."
Like, perhaps, the evangelicals placed high in the administrations of both President Bushes and Ronald Reagan, too, who have seen no need for environmental laws or even the point of conservation because "The Rapture" - when they'll be physically transported by God from the mess we've made down here - is coming soon.
It's scarier still when the guy who's got the fourth-most votes for the presidency so far, Mike Huckabee, doesn't believe in evolution because of his religious convictions and wants "to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards."
Looking at the data, I have to doubt the survival of forums like mine - or like this page - that depend on some backgrounding in fact and a modicum of critical thinking among the mass of people. What's apparent is a swift trending past dumb to dumber on exhortations from the bully pulpits of the 6,000-year-old world view, where, in the first days of the New Millennium, it was, again, President Bush enlightening us, with, "I think we agree, the past is over."
I do agree. From instruction like that, if today's youth really are tomorrow, so's the future.
John Lang teaches journalism at Washington College and is editor of www.eyesonthewild.net. His e-mail is email@example.com.