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Surprising ignorance

"How can they not know that?" "I'm surprised you don't know about ___". I'm sure we've all had experiences like that. After a while I stopped getting surprised.

* San Francisco bus stop. A couple of young women were talking about religion. One a Catholic from Austria, the other a presumed Muslim from Egypt. Between the two of them, they were unsure if Jesus came chronologically before or after Mohammed.

* A distinguished professor at IU, whose friends said that as a younger adult, he'd thought chickens were cold-blooded. Also that he hadn't known about some astronomical thing, maybe the angle of the sun changing with the seasons, I don't remember.

* Another professor, strong in cognitive science, amazed by the concept of convergent evolution, and the existence of Tasmanian tigers. "They're not related to tigers? At all?" Didn't know about the deep marsupial/placental division in the mammals.

* None of the other people in my Exalted game knew what a 'quisling' was. High schools for the 20-somethings don't cover WWII in any detail?

* A grad student, over the age of 25, surprised to find the erotica section at Border's. And she's not from a particularly sheltered background.

* A while back, I commented on gale about Chick tracts and those corner preachers, who act as if they think tons of people haven't heard the Christ story and will be amazed and convert if they're simply told the "son of God crucified rose again died for our sins believe or Hell!" line. Other atheists on gale said they hadn't been raised with Christianity and didn't know that stuff, and even seemed proud of the fact. I was raised by two atheists, one Jewish, and I'd figured no American could avoid absorbing the basic Christ story via osmosis.

I know I've had my own gaps of knowledge, but I can't think of any right now. Though popular culture as a whole is a yawning void -- haven't seen Terminator, Aliens, lots of blockbusters, or even Real Genius, cult movie of Caltech. Oh wait, I remembered a couple, thanks to mentioning Christianity above.

* My sophomore year at Caltech, two of my new friends went home for Easter. I was surprised. "Going back for a candy and egg hunt?" "No, church. Our mother's Catholic and wants us at Mass." "...oh." Despite knowing about the Christ story, I hadn't actually processed that Easter was, you know, a big *Holy* day that people did churchy things for.

* A few years in at Bloomington, I ran into a Catholic girl at the supermarket. She had a blue-gray what I thought was a bruise on her forehead. "Hurt yourself?" "Ash Wednesday." I'd never seen that before. Of course, I may genuinely not have hung around any practicing adult Catholics until coming here.

* A 17 year old I know, in a middle-class family and whose parents pay attention to the news, didn't know about Rudy Giuliani or the housing crisis, in December. When should we expect people to pay attention to current events? Though I'm probably minimal compared to when I was a kid and we ate dinner watching the MacNeill-Lehrer News Hours. Still, I try to at least watch the headlines.

And then of course there's all the people challenged horribly by adding fractions. Or, from the other direction, all the nerds challenged by color coordination. Though in our defense, everyone should have been through a class on fractions, whereas no one really told me about clothes and colors until Shiver offered a makeover. Well, my mother made some suggestions about colors good with my skin tone, but that was it.

Probably lots of sex ignorance horror stories as well, but not in my personal experience.

ETA (18 Nov 2011) Geography ignorance could be a whole other thread, probably, but I have heard of college-educated Americans who weren't sure where Montana was. A friend I shall not identify, ditto. She does claim she'd know the general area, which, yay. Mind you, there are several states I can see confusing: Arizona/New Mexico, Kansas/Nebraska, Iowa/Missouri, Alabama/Mississippi, Vermont/New Hampshire. OTOH Montana strikes me as rather big and distinctively shaped.

ETA (10 Feb 2016)

* A 13 year old middle class American asked who we'd become independent from, that we were celebrating July 4th for.

* A friend of a friend didn't realize until high school that Egypt was in Africa. "Middle East", yes, Africa, no.

* I didn't know Belize existed until I was 16-17. To me this is surprising since I grew up watching good news, and every other Central American country made the news at some point, except for Costa Rica which made the news for not making the news. Belize? Nada. And that they speak English? Whoah! To be fair, my parents' globe might have been old enough for it to be "Br. Honduras" there.



( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 10th, 2008 01:11 am (UTC)
I actually don't remember coming across "quisling" in any of my history classes. I've heard the word before, but have to look it up every time. Not one you use in regular conversation.

Anyway, this entry reminded me of http://www.iusedtobelieve.com/ .
Apr. 10th, 2008 01:41 am (UTC)
That reminds me: when I was a small kid, my father and I were walking home and passed some old man, and my father said "that man is deaf". A word I didn't know yet (wow, this might be a pre-first-grade memory, my school was shared with hearing-impaired students) so I thought he said "death" (cf. "one nation, invisible") I was more curious than alarmed at "that man is death."
Apr. 10th, 2008 01:43 am (UTC)
I didn't know quisling immediately, but when I looked it up, I did quickly say "oh, that guy." And I didn't know about the Ash Weds forehead thing until I got to Caltech, either.

Most of what you've posted doesn't seem too grossly ignorant... I've heard of far worse: a college student who thought the moon was the sun at night. A cash register error in an airport restaurant leading to the employee having to ask other people behind the counter "does anyone know what 20 minus 8 is?" and finding none of them able to answer.
Apr. 10th, 2008 02:04 am (UTC)
Yay, I knew quisling and even came across it recently to refresh my memory (but can't remember where).

I too am an athiest raised by athiests and yet knew the basics of Christianity from early on (although like you I'm not so solid on the specific practices). It seems like it would be hard to avoid with even a *shallow* knowledge of history, art, or literature. Being ignorant of a major component of western culture doesn't seem like something to be proud of.

I've definitely seen more shocking examples of ignorance, but yours are particularly troubling because they all from the supposed educated class.
Apr. 10th, 2008 02:11 am (UTC)
But yeah. Even discounting my tendency to assume that everyone should know anything I know, some of those... Mohammed vis a vis Jesus? Geez.

I tried resending the chat things for both LJ/Google/XMPP and Yahoo. (I currently have no reason to use Yahoo, so if you have Google...)
Apr. 10th, 2008 02:28 am (UTC)
Let's see - Z (land nav god of the universe) deals all the time with Marines who think that a compass works because there is a big block of iron under Hudson's bay. It's rampant and always makes me laugh.

A girl in my China study program who toured Tianamen square with our group and was completely ignorant of the events that had happened there. Maybe not that unexpected for a random American but she was of Chinese decent, with relatives in Taiwan, and majoring in Asian studies. Same girl later at the Forbidden City - "Wasn't Buddha born here?"

I think I did a LJ post about Jacoby's book _The Age of American Unreason_ (haven't read it yet). Apparently she decided to write it after the following on 9/11:

"Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

At that moment, Ms. Jacoby said, “I decided to write this book.”
Apr. 10th, 2008 02:31 am (UTC)
:O !
:O !! Though without tone, one can wonder if one man was joshing the other one.

Jan. 22nd, 2009 06:27 am (UTC)
I wonder if anyone is watching this? Anyway, I thought this would make a nice addendum.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
I wonder if anyone is watching this?
I'm watching.
Jan. 24th, 2009 05:42 pm (UTC)
Re: I wonder if anyone is watching this?

Recent addition two: a report of someone who thought gypsies were a mythical race. The expanded version of this turns out to be that the person thought they'd been real nomads in a settled Europe, but went away, and got turned into a mythic mysterious race of caravans and fortunetelling. Since that's exactly how they're used in bad fantasy and RPGs, and since real gypsies don't make the news that often, the whole thing seems pretty plausible to me, especially for a young and not world-oriented person.
Jan. 24th, 2009 06:03 pm (UTC)
Re: I wonder if anyone is watching this?
That actually makes sense if you don't know the facts.
A friend of mine who is Cree met someone in University who thought the Amerindians were extinct, as people.
Some people think bison are extinct( this is buffalo ranching country) when they aren't even completely extinct in Europe (Poland.)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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