Putting German Prejudices About Americans to the Touchstone

There’s a great article out now in the German commentary newspaper Die Zeit, really right up the ol’ EuroSavant alley: Dumb Americans, Smart Americans (and the second adjective that title uses, schlau, is such that you could also translate it as “Slick Americans”). No, the purpose here of writer Jan-Martin Wiarda is not to mock citizens of the good old USA – German-American relations are not the best they’ve ever been at present, it’s true, but they’re not that bad and besides, a class publication like Die Zeit would never lower itself to anything like that. Rather . . . well, let me just translate for you the article’s lead-in:

They have no idea about geography, are superficial, and are only interested in basketball. What’s up in reality with the prejudices about Americans’ lousy education?

And this is all up the EuroSavant alley, my friends, because it’s overwhelmingly likely that, under normal circumstances, Germans are much better versed in the English language, so as to be able to read things you write about them, than you are likely to be in the German language in order to read things, like this piece, that they write about you. That very point is perfectly consistent with the entire tone of this article. But I’m pleased to step in to help out here.

(I can hear muffled yells already out there in the blogosphere to the effect that English-speakers don’t decline to learn German just because they’re uninterested in what Germans may write about them, and Germans don’t learn English just in order to be able to read that sort of material. Germans learn English in order to earn big money as high-speed managers in international business, where the English language dominates. And you’re all quite right about that; after all, the internal “company language” even of the prominent German high-tech company Siemens is in fact English.)

Wiarda’s article is structured quite simply: he takes six assertions about the American system of education, compares them to what he knows of the actual reality, and then finishes in each case with a percentage figure, or grade, to denote how correct that assertion turned out to be. So let’s consider his treatment of each of these assertions ourselves, one-by-one:

Hopeless at Geography

According to Germans, adult Americans have about as much familiarity with the rest of the world as their own (i.e. German) average ten-year-old. “Do they also have refrigerators in Germany?” folks from the States are alleged to ask. (Very, very distorted and unfair.) But then comes something I like rather better: “Europe for Americans is a big theme-park, that you can cover in seven days” – although admittedly most Americans never even bother to do that.

And Wiarda’s reality? Only one foreign language is taught in schools, he begins (and here, you’ll admit, he gives way too much credit in even asserting that one foreign language is effectively taught). Otherwise, it’s rare to find news from any foreign country covered in the US press, other than a few perennial favorites like the UK, Russia, and Israel. At least the number of American students studying abroad has never been higher: around 160,000 in 2002. But, proportionately, that is only one-fourth so many as German students abroad.

Result: Prejudice largely sustained; Wiarda gives it 80%. But then, he asks, is it really fair to ask Americans to know the capital of Denmark, when it’s true that most Europeans don’t know the capital of Michigan? (I vote for “Yes!”)

Land of the D├╝nnbrettbohrer

(Sorry, Wiarda throws a German idiom at us here: D├╝nnbrettbohrer basically means someone who always takes the easy way out. So what this all means is: “Land of Comfortable, Easy Studies”)

According to Germans, Americans are academic lightweights, who glide through high-school and college past one multiple-choice test after another. The bachelor’s degrees they earn are laughable; but, nonetheless, that’s about the most any of them go with their studies.

Reality? American university studies can get very intensive and challenging indeed. German exchange students are constantly (and unpleasantly) surprised how much more they’re expected to get on the ball over in the U.S. of A. On the other hand, US lecturers going over to Germany constantly miss any sort of student body in their classes ready to truly discuss and even challenge the material. And about those multiple-choice tests: they can still be effective tools, and German professors use them about as much as American ones do.

Result: Prejudice way out of line. Wiarda gives it 20%.

Alcohol-Crazy Students

According to Germans, “Drinking is allowed in America only from age 21, but that’s precisely what makes it so interesting.” So American youth drink without restraint and even “stage dangerous drinking-games and unbridled sex-parties.” (That’s what it says there, folks.)

Reality? Well, certain American publications do rank yearly the “best party-schools” – and it seems that many graduating high-schoolers pay attention to those lists in deciding where to attend higher education. And the statistics: each year 1,400 students die from alcohol-related causes, 500,000 have to go to hospital. And of course what goes on in the fraternities . . . (Wiarda doesn’t mention sororities, but that’s just a detail that escapes his attention.) And of course the widespread manufacture and distribution of fake identification . . .

Result: Prejudice sustained – although it’s interesting (as Wiarda notes) that this doesn’t seem to degrade the impressive academic efficiency discussed immediately above. Wiarda gives this prejudice a full 100%. (What? The “sex-parties” too? Is that what’s really going on back over there?)

The Poor Have No Chance

According to Germans, in America birth is destiny. Being born in the South Bronx, for example, simply means you’re out of luck, as you’ll be stuck with inferior, violence-filled schools for as long as you can put up with attending them.

Reality? Opportunities for students from poor families to nonetheless get an education to bring themselves up in the world are more plentiful in American than in Germany. Indeed, Wiarda cites a World Health Organization study that ranks German schools, not American, at the top of world rankings when it comes to school violence! Most importantly of all, “need blind” admissions to America’s top universities means that poor applicants won’t be turned down just because they’re poor; if they can get in with academic merit, then ways can be found to get them through to a degree, even if it might not be too much fun: loans, grants, campus employment.

Result: Prejudice simply wrong. Wiarda gives it 20%.

Jocks Go to the Front of the Line

According to Germans, “Americans are insane about sports.” Therefore, basketball and football stars are the true “big men on campus,” and university acceptance criteria are easily and willingly lowered to attract sports talent.

Reality? College sports mean big money: CBS spends $6 billion on college basketball television rights alone. (That’s what it says there, folks: sechs Milliarden Dollar. Is that really true?) So damn right that the jocks go to the front of the line! – although, on the other hand, most of them fail to ever graduate with a degree.

Result: Prejudiced sustained, 70%.

Finally, Smart Elite, Dumb Masses

According to Germans, if you leave the handful of elite universities aside, most Americans muddle through their lives in a fairly ignorant way, interested in neither politics, art, nor science – interested in fact mainly in what’s offered to them on television.

Reality? Which country earns all the Nobel prizes, huh? But wait: It’s also true that nowhere else is so much television stared at, at eight hours per day in the average American household. Americans also don’t read too many books. And, for what it’s worth, they don’t much go out and vote, with participation at about 50% in the 2000 presidential election. (German voter participation is consistently around 80%.)

Result: Wiarda doesn’t know quite what to think here. He quotes the average German exchange-student to America (that ingrate!) to the effect that “even the last German knows how dumb the Americans are.” But wait a second: In the first place, such exchange students are themselves generally above-average achievers, and in the second place that still can mean that they lack the fine perception to evaluate their American hosts for what they really are. And that’s not necessarily “dumb,” Wiarda maintains – just “different.” Prejudice grade: 50%.

Well gee, Herr Wiarda. Thanks.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Comments are closed.