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America's problem: We're too dumb

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
October 14, 2013 -- Updated 2002 GMT (0402 HKT)
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.

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

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