Thursday, January 10, 2013

When Did We Start Thinking of Ourselves as an Intellectual Nation?

This talk by Amanda Ripley is more appealing to me than her writing, but I'm still struck by the fundamental premise that we should be shocked and surprised that we don't have the highest test scores in the world (on PISA, at least). Beyond the technical matter of the history of our rankings in international testing, when did we start thinking of ourselves as a country whose power derived from its intellectual superiority?

One useful thought experiment is to just roll the question back 1900 and go decade by decade:

  • Do you think we had the best system of primary and secondary education in the world in 1900? Any particular reason? Did people think that in 1900?
  • OK, how about 1910?
  • 1920's?
  • 1930's?
  • 1940's?
  • 1950's?
  • 1960's?
  • 1970's?
  • 1980's?
  • 1990's?
  • 2000's?

To be sure, the Cold War and all those ICBM's had a way of focusing one's attention on not falling too far behind. But even just looking at Western Europe, when did we start thinking that we were supposed to be the towering intellectuals? When we think about what has made America great, we've never focused on our intellect, for better or worse.

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