Justin Trudeau's Criticism of Americans Is Spot On

March 4th 2016

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau thinks that Americans should invest more time learning about the world around them — and the evidence backs him up.

In a 60 Minutes interview slated to air on Sunday, Trudeau said that "it might be nice if they paid a little more attention to the world." He was asked what Canadians dislike about the U.S., the Associated Press reports.

"Having a little more of an awareness of what's going on in the rest of the world, I think is, is what many Canadians would hope for Americans," Trudeau said. "I think we sometimes like to think that, you know, Americans will pay attention to us from time to time, too."

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There's data to back up Trudeau's assessment. Americans are disproportionately ignorant about foreign affairs compared to other industrialized countries. A 2009 study published in the European Journal of Communication, which surveyed adults in the U.S., U.K., Denmark, and Finland on their knowledge of a range of international topics, found that Americans were decidedly unenlightened as far as global politics were concerned.

"The survey results revealed Americans to be especially uninformed about international public affairs," the study authors wrote. "For example, 67 percent of American respondents were unable to identify Nicolas Sarkozy as the president of France [at the time]."

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Only 37 percent of Americans could identify the Kyoto Accords as a treaty on climate change — compared to 60 percent for the UK, 84 percent for Finland, and 81 percent for Denmark — and comprehension of both "hard" and "soft" international news was also demonstrably lower in the U.S.

"The one area where Americans held their own was domestic soft news," the researchers conceded. "Thus over 90 percent of Americans were able to identify the celebrities Mel Gibson, Donald Trump, and Britney Spears."

Young Americans especially struggle to keep up with foreign affairs. The National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs' 2006 Geographic Literacy Study found that six in 10 Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 could not locate Iraq on a map — despite the fact that the U.S. had led the invasion and occupation of the country. Two-thirds didn't know that an October 2005 earthquake, which killed an estimated 70,000 people, happened in Pakistan.

Here are some other blind-spots in Americans' global knowledge, according to National Geographic:

"Seventy-four percent believe English is the primary language spoken by the most people in the world; it is Mandarin Chinese. Seventy-one percent don’t know that the United States is the largest exporter of goods and services; nearly half (48 percent) think it is China. And while China’s population is actually four times the size of the U.S. population, 45 percent of young Americans think it’s only twice as large. Though outsourcing of jobs to India has been a major business news story, almost half the respondents (47 percent) were not able to find that country on a map of Asia."

The overwhelming theme here is that Americans fall short when it comes to international knowledge. Whether the media, the American education system, ethnocentrism, or all of the above are to blame is yet to be determined. But to Trudeau's credit, these surveys do seem to reflect a unique type of American ignorance that seems deserving of attention, especially in the midst of the 2016 presidential election, when an informed voter base is especially important.

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