“Jaywalking” is a hilarious and terrifying sketch in which Jay Leno “tests” fellow Americans on their basic knowledge of history, geography, etc. Of course, we see the most outrageously incorrect answers on air, but it is truly scary at times how utterly clueless our (voting) countrymen can be.

That said, watch this clip in which Leno quizzes Americans about some basic historical facts in relation to Independence Day. What is particularly striking about this clip is the final sequence: he quizzes a father and a mother and their son about some basic historical facts, all of which they catastrophically fail to answer. Then he calls to the “grandfather,” who gives us a glimpse into the inheritance of a childhood education before many of our purported educational “reforms” (and, perhaps evidence of an age when reading was more common). It is a stunning conclusion to a rather depressing demonstration.

I know nothing about this family, but one wonders how the self-confident knowledge of one generation failed to be transmitted even two generations into the future. Writ large, it is representative of the situation in which we find ourselves, surrounded by information but knowing less than our “ignorant” forbears.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Funny and very sad. My seven year old was answering some of the questions as I watched this. How can we expect to preserve the good things we’ve inherited if we have no idea what we’ve inherited? Jose Ortega y Gasset’s book “The Revolt of the Masses” analyzes this dynamic brilliantly.

  2. The generation that is growing up with Google and Wikipedia, I think, does not memorize specific knowledge because its members do not feel it is necessary to do so in order to achieve their aims, for a computer with an internet connection will give them the data when they want it. The ignorance of concrete details and comfort with abstract concepts like “freedom” and “independence” reveals a lot about how it views knowledge. I think a worthy sequel to this essay here might reflect on what is gained by the memory of concrete details.

  3. Before I give up hope for my countrymen, I’m curious as to just how many different families, couples, and individuals they had to interview before they got their choice bits for television broadcast. They’re plenty of ignorant folks out there, but still…

  4. SJ,
    This much is true: these sketches wouldn’t be funny if most of the viewers didn’t actually know the answers. So I hope and suspect that many (who never make it on air) know these basic facts. The fact that people are laughing at some of these preposterous answers is – oddly – a bit hopeful.

    At the same time, there can be no doubt that we are becoming more culturally illiterate. Recently I wrote a column for the Georgetown college newspaper (“The Hoya”) in which I referred to Mammon. The editor (a Georgetown student) added a brief definition, not having been familiar with the reference and wanting to make sure that other students were not perplexed by what seemed an obscure reference. Now keep in mind that this is a top 25 university in America, and a Catholic institution at that. And for many, the reference to Mammon was regarded as obscure and mysterious.

  5. The key is that earlier generations were not in fact “self-confident”. I’m thinking especially of my grandfathers, born around 1900, and other members of that generation. These men typically made it through 4th grade, then had to start working for a living. They *knew* they were ignorant, and they valued knowledge tremendously. So they continued reading and studying, tried to consume solid culture whenever possible, and made sure their kids did the same.

  6. ” And for many, the reference to Mammon was regarded as obscure and mysterious.”

    We can probably blame this one on the New American Bible.

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