nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it "not at all important" to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it "very important."
That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.
I'm not sure about this. Members of the intellectualist tribe may signal their cultural loyalties by affirming the great need for bilingualism, Shakespeare, learning a musical instrument, and knowledge of geography, history, astronomy and evolutionary theory. These are all fine things, and enriching in their own way, but I'm not convinced that any one of them is vital for ordinary people living ordinary lives. Why would it be "necessary" for average Joe to know the location of Iraq? He's not the one making decisions over there. Or, again, it's easy to poke fun at those who are ignorant of basic astronomical facts, but the intrinsic importance of this is less apparent than the symbolic effect -- drawing our attention to a cultural gap. (I'm reminded of the snob's favourite pastime: constructing lists of books that "every educated person must read".)
As Brandon says, we are all ignorant of a great many things. Moreover, "It is not a crime, or a sin, or a shame, or even a misfortune, to be ignorant of something. It is merely an opportunity." Now, I do think it is important to always recognize the opportunity for further knowledge as an opportunity. We should celebrate and value learning as such. But there are so many things to be learnt, we cannot hope to pursue every one of them. Further, some opportunities for learning will excite us more than others. So, given limited time and resources, it doesn't seem so inappropriate for one to simply disregard some fields as not one's concern. We ought to respect and value others' expertise in an area, of course, but that need not translate into any great desire on our own part to emulate them. There needn't be anything anti-intellectual about this.
I would say there are two broad cases in which the untroubled ignorance Jacoby laments is genuinely problematic. One is general anti-intellectualism, i.e. an attitude which positively denigrates learning, or at least does not recognize it as broadly desirable (an 'imperfect duty', if you will). Think of Huckabee boasting about how he 'majored in miracles, not math'.
The second case is when particular knowledge is required to inform one's decisions, but the "anti-rationalist" feels licensed to think and act from a position of ignorance instead. This is where worries about public policy debates come in. Many political partisans are simply 'bullshitters', in the Frankfurtian sense that they demonstrate a complete lack of concern for whether their claims are true. Others are dogmatists, so convinced of their own righteousness that, again, evidence and careful reasoning go out the window. This pollution of the public sphere is, I believe, the height of (common) evil (and it really is imperative that this be more widely recognized).
Private morality is not demanding, but politics is. Those who enter the public sphere, or seek to exert political influence, have an obligation to contribute constructively to the decision-making process. This holds especially for journalists, pundits and other "shapers" of public opinion, but even ordinary citizens have some obligation to become minimally informed before they vote. (Though it remains an open question whether ordinary people have any obligation to act as citizens in the first place. If one were to refrain from ever voting or influencing others by voicing a political opinion, one's personal ignorance might not matter in the slightest.)