Continental Drifter -- The Arrogance Of Ignorance

Jan. 12, 2006
A new generation of the serenely clueless is ready, willing and able to destroy your company.

Your livelihood and your future are both in peril.

The threat you face derives not from any external factors that may affect your company. Instead, it comes from your own employees.

The deadliest business hazard of our time is the result of a sea change in the American approach to education that occurred early in the 1970s. Across the United States, conventional educational standards were tossed out the window, replaced with feel-good theories like "whole-language learning" that emphasized personal fulfillment over the accumulation of hard knowledge. As a result, we now have two generations of men and women who expect gold stars not for succeeding, but simply for trying.

And, sometimes, merely for showing up.

Read more by Mark Gottlieb.In Great Britain, even primary school students can name all the monarchs of England. How many American children can name the capital of their own state?

In India, the study of mathematics is practically a religion. In the United States, how many retail clerks can make change without relying on a calculator?

In Germany, vocational education is a rigorous and honorable pursuit, producing highly qualified workers and tradesmen. In the U.S.A., people actually boast about their inability to deal with anything mechanical.

But sheer stupidity is not the greatest danger presented by the current crop of blank slates. It is the arrogance bred of ignorance that constitutes an unparalleled descent into goofiness.

In the long-dead past, incompetents generally recognized their own incapacity and behaved accordingly. Today, every jackass sees himself as a genius, and every fool fancies herself a philosopher.

Once, a young colleague at a major firm accosted me in tones of confusion and desperation.

"Mark! Mark!" she called as I walked past her office door. "When was World War II?"

I thought at first that she was joking, but, alas, she was not. The deadliest global conflict in human history had somehow escaped her notice. Yet if I had asked if she honestly believed she deserved her B.A. and felt qualified to perform her job, she would have been gravely insulted and likely kicked me until I was dead.

Like the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the arrogantly ignorant appear at first glance as normal as you or me. But beware.

The most profound risk they represent springs not from their cluelessness, but from their inability to recognize their own limitations. Such blind hubris can lead to monumental errors of judgment, grotesque mistakes, and the refusal to accept -- despite a mountain of evidence -- that the strategy they are pursuing may be leading your organization off a cliff. When people like that are in your employ, it is you, not they, who suffer the consequences.

These days, the arrogance of ignorance is so pervasive that I feel confident in making a small wager: Ten bucks says that the worst offenders will read these words and wonder, "Who is this joker talking about?"

If characters like that work for your company -- brother, you're in for a world of hurt.

Readers' Comments

I can't say that this is a new phenomenon. A college instructor I had in the mid-1960's observed of his freshmen classes, "I have only a few students...the rest are merely pupils." If anything, the problem has just gotten worse with the "progressive" programs touted in so many school districts, including the one I live in. Whose fault? Partly mine, for not making the time to attend school board meetings and trying to fix things.

J. William
Rochester, N.Y.

Very good article! It describes exactly what I have been feeling, but couldn't put a face on. It seems that the world is full of average performers who feel that this deserves an excellent rating.

J DeGrazia
Spring Lake, Mich.

In reviewing the article by Mark Gottlieb regarding the "Arrogance of Ignorance," I cannot help but concur. One of the direct results of conventional educational standards being tossed out in the 1970's is the current ignorance of many temporary and new employees of the basics in reading, writing and arithmetic that used to be the benchmarks of a quality education. One factor that should be researched is how the apparent "monopolization" of the U.S. public school system is adversely affecting the knowledge and reasoning ability of the future leaders of our society.

J Sims
St. Paris, Ohio

I found this article to be disturbingly accurate. As a parent I have arguments with my childrens' teachers, not about how they are graded, but about getting some hard feedback on how they are doing. The culture of checks, stars and dashes is not reality.

Also, I work for a large foreign owned multi-national company. I travel to various sites around the world and the perception of the U.S. is not good. Sometimes it is an unfair judgment, but often the "arrogant ignorance" does show through and others see it.

Name withheld

This is the second article in days that reflects my view of recent candidates that I've interviewed to replace retiring members of my department. The new crop of job seekers born in the 70's and 80's have failed to learn and retain anything beyond what was on their last test or quiz.

Few have gone through a business training process of working on the factory floor, or in various departments such as traffic, payables, customer service, inside sales, purchasing, etc. Few can construct a simple, understandable written statement. Fewer yet know when to use their or their.

And worse, few know when to be quiet and when to vocalize their true feelings.

I am facing a very long and drawn out process to fill these positions. My bosses are learning how little attention was paid to the loyal employees whom we will need to replace;how much knowledge they held, the skills they had, and how important they truly were to the infrastructure of the organization.

E. Schwartz

Very, very true!! I can't tell you how many people I have interviewed who are changing jobs because the owner has turned the company over to the highly educated son who does not have a clue, and is making bonehead mistakes - if they only would ask?

Name withheld

The article was very informative. Seems as though we baby boomers were the ones to start it all and now it comes back to bite us in the ---. Very good article.

J. Slaton
El Paso, Texas

Mr. Gottlieb is right on point. The question begs an answer as to who is at faultanyway and what are we doing to correct the situation?

B. Jackson
Rochester, N.Y.

Awesome, absolutely correct!! It is a result of too many "psychobabalists" like the Doctor Phil's of the world and too many lawyers who tell us that "it is the other person's fault".

Name withheld

If you control information, you can control the battlefield! If you control education, you can control the masses!

Sounds like planned socialism to me.

G. Thurston

Funny, sad, humorous, poignant, insightful, full of anecdotes, witty...

What is Mark Gottlieb doing about the problem? I'm in manufacturing and I've hired, trained, mentored, coached and fired dozens of "clueless" kids/adults and you might even say I'm a product of that 70's public educational system. I'm getting involved as best as I can professionally and I'm prodding my kids through college personally.

Raising awareness is something and today I'm finding myself saying, "something is better than nothing".

What are we DOING?

D. Watson

Your article is dead right -- unfortunately. Problem is it will only get worse as our schools continue to focus on soft social skills and suppress inquisitiveness.

Name withheld

Absolutely on the mark -- I could not have expressed it better. In fact I have been looking for wording like "arrogance of ignorance" to explain a lot of things in my own communications. I hope a lot of people get the message.

D. Dileski
Holland, Mich.

This article is absolutely correct. When we lost our focus on excellence, we lost more than we know.

Riverside, Calif.

Your article hits the bull's-eye with deadly accuracy. We are a manufacturer and have asked potential hires if they can read a ruler. Responses from applicants have ranged from "what do all those lines mean between 8 inches and 9 inches" and "why do I need to know this".

It certainly looks to me like drive in banks, dry cleaners, coffee shops and fast food outlets are going to be the new manufacturing arm of the USA.

Thanks so much for the well written and sadly true article.

J. Swift
Buffalo Grove, Ill.

I concur!!!

I agree!!!

I not alone with my observations of co-workers of the past 30 years!!!

'Tis True.

They know how to play games and show up to collect an allowance.

A degree is not a measure of merit or competence. Up and down the organizational chart "old school values" are scarce and dying.

I'll help.That is why I'm back in school myself. So far I've learned that an "A" is more important than the thought behind it.

Sincerely, there's more!!

P. Heppner
Chicago, Ill.

While there are arrogant and ignorant employees in the U.S., take it from someone who actually worked overseas -- they're in every country and every company.

Yes, I see a stronger emphasis on math and science in the lower grades of European and Asian schools. But, what do their best students want to do after they graduate? They dream of attending an American university! Look at the number of Asians attending tech seminars at our universities. They know where the advanced work is being done. We can do better in education, but to many people outside the U.S, we don't seem to be doing too badly.

G. Lizotte
Mount Vernon, Ohio

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