Yesterday, I went before work to help seat 1400 preschoolers at a concert.

The concept is this: you meet Miss Linda’s Preschool at the door, lead their forty-seven kids into the theater, and send them down the row of seats, putting one kid’s bottom on each seat.

Here’s what actually happens, though: the first one follows you cheerfully down the row of seats and sits down, and the rest follow pell-mell, like a bunch of little lemmings running off a cliff or something. When they all bunch up together, they will immediately try to sit down. Six will attempt to sit in one seat, and possibly one of them will cry.

So you send them down one row and race to the next row behind that and follow along saying, “This is your seat, this is your seat, this one is yours, sit down honey, sit down sweetie, this is your seat, what’s her name? Kelsy, baby, sit down in this seat, thank you. Okay, dear, back up, that’s it, okay, sweetie, this is your seat, this is your seat, this …”

I skipped the gym, but I think I got my workout.

Now the comments section here has been an absolute hotbed of interesting topics lately. Etymology, were-felines, whether felting has anything in common with polymers or not… But there is one question that has arisen about which I have some real evidence.

Here is the question: are Americans insular? Or, more properly, are the people of the U.S. more insular than other people?

This was a bit of a hot topic a while ago. It was suggested that we in the U.S. knew less about geography than anyone else, that we were less familiar with other cultures, etc.

At the time, I had students from about a dozen different countries, so I decided to put it to the test. I found that everyone, from Oman to the Netherlands, knew about their own country, their nearest neighbors, and the U.S. and USSR (which existed at the time). The people from Burundi didn’t know anything about Pakistan, the people of Argentina didn’t know anything about Bahrain, and the people of Norway didn’t know anything about Cameroon.

Now, we in the U.S. are pretty familiar with the states around us, with Mexico, and with Canada. Just like everyone else, we know our neighbors. We have heard of the U.S., naturally, because we are here. The trouble is that people in Burundi have heard of us, because we are big and cause trouble, and therefore they expect us to be equally familiar with them, as though it were some sort of reciprocal arrangement. Also, since we are big, we have fewer neighbors. France is the size of one state and has five countries that border it. For France to be knowledgeable about Germany is the equivalent of New York being knowledgeable about Connecticut, not the equivalent of France being knowledgeable about Peru.

Many of my students were disappointed, upon arrival in the U.S., to find no one walking around with guns, so it was evident that they didn’t really know any more about us than we knew about Turkey. I am not saying that we shouldn’t be more knowledgeable — I am always in favor of education — merely that we are not really less knowledgeable than the rest of the world. We just have circumstances that make us look less knowledgeable.

Sighkey did a similar little experiment with math, and I believe that the Americans did no worse than anyone else.

No, the area in which we in the U.S. actually know too little is science.

The new science standards for our state have been released, and I read through them yesterday to see what kind of materials we would need to get in the store for the teachers who are affected by them. Then last night as I was reading The Ancestor’s Tale, it struck me — a 9th grade student who had actually learned all the things in the standards would be able to read this book. As things currently stand, I am not sure that most of the teachers up to 9th grade could read it without keeping a dictionary handy.

Dawkins, while he is certainly among the great popular science writers, does in this book assume a broad science background among his readers.

This is not to say that I am exceptionally knowledgeable about science. Rather, I have the amount of background in the sciences that a person ought to have, while most of us don’t.

The Core Knowledge project approached the question “what should be taught?” in a really interesting way. They read through materials at various grade levels and, if a thing were referred to without further explanation, they determined that kids at that level should know about it. So, if a second grade book mentioned Aladdin without saying who Aladdin was, then the story of Aladdin was something that second graders in the U.S. were expected to know.

When they came to scientific knowledge, they could not adopt this methodology. If they had, there just wouldn’t have been a science section. For this portion of the project, they had to go back to the old method of making lists of things that they thought people ought to know. They expressed concern that teachers would not have sufficient background to teach what needed to be taught. I believe that a study in England and Wales a few years back came up with similar results.

In choir practice the other night, we found that none of us could remember who had written “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Actually, I was correct — it was Tennyson — but I wasn’t sure enough to be able to stand firm against those suggesting Kipling or Coleridge. We were a little shaky on British history, obviously, as well as on British poets.

But I think that is a reasonable and normal level of knowledge among people who have been out of school for a long time (and are not even British). We were all able to recite great wodges of the poem, as well as bits of other poems to compare for style, and we all had suggestions of possible authors.

If instead we had been uncertain about, say, whether felting was similar to the formation of polymers and if so, in what way, I doubt there would have been so much general knowledge to pool. The chemist who sits by me (she was the one plumping for Kipling, and quoting “Gunga Din” in support of the hypothesis) could have put us all right, but I doubt that most of the group would have had views on it. The agronomist on my other side probably also would have known. But the Pampered Chef hostess, the Wal-Mart clerk, the pilot, the Red Cross executive, the librarian — they all know where Dubai is, but they may not know about polymerization.