I graduated at the top of my high school class. Number one. But that didn’t make me feel particularly smart.

The people I’d learned about, whose work I’d read, were clearly better educated. They knew Latin, Greek and, usually, a modern language other than their own. They had to study far more than students were expected to in my day, and they went on to colleges where collegiality was just as important as learning.

Going down?

In the 1980s, the U.S. began to dumb down. Education was important in theory but, in practice, it was being under-funded. The bar for accomplishment was lowered, and the K-12 curriculum became more of a painful obligation in most politicians’ minds than a mandatory requisite for national growth and prosperity.

By the ’90s, companies that once sponsored after school programs and summer internships abandoned them. Those introductions to life in the real world of work were trial runs. They gave students a better idea about the professions they might choose (and whether they wanted to major in those disciplines in college), and they often gave businesses a look at their future employees.

Say what?

At the end of the decade, teachers were throwing up their hands in desperation. In Oakland, California, teachers seemed incapable of getting their inner city students to master standard English. So the school board proposed that Ebonics — Black English — was a suitable substitute.

“So, Shawn, what’s the current competitive situation with BE Enterprises?”

“They be up in our face, bro.”

Yeah… I don’t think that would have worked out too well.

After the turn of the century, it was clear that the country’s knowledge quotient had declined. From The G.E. College Bowl, we’d descended to Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? (and we weren’t).

Role models?

Our 43rd President was regularly cited for mangling the language, and his grasp of economics and science was tenuous, too. We fell into the deepest hole since the depths of the Great Depression. At least he spoke a little Spanish, which was more than his successor could do.

The current occupant of the White House seems to revel in his lack of basic knowledge. He’s a mirror for a vast swath of his staunchest supporters. But he’s tops in declaring how intelligent he is, which probably encourages his base to think that they’re smart, as well.

Knowingly dumb?

I don’t think I’m all that smart. Yet I subscribe to John Cleese’s assertion that you have to be smart to know you’re stupid, so I must have some basic intelligence.

Knowing, like Oscar Wilde, that I’m not young enough to know everything, knowning I’m stupid has helped me in innumerable ways. That’s especially true in a field like Marketing or doing the voices for audiobooks. If I don’t start out thinking “I don’t know enough. I’d better learn more before I start this project,” I’m bound to do something qualifiably dumb. And I hate when I do that.

So, yes, I know what I don’t know, and I’m proud of it. But the trait that makes the difference is that, knowing that I’m ignorant about certain (many) things, I make the effort to learn… before I declare that I know what I’m doing.

Of course, if I didn’t do that, I might be president.