We’re a bunch of idiots. That would seem to be the general consensus of the rest of the America about Las Vegas. Last fall The Daily Beast website published a list on the smartest cities in the country—a niche it seems to be trying to usurp from the undisputed king of ridiculous list-making, Forbes magazine. It was very scientific, according to the website, so I’ll let them explain it:
“We divided the criteria into two halves: Half for education, and half for intellectual environment. The education half encompassed how many residents had bachelor’s degrees (35 percent weighting) and graduate degrees (15 percent). No credit was given for ‘some college,’ or ‘some grad school’—we rewarded those who finished the race.”
The “intellectual environmental half” was broken down by nonfiction book sales (25 percent)—an “imperfect proxy for intellectual vigor”—the ratio of institutions of higher education (15 percent), because universities “drive the intellectual vigor of cities,” and voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election (10 percent).
Long story short? Against 55 cities with a population of more than one million people, Las Vegas finished 54th, with 11 IQ points and the scantest of reasons why: “A city that prides itself on sin performs predictably for each of our intellectual-based criteria.” (Last place was lavished on Fresno, Calif. It received three IQ points. Poor bastards. First place … Ah, don’t worry about it. I’d tell you, but it might fry your brain; suffice to say it scored 170 IQ points and is located a very far and very safe distance from here.)
No doubt Las Vegas possesses more than its share of street smarts, however, and if only the smug New York media would come up with more “social IQ” lists, we’d clean up. But the lists that do make the rounds tend to be ones like the Unhappiest Cities, Emptiest Cities or Best Cities to Raise a Family. In that last list, Children’s Health Magazine ranked us 92nd best out of 100 (or ninth worse, if you want to be a pessimist about it, although we did best Phoenix, Tampa, Cleveland, Memphis, Orlando, Miami and those two other sad-sack towns we often share the bottom of the barrel with: Detroit and, once again, Fresno).
Maybe I’m a little dense here, but aren’t all these lists kind of a waste of time? Or rather, they’re imprecise, imperfect proxies for our desire to know where we stand. We Americans like them because we like competition. We like winners. We don’t like losers. And we’re anxious about whether we are winners or—despite our best efforts—losers. But this constant badgering of our town and its lack of smarts does make one feel a little uneasy—like the rest of America is churning along happily, successfully, and we’re stuck in a town we believed was some kind of center of the universe, or some kind of perfect escape, and found that we’ve landed in neither.
And it gets worse, dear reader. Consider a report the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce released at the end of March on the quality of education in the Valley. It concluded that “national comparisons of subsets of students indicate that Nevada students fare no better than mid-range, and are most often well below students in other states when evaluating achievement based on standardized test performance.”
How bad? Fourth- and eighth-graders in Nevada placed no higher than 43rd in the country in math or reading on recent exams conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Of the quarter of high school students who took the SAT, they ranked 35th in critical reading, “39th in math and 40th in writing.” They did marginally better on the ACT.
Despite my fatigue with these poor rankings, which is matched only by my fatigue with Vegas-style boosterism, I try to remain an agnostic on questions of our dumbness, not wanting to believe that you and I and everyone we know are somehow mentally challenged for our decision to live here. Especially now, when the weather is perfect. Sometimes, though, I can’t help but wonder, like when I see three-lane roads (with no lane dividers) abruptly narrow to one lane, then back to two. Or when I suspect that the average Las Vegan not only doesn’t care that we lost our city’s art museum last year, but also likely doesn’t realize we had one in the first place. Or that four out of 10 Las Vegans, according to a recent survey, would leave the state altogether if they could. And why is it that we routinely, proudly turn our back on Las Vegas’ greatest asset—the Strip—with a derisive sneer, as a place for tourists? As if we’ve invented something better elsewhere in town.
But I don’t want to end on a despairing note. There is a bit of good news. According to that Chamber report, which was conducted by Applied Analysis, elementary school students in Clark County have shown improvement in math and English between 2003 and 2009; middle school and high school students have also seen proficiency gains in math and English. Now, can we offer our best and brightest kids a reason to stay in Nevada?