Glad you asked. I grew up in the States, and have lived here in Europe for the past 14 years, so I think I might be able to answer your question.
First of all, we must talk about GDP: the US clearly does not hold first place. That honor goes to Luxembourg, where I live. The US ranks 10th in the world. Furthermore, it’s not too hard to have the highest GDP in the world when you print the world’s reserve currency. This has more to do with winning WWII than it does with the average IQ of the nation.
Now, here are some reasons:
– In the US, more than half the population (depending on the poll) rejects evolutionary theory in favor of the explanation offered by whatever religious group they happen to belong to. This number is higher by far than in any other industrialized nation. Likewise, climate change is still discussed as if the reality of it is an open question.
– Most high school students can barely be called that, as they spend most of their energies socializing, attending pep rallies and sporting events, selecting the most qualified candidates for student government, and hanging out of their phones. Every college-bound European student, by contrast, must necessarily complete a BAC, which a rigorous program that is equivalent to about two years of college in the US. School has no other function than to educate.
– In Europe, it is acceptable to have a conversation about some aspect of philosophy, art, or history at a keg party. In the US, raising such a topic is more likely to elicit blank stares and derision.
– Americans seem obsessed with making money. This might go some way to explaining the “highest GDP” claim, and it also explains the general lack of sophistication among Americans regarding non-lucrative subjects such as math, history, arts, culture… etc. In the US, the question of how this or that education will lead to more money is raised constantly. I suspect it won’t be long before the subjects above are simply cut from high school curricula.
– Every European nation (save a few such as Luxembourg) is embarrassed to consider itself to be the worst at languages. By this they mean that they have difficulty expressing complex ideas in a foreign language. In the US, speaking only English (and just barely even that) is considered a point of pride.
– The US seems like a cultural wasteland to Europeans, who are used to thousand-year-old cities, museums of art and history, and cultural events in the streets. When Europeans visit the US, they tend to ignore the cities (save New York) in favor of that natural splendor of Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.
– The images projected by American brands overseas are generally devoid of any intellectual aspiration. Disney, Coke, McDonald’s, most Hollywood movies, much of pop music… all of them seem to cater to the lowest common denominator.
– Europeans value careful deliberation and subtlety in thinking. Americans are perceived as being slow to think and quick to act.
– Americans are seen as loud and proud. They can be obnoxious, and have a bizarre tendency to claim to be “the best country in the world” (viz. this question). Also, they tend to dress like slobs.
– A vast majority of Americans (about 80%) have never traveled beyond their borders, and many don’t seem to care to.
– The virulent religosity that is pervasive in society. Europeans think it’s weird the way we write “In God we Trust” on our money… and now, on police vehicles.
– The flagrant nationalism and frequent assertions of being “the best”, which strikes Europeans as conceited and undignified.
– The food, which is perceived as utterly unsophisticated, if not total junk. This may largely be due to the fact that international brands like McDonalds and Pizza Hut are the only exposure many Europeans have to American dining habits, but I think there is some truth to it.
– Guns. While I will reserve my opinion on this topic, I can say that most Europeans unequivocally see no purpose in allowing citizens to carry guns. They see the US as a gun-crazed, violent place where gangs and deranged highschoolers shoot at random people for fun. Huh, blame Hollywood, I suppose.
Yes, I’ve been tremendously unfair, and I know it. Stupidity is about evenly distributed in the world, and to be sure, we have our share here, too. To be fair, one could easily make an equally long list of American perceptions of European stupidity.
But Americans have their own special brand of it.