Catch Up, America!

"Isn't India in North America?" a classmate asked in the seventh grade. I, along with the students around her, was completely dumbfounded. This is typical of the results you'll see in an education system with no global focus. Yes, this may be an extreme example, but nonetheless it is a true account. At my school, at least, students are always complaining about the emphasis on standardized tests and not enough on experience and hands-on learning. The problem is, not enough American students take advantage of opportunities for global exposure and there are not enough cross-cultural initiatives to bring foreign students to the U.S. or vice versa. The world is calling for global citizens, but the U.S. has not yet answered.

Compared to other countries, the U.S. lags behind in its globally-minded students. Asia Society's Heather Singmaster named four examples of nations who are already doing a great job of preparing the rising generation for a global economy: China, Singapore, Korea and India. I have noticed some common characteristics prevalent in these countries. They all require students to become experts in at least one foreign language (usually English), and the governments have recognized and acted on the fact that the future depends on the understanding of a globally-integrated world. Sure, these countries are also externally focused since their own economy is either developing (China, India, Korea) or too small to support the needs of the nation (Singapore). Most of the U.S. kids I know from school drop out of foreign language before they graduate. They fulfill the two-year requirement and replace Spanish or French with a random elective that does not even follow them after high school. When I asked a friend why he dropped Spanish, he replied, "When am I ever going to actually use it?"

In contrast, on a foreign exchange trip to Lima, Peru a few years ago, the student who hosted me was speaking English almost flawlessly. I asked her how her English could be so good, especially compared to the poor language skills I saw at my home school, and she told me that her parents wanted her to become fluent so she could compete for jobs in the future. Her school teaches English from the start of kindergarten -- this is not casual tourist English. While these Peruvians were having full conversations with me in ninth grade, it's sad to admit that my fellow classmates in Spanish could barely understand natives on an 11th grade school trip to Argentina. I've noticed that students in other countries have a heightened awareness of the importance of studying diverse cultures. For an American student to view the need for another language as superfluous makes me feel we are raising a generation of provincial students. Everyone makes a fuss about improving math and science skills, but how about cultural fluency? I do understand, however, that starting language training at age 13 (middle school) can be difficult for some. The least our schools can do is introduce exposure to other cultures, but even this is lacking. What the U.S. needs are cultural ambassadors, and more initiatives to bring in students from abroad.

What about exchanging cultural expression through music, dance, or sports? When I performed in a dance show at the Kennedy Center a few years back, Debbie Allen, the director, had been named a U.S. cultural ambassador and travelled around the world teaching American dance and picked up dancers to bring back to her studio in Los Angeles for classes or performances. This was an opportunity for dance students like me to learn about dancers from another culture and background.

Whether it's academically, artistically, or athletically, America can use these disciplines to infuse our society with greater cultural awareness and global understanding. This can be an early form of diplomacy, started with teenagers at an age when they are open to new ideas and concepts, and can do a lot to improve relations between countries. When these same students become adults and are an integral part of a country's economy or government, or possibly running it, they will already know how to relate and connect across cultures. Wouldn't that make the world a more harmonious place? So here's my challenge: catch up, America!