What We Don't Know Can Hurt Us

Unfortunately, Sarah Palin is not alone in her global ignorance. Our colleges and high schools are not doing what's necessary... the current generation isn't gaining understanding of other cultures.
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"You buy them a Rand-McNally, you meet with generals, you get a lot of flags on the stage, and you give a big speech on foreign policy to display you have some command of the world," explained Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, on a recent CNN segment. This is what it means to be internationally literate?

As we debate whether being able to see Russia from a window counts for foreign policy experience, there is another view of what constitutes adequate knowledge of foreign affairs and very different standards about how to gain an international perspective that universities have supported for decades. The three legs of this global literacy include international experience, gained through study abroad, knowledge of global economics, politics, world history and geography, and cross cultural and linguistic competency. Understanding other countries and cultures requires the ability to speak a foreign language. Cross cultural understanding facilitates diplomacy and business. Knowledge of politics, economics, history and geography is essential for understanding the world and being able top act pro-actively rather than reactively in dealing with other nations. A proactive policy means that we have an ongoing involvement in issues that prevents them from becoming crises.

Unfortunately, Sarah Palin is not alone in her global ignorance. Our colleges and high schools are not doing what is necessary to boost America's international competence, and the current generation is not gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to understand other continents and cultures. Last academic year, less than eight percent of undergraduates enrolled at universities in the US were taking a foreign language course, and less than one percent of our 15 million college's students in the United States studied abroad. Equally alarming are the results of a recent survey of first year students at universities and colleges across the United States. Only about one-third said it was essential for them to learn about other countries and cultures. Being well off financially and raising a family are far more important objectives for this group of Americans. They have yet to realize that our peace and prosperity, and their livelihoods, increasingly depend upon people and processes around the globe.

In this era of globalization, we will not become internationally competent until our K-12 teachers are knowledgeable about international issues. Currently few teacher training programs or schools of education concentrate on global issues. The media contributes to our international ignorance. Entertainment-based or "soft" news media, including shows such as Entertainment Tonight, watched by an estimated 4 million Americans, have grown significantly in the past few decades. Edutainment has a significant impact on shaping public opinion towards foreign policy, at least in the US. This type of coverage, often dramatic in nature, usually lacks the larger political, economic and international context. Researchers have found that viewers are often left without an understanding of the cause and consequences of the stories they are viewing. It is not surprising then that American students know little about the rest of the world, and that more know where the TV show CSI is located than can find Iraq on a map.

Our lack of historical, linguistic and cultural knowledge forms the bases for many of our tragic mistakes in Iraq. Our soldier's inability to communicate has led to numerous tragedies on the ground. The lack of Arabic speakers in the intelligence agencies is one of the reasons for our intelligence failures.

Our future as a country will be determined by whether our society is internationally competent, speaking Farsi as well as French, because our greatest national security threat comes not from Al Qaeda, but from our ignorance about international affairs. Congress should support programs in language, world history, cross cultural awareness and international studies from grades K through 20. Newspaper editors should supplement their international coverage. Network executives should replace parachute journalism and edutainment with permanent correspondents around the world. And we should not elect people to the highest offices in the land who only recently acquired a passport.

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