Washington — We need to avoid the mistake of focusing exclusively on the perils confronting us in the world beyond the United States -- such as Soviet expansionism or mounting acts of terrorism and revolutionary explosions on our doorstep in Latin America.
There is a peril inside the US. I am not referring to the state of our economy. I am referring to the state of our education. It is a danger rarely recognized and easily neglected.
It is becoming evident that a high percentage of Americans ages 20 to 40 know little about the postwar world and how it shaped today's dangerous decade. Yet this generation is beginning to provide the leadership and the climate of opinion on which the nation must form and nourish the policies to deal with the ominous crises which overhang us.
The evidence of a woeful lack of international understanding among the generation born after World War II is frightening enough to stimulate action. College seniors preparing to be teachers score lowest of all groups in understanding of international problems. Only 5 percent of prospective teachers take any course relating to international affairs and cultures as part of their professional preparation. Only 7 percent of American college seniors can read a simple book in any foreign language without assistance. Proficiency in any foreign language was so low that one-third of the college seniors had only a "survival level," that is, an ability to read signs and grope at asking directions.
Fortunately the Atlantic Council of the United States asked itself, "Are those who were born into the turbulent and interdependent postwar world adequately educated with respect to the heritage, values, and basic principles of our Western civilization to play a fully responsible part in strengthening our heritage and way of life?"
The council created a working group of some 50 distinguished American educators, churchmen, and public servants. They reached a unanimous, unequivocal, resounding answers to their question: "No." They produced an illuminating report which shows why what they call the "successor generation" on both sides of the Atlantic is not adequately educated -- very far from it.
The deficiency in languages not only creates a cultural gap between Americans and other peoples, but it also explains in part why we find it so difficult to compete with the Japanese. As one of the world's leading exporters, Japan has 10,000 English-speaking business representatives in the US while there are fewer than 900 American counterparts in Japan with few of them speaking Japanese.
It is increasingly evident that many Americans -- preeminently the "successor generation" -- are not adequately aware of the chain of events which led to the formation of the Atlantic alliance during the period described as the Cold War: the Yalta agreement in which Moscow joined in promising to assist free elections in liberated European nations and its subsequent failure to do so; Soviet occupation of the once-free East European countries; Soviet pressures on Iran and Turkey; the Greek civil war; the invasion of Czechoslovakia; the Berlin blockade; the United Nations-sponsored US defense of South Korea after the communist government of North Korea had invaded it. Knowledge of these events is essential to understand how the past generation of American leaders came to see the world and US interests and obligations.
This successor generation will be producing tomorrow's political leaders and shaping the nation's role in world affairs. At present they are ill-prepared to do so. Their deficiency is that, being too young to have lived through the momentous events which shaped today's world, they are learning little about them and too often being taught by teachers who have not equipped themselves to teach them.
It is all to the good that the Atlantic Council is sounding a warning and settin g out to do something about it.