New York — THABISO is an articulate, sophisticated South African teen-ager who is attending high school in Manhattan in exile from his home. And he has been astounded at how little teens in the United States know about his country and continent, despite its center of attention in the news. Thabiso, who asks that his real name not be used, tells of a high school student here who approached him with questions about his life in South Africa.
``[He] asked me if I wore leather skins and hunted with spears,'' says Thabiso. ``When I said `Sure,' he believed me!''
Doreen Ramos, a soft-spoken, bright 16-year-old in East Harlem, admits she has been one of those who know little about foreign countries. And when she hears friends ask less-than-informed questions about life outside the United States, she understands.
``You can't blame them,'' says Miss Ramos, who became more interested in world affairs after hearing a group of teen-agers from Children of War, a youth movement that links US youths with peers from war zones around the globe. Teens don't always understand because they probably have not been taught much about the rest of the world in school, she says, plus media portrayal of countries like South Africa is often negative.
Students like Thabiso and Doreen do not want issues like apartheid and global poverty to be dismissed. They believe that teen-agers everywhere need to have a clear and complete picture of the world - because one day they will be the leaders.
In the US, there is a growing recognition that students - starting from grade school - need to have a much broader awareness of global issues.
Young people in the US are often ``illiterate'' about other countries. A recent poll cited by Save the Children, a private voluntary organization doing relief and development work around the world, found that nearly two-thirds of the US teen-agers polled do not know what is meant by the term ``third world.''
``Does the average student have the basic, minimal fundamentals of geography, history, language, and a sense of world culture?'' asks Rose Hayden, president of the National Council on Foreign Language and International Relations. ``We have to answer `no.'''
But Ms. Hayden sees some room for optimism. She points out that there are 35 so-called ``magnet'' high schools in school districts around the country that specialize in international affairs. More than 30 states have mandated tougher foreign language requirements. More than 15 have mandated increased world history and geography courses.
Andrew Smith, president of Global Perspectives, which recently released a report with policy and curricula recommendations on global education, says things have improved dramatically in schools in the past 10 years. But he adds that the change needs to be broader than specific mandated courses.
``We need to think how to add global perspectives in all courses,'' he says. For example, instead of Dick and Jane and Spot in readers, include people from other cultures; math classes could use population growth rates for study.
The catalyst for increased interest in international perspectives sometimes comes under the rubric of competition. A group of Southern governors last year called for an increase in international studies, in part because they recognize that the US has to compete in a world economy.
Sometimes it is championed as essential to the cause of peace. With US involvement - military or humanitarian - in places far away geographically and culturally, it is essential that Americans understand those countries.
``Ronald Reagan, whether you agree or disagree with him, has been a catalyst'' toward interest in international affairs, says Mr. Smith. He notes, however, that sometimes the prickly issue of politics rises when he advocates a global perspective in education.
``We are dealing with intrinsically controversial topics,'' says Smith. But this does not mean education becomes propaganda. Students need factual information about other countries, and at the same time such education can help with analytical skills.
Schoolteachers agree. George Taylor, a high school journalism teacher at Tamaqua High School in Pennsylvania, took part in several seminars aimed at getting high school journalists interested in the third world. The seminars were sponsored jointly by Save the Children and the Journalism Education Association.
``We have a very narrow perspective on things here,'' says Mr. Taylor. ``We can't see beyond the coal banks.''
He says it is important for his students to understand and get involved in global issues in a rapidly shrinking world. He points out the connection between loss of textile jobs in the States and inexpensive labor in developing countries to his students, for example.
Tony Myers, a journalism teacher in rural Magdalena, New Mexico, sends his students to their closets to see the number of things they own that were made in the third world.
``It's really important to understand our ties to the third world,'' says Mr. Myers. ``There are so many things that touch our lives on a daily basis.''