Jie Gao is thrilled to be teaching Chinese to elementary school children. The Newton, Mass., program in which she participates has generated considerable interest - so much so that local middle schools followed suit this year in offering the language.
But she'd be the first to admit that the highly successful effort is hardly typical. Although 1 billion-plus people speak Chinese, fewer than 9,000 US students currently study it in school. Yet 1.1 million US students still pursue that traditional favorite, French - a language spoken by just 124 million.
To the New York-based Asia Society, it's just another example of how Asia is not being given adequate coverage in US schools, despite its increasing world prominence and the fact that it is home to 60 percent of the world's population. In response, the society has launched a national commission to try to improve Asia-related education by providing schools with better resources for teachers and raising public awareness.
"Despite the fact that Asia has changed so rapidly in the past 20 or 30 years, our schools have not been able to keep up with these changes," says Namji Kim Steinemann, vice president of the Asia Society's education division and executive director of the commission.
Pacific Ocean? Where's that again?
A recent poll the Asia Society commissioned found that only 15 percent of adults and 5 percent of students knew that India is the world's largest democracy. Twice as many people knew the capital of Austria (Vienna) as did the capital of Indonesia (Jakarta), the world's fourth-largest country and a headline-grabber for the past year. And 26 percent of college-bound students did even not know which body of water separated the United States and Asia (the Pacific Ocean).
On the other hand, more than 70 percent of students said they believe learning more about Asia would help them prepare for life in the 21st century, and a majority said that teachers and textbooks pay too little attention to Asia.
In part, Ms. Steinemann says, the dearth of information lies at the feet of American provincialism. "There is this sense that the US matters to everyone," she says. "English is spoken by everyone, it is the de facto international language, and as a result, there has been a very cursory emphasis in our education system to everything that is the 'other.' "
But a far greater factor is the school system's slowness to update the curriculum. "Our school system is notoriously slow to change," Steinemann says.
History textbooks still tend to be heavily Eurocentric: A standard ninth-grade text, for example, devotes 270 pages to Europe and 55 to Asia. Even when texts do cover Asia, they often do so "through Western eyes," says Steinemann, so that "Marco Polo becomes the most important figure in Chinese history," and "Commodore Perry [whose gunboats arrived in Japanese ports in 1853 to press Japan to open up to Western interests] the most important figure in Japan."
One hurdle to bringing more Asia-related content into schools is finding teachers qualified to teach it. "I think that's probably the biggest stumbling block," says Charlotte Mason, a world-history teacher at Newton North High School and one of the commission's co-chairs.
Ms. Gao agrees, citing ads she has spotted in local papers looking for Chinese-language teachers. "It's not anyone who can [both] speak the language and teach," she points out.
Many of the teachers who currently teach about Asia have almost no background in the area. None of the country's top schools of education requires a single course on Asia for a degree in social studies. And in a survey conducted by the Asia Society of social-studies teachers who teach about Asia, over half reported they had never taken a related course.
Content not a high priority
Yet, asks E.D. Hirsch, the founder of the Core Knowledge curriculum and a professor of education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, "Isn't this the case for all content areas?" A problem with education schools, he argues, is that they "haven't considered content to be their area." While he agrees that schools are probably not covering Asia adequately, he points out wryly that it "has to be put into perspective, since they're also not teaching fractions well."
Nevertheless, many observers feel that Asia ought to hold a more central spot in the curriculum. "I just had a parent tell me that this language, spoken by one-fifth of the world population, is going to be an important language if our kids want to succeed in the future," says Gao.
Ms. Steinemann agrees. "When you consider the implications of not knowing more about Asia for our future decisionmakers, this is a critical effort that needs to be undertaken now."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society