So, where is Asia anyway?

Quick: What's the world's largest democracy? And who was that guy who yanked China in 1949 from a US-backed general and founded the People's Republic of China?

If you know such facts, you're a member of an elite American minority. The majority is still pondering the answers - while touring around Southeast Asia looking for an island nation called Vietnam.

That's according to "Asia in the Schools," a new report by the National Commission on Asia in the Schools. Its results are enough to make you boycott the movie "Pearl Harbor" (if you haven't already) for no other reason than many Americans will take its gauzy view as the last word on the conflict.

Americans in general make no secret of their lack of interest in the world or its history. To non-Americans, this attitude can be stunning. A recent French visitor here couldn't get over the obsession in France with US news - and the utter lack of reciprocal concern. Canadians are flocking to a weekly TV show that pokes fun at American ignorance.

Asian audiences could be forgiven for following suit. Asia commands our attention fitfully - when one of its countries holds a US spy plane, or a trade dispute flares up, or when we recall that thousands of US troops serve there each year. Our judgments are then often colored by what the commission called distorted, outdated, or inaccurate information.

The report makes numerous recommendations, and notes positive changes, such as growth in the study of Japanese and Chinese. But such improvements, like our attention span, are sporadic. Given Asia's steadily growing profile, American schools would do well to better prepare their charges. (www.asiaintheschools.org)

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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