For Americans, the World Is Terra Incognita

IF the world is round - and it is - then why do we teach our children that it is flat? I am not speaking of the geophysical world, but of that world we live in where the affairs of humans and nations come full circle. Who can deny that fallout from a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union or an oil embargo in Saudi Arabia or a lush cocoa crop in Colombia carries implications that cross national boundaries and settle on our own doorsteps?

Canadians will bear the cost of the Midwest's coal-burning industries that drip acid rain on their forests. Russia will help underwrite the price of America's drought in higher grain export prices. For as surely as our same autumnal sun brings spring flowers in South Africa, we live in a condition of global cause and effect.

Yet despite the growing connections of nations and cultures, our schools teach a curriculum parochial to the American nation and culture. In consequence, students graduate from high school with limited understanding of the world beyond our borders.

Typical state education requirements mandate that elementary and junior high schools provide a social studies and citizenship curriculum of history, geography, economics, world cultures, law, and citizen responsibilities in a democratic society. By high school the requirements for international education disappear. Social studies requirements are commonly restricted to two semesters of United States history, one of US government, with perhaps an elective additional course in social studies. A typical high school senior has most of his or her education of the world by age 14.

As noted education critic Diane Ravitch observes, ``A year of world history, once obligatory as a high school graduation requirement in most districts, has become an elective or has disappeared altogether.''

Lacking knowledge of international affairs and geography, America's youth cannot be expected to make sense of the flood of information that spills through the news media. When they hear of currency fluctuations in Europe, revolutions in Africa, or new alliances in the Middle East, it is as if those events occur in some curious terra incognita, apart and isolated from their communities.

The quantified ignorance of American 17-year-olds in geography and geopolitics, for example, threatens to become a bad ethnic joke around the world. As reported in a 1986 National Endowment for the Humanities study, 30 percent could not identify Great Britain on an outline map of Europe. Only 2 out of 3 could find France. Nearly a third did not know that Germany and Japan were the principal US enemies in World War II. Only 53 percent knew Stalin as a leader of the Soviet Union.

A recent Gallup poll commissioned by the National Geographic Society disclosed that American adults know less geography than people from most other developed countries, ``and that their ignorance is increasing.'' Some samples: One in 5 of those polled could not name a single country in Europe. Three in 4 could not find the Persian Gulf on a map. One in 2 could not find South Africa. Only half of the adults knew that the contras and the Sandinistas have been fighting in Nicaragua.

The US cannot expect to foster a credible foreign policy or compete intelligently in the world economic tournament with a people basically unfamiliar with 92 percent of the planet. Nor can individual states and communities realize their industrial potential, nor its citizens fulfill the capacities of their dreams and talents, unless they are educated as citizens of the world as well.

Recognizing what is needed to become viable partners in the world economy, a handful of states now insist that pupils learn a second language somewhere between the seventh and 12th grades. Would that all 50 states required foreign language study. There is no better way to stimulate children's interest in other cultures, geography, and history. But we must make certain that our schools teach foreign languages in ways that produce real competence. The old-fashioned 45-minutes-a-day classroom sessions with no intensive study or opportunity to use the language outside class will bring neither linguistic competence nor cultural understanding.

To strengthen their curricula, community school corporations and state departments of education should try to forge partnerships with institutions of higher learning that are particularly resourceful in multicultural education. An example of such a partnership is the one between Earlham College and 15 Indiana school systems. The college, with its exceptional program in Japanese studies, is training teachers to develop Japanese language and culture curricula in their local classrooms. Training includes classes in Japanese history, art, and society on the Earlham campus, followed by three weeks of cultural immersion in Japan and a series of follow-up seminars.

If we take seriously our national responsibilities to promote peace, prosperity, and human dignity in the emerging global community, then we must learn all we can about it. For only when we know the world will it, in the finest sense, be ours.

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