By John Blankenship
I was shocked the other day while cleaning out one of my desk drawers.
I ran across an old Chicago Tribune article that I had clipped several years ago for my education files.
The article expounded on an incident that happened at a California university when a professor entreated his class of incoming freshmen to find a few countries on a map.
The results were astonishing. One out of three students could not locate France. Nearly 75 percent did not know where El Salvador was located.
Forty-seven percent could not find Japan; many of the students confused it with New Zealand.
Fifty-five percent could not find Iran.
The results prompted the professor to exclaim: “I don’t know how these people who are supposed to be prepared as world citizens could go through 12 years of school and not know these things. They are joined at the hip by a computer, but what do they think they are going to do with it when their power source shuts down?”
A journalism professor in Morgantown told me recently that he asked his class of 25 students, all of whom hope some day to be practicing journalists or journalism educators, to name the vice president of the United States.
He was stunned when one student replied that the U.S. had not had a vice president since the Reagan administration.
“But I also get blanks on papers when I ask for other names of national and international leaders,” he explained. “Students don’t seem to be paying much attention to current events. At least, they are not reading national publications.”
Apparently, though, these incidents are not isolated.
Rather, they are representative of a problem that has educators, government officials and business leaders deeply concerned.
Some are convinced that a combination of factors has left many U.S. citizens poorly equipped to understand their own history and that of other countries and appallingly ignorant of foreign languages and cultures and even basic geography.
The United Nations studied 30,000 children ages 10 to 14 in nine countries to judge their comprehension of foreign cultures. American students placed next to last.
This is not a new problem, however.
And some experts believe this lack of basic historic, cultural and linguistic talents has undermined U.S. foreign policy, the nation’s ties to even its closest allies in Europe and the ability of the United States to compete effectively in a business world that grows more interrelated every day.
In the late 1970s, after the country’s first oil-price shocks, a Gallup poll showed that more than half of the American public was unaware that the United States had to import part of its petroleum.
Within the next 10 years, the price of foreign crude oil could reach $200 a barrel.
What kind of sobering effect could this have on the American public? Our nation got its first wake-up call some 30 years ago. Yet Americans, either from ignorance or denial, chose to disregard an alarming vulnerability: a dependency on foreign markets.
The same kind of ignorance prevailed in the American mind-set regarding the threat of terrorism both abroad and at home.
Not to mention the catastrophic catch-22 caused by millions of illegal aliens crossing America’s southern borders.
Meanwhile, during the past few decades, while each of us chased our own favorite phantom, hoping to find a piece of the American Dream, China and other Asian producers of consumer items slowly eroded our nation’s dominance in world trade.
All this occurred while the U.S. education system went through a period of radical change.
During the 1960s, greater academic freedoms in U.S. schools and universities led to reduced requirements in many fields, including history and foreign languages.
As colleges dropped language proficiency as an entrance requirement, high schools relaxed their teaching in these disciplines.
At the same time, educators say, high-school teaching of basic geography and history declined as the trend toward more “relevant” courses increased and computers conquered the academic scene.
“There is a deeply ingrained hostility toward teaching something that a student has no immediate need for,” a state department of education official told me recently. “The United States is the only developed nation in the world where you can graduate from college without studying a foreign language.”
With the growing Latino population in America, it might be wise to at least learn a little Spanish.
“Van a estar aqui mucho tiempo.” (They are going to be here a long time.)
Top o’ the morning!
— Blankenship is a reporter for The Register-Herald. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org