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Q & A: Newsman Reflects on Role of Current Events in Education

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After retiring from a long career as a writer and editor at Time magazine and other Time/Life publications, Peter B. Martin decided to launch his own international news wire service in 1986.

Based in an small white frame house in Hanover, N.H., the South-North News Service operates today with a corps of 180 correspondents, most of whom are natives of the Third World and Eastern European countries from which they report.

In 1990, Mr. Martin decided to take his embryonic news organization's expertise and resources and use them to help secondary-school students. That year, he created WorldWise, a monthly international-affairs newspaper for secondary students, written and edited by seasoned journalism professionals.

Each issue of the newspaper focuses on a single theme and is accompanied by a guide for teachers. Recent issues have focused on the collapse of the Soviet Union, the events in the Middle East one year after the Persian Gulf war, and the role of the press in international affairs.

Currently, 4,000 students in 241 schools across the country subscribe to the publication.

Mr. Martin discussed the status of current events in American education with Staff Writer Meg Sommerfeld.

Q. How does your publication differ from other current-events curricular material?

A. We have immediacy. We can turn around rapidly. And also what we have is people who write to interest the reader. The Time Inc. training, the training in daily journalism, trains our editors to produce stories that make you want to read them. Our stories are designed to be interesting and not just informative.

Q. Many polls and surveys have documented American students' ignorance of geography and current affairs. Is their level of awareness any better or worse than it was 10 or 20 years ago?

A. I think if you look at the entire population of secondary-school students, it's worse. That's because there are so many more secondary students now. And also there are so many more secondary students from poor neighborhoods, and they're in much bigger classes. I think that teachers are overloaded.

Q. To what else do you attribute their lack of understanding?

A. The world has also become much more complex.... We have a situation, especially now that the East-West conflict is gone and the Cold War is over, [in which] there are now dozens of conflicts that nobody understands. Nobody understand why the Serbians want Bosnia. Nobody understands why the Armenians want Nagorno-Karabakh.

The United States is also fighting its way in a global economy. We don't understand why the Japanese do better than we do. We don't understand why so many manufacturers are moving their manufacturing plants to places like Brazil or Chile or Puerto Rico or Southeast Asia.

And so there are an awful lot of things that we need to understand, and there is not an awful lot of contemporary teaching material to deal with that stuff.

The teachers don't know it either. The teachers, I think, are also being let down by our educational system.

Q. In terms of not having the materials out there?

A. Exactly. The thing is, whatever happened to geography? There isn't any geography any more. It's all part of other cultures or social studies or some other kind of thing.

In order to try to make our education more efficient, we have streamlined it to the point where it just goes right through people and doesn't stick.

Q. What impact does this lack of understanding of global issues have outside of classrooms?

A. Well, I think, for instance, it makes a public that is much more easy to lead into war. My personal feeling is that I'm not sure if the Gulf war had to happen. I don't think peace was given a chance.

I think there is a situation where the more ignorant you are, the more you fear the foreigner. And the more you fear the foreigner, the more prepared you are to believe the worst of the foreigner, and the more willing you are to kill him.

It's a lot easier to kill a person you don't know than a person you do know.

Q. How do you think most students view the subjects of current events and geography?

A. You can lead a kid to current events, but you can't make him think. I think that most of them approach current events with the same groan that they approach algebra.

There you have the situation where the quality of the teacher comes in. A good teacher can make algebra fun. A good teacher can make current events really interesting.

I think a lot of social-studies teachers may be afraid of good current-events material because it may give the students questions to ask that they can't answer.

I'm sure there are a lot of teachers who are not quite sure they want to put this stuff in the hands of their students, because they're going to get asked questions about Muslim fundamentalism that they're not going to be able to answer. And I want to give the teachers the answers, as well as the students.

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