American Students Know Too Little About Asia, Group Says

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — July 11, 2001 4 min read
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American students lack even a basic knowledge of Asia—and of world affairs and cultures in general—despite the continent’s significance in U.S. history and in current and future economic and security matters, the report of a national panel suggests.

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Read “Asia in the Schools,” from the Asia Society’s Education Division. Or you can order it for $10 by calling (212) 327-9227.

“Today, the American people are dangerously uninformed about Asia,” said James B. Hunt Jr., the former governor of North Carolina and a co-chairman of the group that released the report in June. “I don’t believe we can claim to educate children in America to high standards if their education ignores the important region of the world that is Asia.”

The National Commission on Asia in the Schools, a privately organized, 30-member panel of educators, policymakers, and representatives from business and the news media, found that the hole in the curriculum has fostered a kind of “educational isolationism” that leaves students unprepared to meet the demands of increasing globalization.

While a small cadre of schools and teachers have infused material on Asia into curriculum and instruction in a meaningful way, the subject is mostly given only superficial coverage or ignored altogether, according to the report, “Asia in the Schools: Preparing Young Americans for Today’s Interconnected World.”

Few Teachers Prepared

The commission—which was set up in 1999 by the Asia Society, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that promotes broader understanding of Asian government, business, and culture—recommends a course of action for improving the study of Asia.

Such steps would include integrating Asia-related materials into elementary reading programs and social studies curricula, and into interdisciplinary curricula in the middle grades. It would also make instruction in Asian languages available to children beginning in the early grades. Moreover, the commission says, high schools should provide more opportunities to study the continent in depth as part of their history, geography, and foreign-language curricula.

Few teachers, though, have enough knowledge of the region to teach about it beyond the cursory information often found in textbooks, according to Charlotte Sanford Mason, a co-chairwoman of the commission and a teacher at Newton North High School in Massachusetts. Asia is not covered extensively in the undergraduate courses that aspiring teachers take, the panel found.

“Forward-thinking teachers know our students need to know more about Asia, but few teachers are prepared to do this,” Ms. Mason said. “A huge effort is required to change this.”

The commission calls on policymakers, as well as state and local education officials, to focus more attention on the importance of Asian studies. Doing so does not have to overburden the already-crammed curriculum, the panel contends. Teaching about Asia—an area of study included in most states’ history standards—can be incorporated into the existing curriculum, it says.

“This need not be one more thing in the day of a teacher that’s already packed full,” said Gov. John Engler of Michigan, a panel member. “We can weave the subject matter into geography, social studies, math, history, and literature.”

But some experts say the recommendations may be unrealistic, considering the vast amount of material teachers are already trying to teach. Moreover, they say, Asia should not necessarily be singled out, given that other important regions of the world are often given short shrift in the curriculum.

It is nearly impossible for teachers and curriculum specialists to incorporate everything into the curriculum that various groups believe is critical, said Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the American Textbook Council in New York City.

Promoting a Global View

The panel members “have some good points, particularly about the United States’ inability to come to terms with geopolitics, geography, and international issues. We talk global, but we remain locally minded as a nation,” said Mr. Sewall, who evaluates the content of history and social studies textbooks. “But it’s not as though Asia is a burning and special issue that needs correction. We don’t know much about South America, even though it has a fascinating set of political, economic, and cultural factors that affect us. And coverage of Africa in the curriculum is a disaster,” he said.

The report urges each of the 50 state governors to appoint a task force on international education by the end of the year. Mr. Engler and the governors of at least four other states—Alabama, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington—have already promised to form such task forces, according to Mr. Hunt.

In addition, the panel recommends that schools and districts review how well their curricula promote students’ understanding of Asia and work to encourage the study of Asian languages.

Moreover, teacher-preparation programs should require their students to study more about Asian history and culture, business and civic leaders should sponsor links between schools here and in Asian nations, and educational publishers should produce more substantive and up-to-date materials for the classroom, according to the commission.

The Asia Society has drafted a 15-year, $10 million plan to implement the recommendations.

Virginia B. Edwards, the editor and publisher of Education Week, also served on the commission.

A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as American Students Know Too Little About Asia, Group Says


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