Lack of Global Understanding Imperils Nation, Experts Say

By Sheppard Ranbom — May 30, 1984 9 min read
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Washington--The nation is at risk not because it has lost its competitive advantage in the world marketplace but because Americans have little understanding of the world outside the national boundaries, according to leading educators who met this month at a global-education conference here.

The advance of communications and information exchanges, the growth of international trade, the concern for the world environment, and the development of dangerous new weaponry have all made it imperative that the nation’s education system strengthen and expand its international-education programs at all levels, according to speakers at the conference.

The conference, called “Global Crossroads: Educating Americans for Responsible Choices,” brought together educators, government officials, citizens of other countries, and representatives of organizations concerned with international affairs. It was coordinated by Global Perspectives in Education, a New-York based group that seeks to give students a broader view of the world.

The speakers said that to keep pace with the changes in the world and to adjust to new conditions in the international sphere--whether in political affairs or in the marketplaces of trade, technology, and ideas--American students and adults need to be aware of the languages, history, and cultures of societies different from their own.

This is all the more vital, they argued, because America is a pluralistic nation that gains strength from the diversity of its people. The educators noted that crises in the international sphere inevitably affect communities; the effects are felt in schools and colleges, which at times become “a battleground for opposing views,” they said.

Thinking Skills, Citizenship

Moreover, training students to think with a broad international perspective encourages them to act more responsibly as citizens at home and to develop their capacities for critical thinking, the participants argued.

But just as the need for global awareness is increasing, American education may be becoming more parochial, some participants charged.

The current “critical national introspection about the quality of education has generally overlooked what could become the most important shortcoming of all"--the fact that the U.S. population “is one of the most undereducated in global4matters of any nation in the world,” asserted Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell in an address to the conference participants.

The “typical American--even the well-educated American--doesn’t know enough about the world we aspire to lead,” Secretary Bell said.

Widespread Ignorance

Even those who might be entrusted with important roles in national leadership show a glaring lack of awareness of the international sphere, others said. According to one speaker, during a recent debate between several candidates running for the Senate seat to be vacated by Senator Paul Tsongas, Democrat of Massachusetts, several candidates could not accurately state which side of the conflict the United States is backing in the upheavals in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the author of the foundation’s 1984 report, High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America, said that one out of four college seniors in a 1981 survey said they had “almost nothing in common” with people in underdeveloped countries. One-third of the seniors in the Educational Testing Service’s study, “College Students’ Knowledge and Beliefs: A Survey of Global Understanding,” said they were not interested in international relations and only about 20 percent said they read news articles about international events.

(A 1980 ets/Council on Learning study, “Education and the World View,” indicated that students obtained their knowledge of world affairs from the news media, not from their courses. Fewer than 15 percent of the seniors and fewer than 10 percent of the other students answered more than two-thirds of the survey’s questions correctly. Those who studied history received the highest scores, followed by engineering and8mathematics majors. The lowest scorers were future teachers--education majors--who averaged about 40 percent.)

Moreover, Mr. Boyer said, “while America is experiencing the greatest wave of immigration in its history, our students remain enormously ignorant about the language and culture of the new Americans from the south. Such ignorance means that national tensions will increase,” he said.

According to Soedjatmoko, rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo, the knowledge explosion has “not been accompanied by greater understanding and greater capacity for empathy and compassion. ... Like most explosions, it has fragmented things, sending bits and pieces of knowledge in unrelated directions.”

Ultimately, people have become “confused” and have lost their sense of personal identity. There is now a tendency, encouraged in part by a weakness in the education system, for people to flee complex issues in favor of “single-issue politics, simplistic ideological positions, and reactionary fundamentalism,” Soedjatmoko said.

Agenda for Action

By and large, educators participating in the conference backed away from recounting “horror stories” of American ignorance of world affairs.

“We’re tired of documenting the horror stories,” said David Grossman, director of the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education. “We’re not only trying to assess the literacy levels of students but to determine the impact of various types of programs.”

Educators applauded the recommendations of the National Advisory Board on International Education Programs, a 21-member panel of business leaders, citizens, educael5Ltors, and representatives of government charged by Secretary Bell last September to develop proposals for improving the standards for foreign-language and international studies in the United States. (See Education Week, March 7, 1984.)

Secretary Bell said he has approved the final report of the advisory board. The report, “Critical Needs in International Education: Recommendations for Action,” is being published by the department.

Lifelong Learning

Mr. Bell stressed that the attempt to develop a global outlook must extend beyond high-school and college students to adults.

“To educate effectively the youth of this nation in the best precepts of international education is not enough,” he said. “As the world continues to interconnect and change at an increasingly rapid rate, it will be necessary for us to place a major emphasis on continuing education--on lifelong learning programs that will ensure that our citizens retain the high level of global perspective and awareness that [they are equipped with] during their school and college years.”

He also noted that more work is needed to link global education with the sciences and technology. In the field of genetics, for example, there are “creatures being created elsewhere that we"ll have to contend with,” he said.

‘New Humanities’

According to Soedjatmoko, studies in the humanities also should be expanded “to include more study of non-Western cultures--now an area that receives only passing attention in most cases.”

“There is, in fact, a need for ... a ‘new humanities’ that take into account not only one’s own culture, but the myriad ways in which that culture interacts with non-Western cultures, and the interface of science and technology with society,” he said.

Mr. Boyer reiterated the findings of the Carnegie study of the high schools. He said that all students need to study “a core of common learning” to obtain a sense of “those ideas and traditions common to all people by virtue of their membership in the human family at a particular moment in history.”

That core, he said, includes “our shared use of symbols, our sense of history, our membership in groups or institutions, our shared relationship with nature, and the universal experience of producing or consuming.”

Mr. Boyer suggested that the pyramids in Egypt, the palace of Versailles, the city of Cuzco in Peru, Persepolis in Iran, the old city of Jerusalem, and the 160 other sites designated by the International Council of Monuments and Sites as of “universal value to mankind” be the focus of a curriculum for the common core of learning. These, he said, should become “open spaces for all people of the world to be visited by students” and used as a “university of the world.”

He also urged that all students learn about non-Western cultures and that foreign-language study begin in the early grades.

“Language comes naturally when taught where readiness is greatest,” Mr. Boyer said. But he noted that it was “carelessness, if not arrogance,"4to require two years of language study for high-school graduation unless students are placed early in language programs that have “continuity” and “adequate bursts of time” in which they can practice speaking, whether in language laboratories or while studying in foreign countries.

Bolstering Exchange Programs

To bolster foreign study, Mr. Boyer urged that the nation “launch a young ambassadors program” that would “make it possible for more students to study overseas and others to come here.”

“The goals would be to have at least one young ambassador overseas from each of the 16,000 high schools in this nation and from our colleges as well.” To fund the program, Mr. Boyer suggested that the government fund “one less MX missile.”

Mr. Boyer also said that textbooks must be changed. “History texts are weighted toward government and confrontation,” he said. They do not focus on the “celebrations and achievements that have caused the human family to advance or the heroes that enlighten and enrich our lives.”

‘Ideal’ Global Program

Kenneth Lester, a consultant in foreign languages for the Connecticut Department of Education, said an “ideal global-education program” would include an international-awareness program beginning in kindergarten; foreign-language study beginning in kindergarten, with “a total immersion program in at least one elementary school in each district"; and an introduction of “the aims and goals of international education infused in the regular teaching program in grades K-8.”

At the high-school level, he continued, the program should include regular foreign-language instruction as well as “content courses” and a course in international affairs, business, and culture taught in a foreign language. It should also include opportunities for foreign study and a foreign home-stay experience, Mr. Lester said.

Time and Resources

But introducing global concepts in the classroom will be a difficult proposition given how school time and resources are allocated, said John I. Goodlad, director of the laboratory in school and community education at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of A Place Called School: Some Prospects for the Future.

In the hundreds of schools he studied, an average of 24 percent of the teachers worked in vocational-education programs, “training students for jobs that will not be there,” while only 4 percent taught foreign languages in high schools and 2 percent taught such courses in junior high schools.

During the school day, according to Mr. Goodlad, “there is barely enough time devoted to regular social-studies courses, let alone courses with a global perspective.”

Moreover, he said, “teachers outtalk students by a ratio of 3 to 1,’' and student-initiated conversation is virtually nonexistent.

Global education and critical thinking cannot be developed if students do not “engage in dialogue, get ideas out, and have them challenged,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 1984 edition of Education Week as Lack of Global Understanding Imperils Nation, Experts Say


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