David Who? Survey Finds Young Adults Lack World Knowledge

By Erik W. Robelen — September 12, 2012 2 min read
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British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to have an image problem in the United States. The problem is that most recent high school graduates have no idea who he is, a new survey suggests. Most also don’t know that Afghanistan is located in Central Asia, or that Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language on the planet. (Take one guess which language got the most votes.)

One reason for this apparent knowledge gap could well be that U.S. students typically don’t hear much about the rest of the world in school, as the survey report issued today explains. At least, that’s what many recent high school graduates ages 18-24 report.

A majority of respondents (62 percent) said world events were not “regularly discussed” in their high school classes. Only about half, 54 percent, agreed that their high school teachers “knew a lot about global events and incorporated a global perspective into their curriculums.”

Almost half disagreed somewhat or completely with the notion that their grades 6-12 education helped them understand the “roots of global issues that affect my life today.”

Answers to other survey questions indicate that young adults do see the value of global understanding. Three-quarters said they wish their high school classes had taken a more global approach. Eighty-six percent agreed that developments abroad can have significant implications for the U.S. economy, and 80 percent say they are curious about world events.

Many would like to have spent more time studying foreign languages in secondary school. In fact, when presented with nine subjects (and able to choose more than one), the most popular to have studied far and away was foreign languages, at 60 percent. When asked to pick just one topic, foreign languages again won out again, with 31 percent picking it over eight others. Next in line was economics (9 percent), followed by history and geography. That said, “world events” was second to last, at 5 percent. Last place? Science at 2 percent.

The nationally representative sample of 502 high school graduates ages 18-24 was conducted by Colligan Market Research between June 29 and July 6. It was commissioned by the nonprofit World Savvy with support from the International Baccalaureate organization, which as many readers surely already know, brings a decidedly global perspective to education in this country and around the world. (For some recent U.S. developments with the IB, especially a new career-related certificate program, check out this recent EdWeek story.)

“The results highlight the gap in this critical area [of global awareness] in the U.S. education system: we are not preparing today’s graduates for the reality of a global economy and workforce,” the report says.

Despite an apparent lack of knowledge about world affairs, most of those surveyed seem to believe they know a thing or two about the topic. A full 70 percent say they know more about the world and world events than their parents.

Finally, although Americans (and certainly their political leaders) are often known to have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to the United States’ place in the world, they’re pretty divided about one thing: About half of young adults, 52 percent, believe the United has the “best public school education system in the world.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.