American Ignorance

The public is shockingly unaware of the world, and educators and civic leaders need to confront this problem, writes Sanford J. Ungar.

March 23, 2015
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Among all the seemingly intractable crises Americans face in the world today, none is so serious as their utter unfamiliarity with that world. It makes every specific overseas problem virtually impossible for us to deal with confidently or competently.

Whether motivated by exceptionalism, isolationism, triumphalism or sheer indifference -- probably some of each over time -- the United States has somehow failed to equip a significant percentage of its citizenry with the basic information necessary to follow international events, let alone participate in formulating and executing the foreign policy that is an essential component of self-government in a healthy modern democracy.

This condition reflects the basic inadequacy of the educational system at every level, when it comes to understanding the world we live in. Americans of all ages have long scored lower than citizens of other countries on geography and current-events awareness quizzes and shown a stunning inability even to locate major countries on the map, let alone develop an appreciation for their cultures or their roles in global affairs.

As we know, Americans do not tend to appreciate the importance of learning foreign languages, and that indifference is only increasing. According to a recent report from the Modern Language Association, college students in the United States are actually studying languages 6.7 percent less now than they did five years ago. Even enrollments in Spanish, America's second language, declined 8.2 percent in that period, in Arabic 7.5 percent and in Russian 17.9 percent. Admittedly, English is in ascendance as the international language of business and trade, but needless to say, Americans will not get away with waiting for all the world to learn it.

There was a period, not all that long ago, when, at least in “peacetime,” it seemed as if international issues could be left to a small cadre of experts in government and educational institutions. As the pundits told us, such matters played virtually no role in routine political discourse or in local and national elections -- and certainly not in the daily lives of most members of Congress or much of the public they represented. Indeed, for many years slots on the House Foreign Affairs Committee were difficult to fill; congressmen did not want to have to go home and explain why they were wasting their time in Washington on such matters.

One might have expected a shift in recent decades, if only out of a national desire to avoid repeating critical mistakes. But in the years following the end of the Cold War, the foreign affairs account in the federal budget was cut drastically and some news organizations proudly announced that they were closing overseas bureaus because of a lack of interest among their subscribers or viewers, not to mention their own financial adversities.

Today, incredibly, the situation seems worse. Thirteen and a half years after the shock of Sept. 11, a complex international environment feels ever more distant, unknowable and strange. Only a third of Americans are thought to hold passports -- compared to about 50 percent in Australia, more than 60 percent in Canada and some 80 percent in the United Kingdom. Study-abroad rates at American colleges and universities are, on average, stuck in the low single digits.

It is no wonder, then, that Americans find themselves easily and frequently bewildered by phenomena that spin quickly out of control -- the various ongoing crises in the Middle East; the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, among other former Soviet republics; the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa; China’s recent public showdown with dissidents in Hong Kong and quieter ones in other regions; the catastrophic symptoms of climate change; and separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia, to name a few. A basic lack of awareness and understanding among the public makes it even harder for policy makers to formulate positions that will attract widespread domestic support and perhaps influence the outcomes.

One of the recent manifestations of Americans’ confusion over world affairs was the wild fluctuation in public opinion with regard to whether the United States should intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war or become reinvolved in Iraq. The data are confusing, at best:

In May 2013, 68 percent of Americans surveyed told Gallup they felt the United States should not use force to attempt to end the conflict in Syria if diplomatic and economic efforts failed. Thirteen months later, in June 2014, 54 percent still said they opposed using military means to help the Iraqi government fend off the insurgents from the newly discovered Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL), which was threatening to take over that country, while 45 percent now favored American air strikes there.

By August of last year, after the Islamic State had received substantial media coverage and begun to replace Al Qaeda in the public mind as the principal U.S. adversary in the region, support for air strikes had risen to 54 percent in the Washington Post-ABC News poll. In September, after the widespread circulation of grotesque videos of the beheading of American journalists, that number reached an astonishing level of 71 percent in the same poll -- hence, President Obama’s recent willingness and political capacity to take bolder steps.

It is difficult to know how much faith to place in any of those numbers, because in some of the surveys fewer than half of the respondents said they had actually been following the situation in the Middle East closely when they were interviewed. And for a time there was speculation that perhaps government spokespeople and media sources had it wrong -- that the Nusra Front or the Khorasan Group (even less familiar names) might actually be the worst actor in the mix, from an American perspective. What if we were fighting the wrong enemy or, worse, did not really know whom we were fighting?

Should we become more frightened, more resolute -- or, as many seem to do, just tune out?

There is, alas, no quick or easy cure for this fundamental problem. No number of urgent adult-education courses, live or online, will catch the country up anytime soon. And it is not as if a wave of American tourists or students should be encouraged to drop in on Syria or Iraq for impromptu fact-finding missions.

That is not the point. It is, rather, a broader familiarity with the world that is needed. It will take decades -- a generation or two -- for the United States as a nation to develop a deeper appreciation of the complex forces at work, such that popular attitudes are no longer subject to crass manipulation.

It may not be easy to persuade Americans, legitimately worried as they are over other matters at home, that every field of endeavor and every issue of public concern will soon have an international dimension, if it does not already -- or that continued ignorance of, or indifference toward, how other people see the world is a concrete threat to our own security and safety.

This will require nothing less than a national call to action. We are not dealing here with a partisan issue, and the concern is relevant for all economic strata and all social groupings in the United States. For a start, we will have to send many more young people to study abroad -- in high school, in college and in graduate and professional school -- and make sure that a significant number of them go farther afield than the traditional destinations in Europe. When they get wherever they are going, it is crucial that they live and study not just with other Americans, but also with local people of their own generation.

Meanwhile, back at home, more students will have to learn about the wider world from every perspective -- political, economic, anthropological and scientific -- whatever their intended careers.  The attainment of an international sensibility should be on any list of liberal education requirements. 

And yes, we should bring back old-fashioned language requirements, but teach those languages in a practical manner that assumes we will all use them in our daily work and social lives, not necessarily become foreign-literature scholars.

Above all, we must value the experiences and listen to the insights that young Americans bring home from overseas. They, in turn, will have to push their professors, their families and everyone else they encounter to be willing to learn from the way other societies and cultures conduct their lives and govern themselves.


Sanford J. Ungar, distinguished scholar in residence at Georgetown University, recently stepped down after 13 years as president of Goucher College in Baltimore, where every undergraduate is now required to study abroad.


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