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Prepared To Be a Superpower?

What can de done to overcome the global “knowledge gap” that hinders the United States severely in its global ambitions – and responsibilities?

December 1, 2003

What can de done to overcome the global "knowledge gap" that hinders the United States severely in its global ambitions – and responsibilities?

September 11 awakened Americans to the question that U.S. President George W. Bush made famous: "Why do they hate us?"

The easy answers are comforting. We are rich — and they envy us.

We are strong — and they resent this. We stand for freedom — and they don't like it. All of this is true, but these answers cannot fully explain why September 11 moved men, not only to kill — but also to die.

To deal with such fanaticism, America has to strike back and strike hard, as we are doing — against all terrorists, al Qaeda and Iraq.

But everyday we stay in Iraq, we are reminded that this kind of terror cannot be eradicated by military action alone.

We need to ask ourselves not only why they hate us, but also why we did not know they hated us so much. September 11 exposed an international knowledge gap among Americans of true crisis proportions.

Vast numbers of Americans — particularly young Americans — know very little about the outside world.

A 2001 Asia Society report found that 25% of college-bound high school students surveyed did not know the name of the ocean that separates the United States from Asia.

About 80% of those questioned did not know that India is the world’s largest democracy. These findings did not astound me as much as this next finding.

Very few — if any — teacher training institutions in the United States require any coursework in non-Western history for students preparing to teach history.

But the bad news does not end there. The National Geographic Society's 2002 global geographic literacy survey found that

Americans aged 18 to 24 scored next to last among young adults surveyed in nine countries.

* The great majority — 83% — could not find Afghanistan or Israel on a world map. An even a larger number — 87% — could not locate Iraq or Iran.

* Less than half could find the United Kingdom, France, or Japan on a world map. Less than two-thirds could correctly identify a much larger landmass — China.

By contrast, young adults from other nations knew the size of the U.S. population better than their American counterparts, of whom nearly 30% estimated the U.S. population to be a billion or more.

American ignorance of the outside world, however, pales in comparison to our infamous "monolingualism."

A November 2003 Chicago Tribune article trumpeted the recently released study by the Modern Language Association as "language boom sweeps colleges."

A closer look, however, found that only 1.4 million American college students are enrolled in foreign language study.

This is the largest number of American students taking foreign language classes since the group conducted its first survey in 1958.

It means that only 8.7% of the total U.S. college student population is learning a foreign language. And more than 50% of them are studying Spanish.

Despite this so-called boom, foreign language study in U.S. colleges and universities lags far behind schools in other countries.

In Europe, language study often begins as early as age 5, and high school graduates are proficient in two languages.

Chinese students begin to study English in the third grade, and senior middle school graduates are expected to have an English vocabulary of 4,500 words — equivalent to the current fourth level of the college English test.

America's international knowledge gap is hardly surprising given this country's retreat from international education after the Cold War.

We let U.S. competitiveness in the international student market decline. We allowed funding for exchange programs to decrease by 40% in real-dollar terms over the past decade.

We tolerated low participation of U.S. students in study abroad programs — and crippled ourselves with a critical shortage of Americans with foreign-language skills.

As the Washington Post editorialized recently, visa hassles — prompted by post-9/11 security concerns — are driving foreign students and travelers to more hospitable countries.

This comes at a serious cost to U.S. tourism, business and academic exchange — not to mention America's reputation abroad.

It is as if after it emerged as the only global superpower following the Cold War, the United States decided that the defense of its interests — and the effective management of global conflict — would not require Americans who understood the world in terms other than their own.

September 11 brought home the horrible cost of shortchanging international education.

It also showed how not having enough critical foreign-language skills and expertise in the areas of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies — not to mention in our diplomatic corps — would crippple us.

Have we learned our lesson? September 11 may have awakened Americans to the degree to which we are disliked and resented around the world.

However, in addition to asking why we didn't know how much they hated us, we need to ask ourselves what we can do about it.

We all know the answer: more and better study-abroad programs. As a Syrian student studying at a U.S. university said right after September 11:

"We are what connect you to the world. The solution to end terrorism is international educational exchange."

As my personal experience has taught me, the best way, by far, for anyone to learn about a foreign culture is by living abroad for at least a year.

There is no substitute for first-hand experience. No amount of reading, watching movies or surfing the Internet will do.

Those interactions cannot convey the sense and nuance of a culture or the feelings and sentiments of a people. There is no substitute for experiencing a foreign culture.

Only study abroad and international exchange can connect people across boundaries.

Only face-to-face dialogue can build understanding of cultural values, trust, confidence, networks and collaboration.

And only international education can produce the leaders needed by the global knowledge economy — and the profound changes it will bring about.

Here is what former General Electric CEO Jack Welch had to say about GE's global success.

"The Jack Welch of the future cannot be me. I spent my entire career in the United States. The next head of General Electric will be somebody who spent time in Bombay, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires.

"We have to send our best and brightest overseas and make sure they have the training that will allow them to be the global leaders who will make GE flourish in the future."

Corporate futures aside, we need to close our international knowledge gap. U.S. national security and future prosperity depend on it.

There are encouraging signs: Students are studying foreign languages in record numbers. More students are going abroad to study — and heading for non-traditional destinations.

The Asia Society also found a vast majority agreeing that students should learn more about world cultures.

More than 90% of those it surveyed said they see such knowledge as vital to life and work.

The future demands that we learn to see ourselves and our nation "from the outside in" — the way others see us.

Doubling, tripling or quadrupling the number of American students who study abroad would only be the first step — although a critical one — en route to even bolder measures.

Adapted from remarks Ambassador Chang Bloch gave at the release of the report of NAFSA’s Strategic Task Force on Education Abroad on November 18, 2003. For the full report, please click here.