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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    As global order shifts, U.S. slips

    There is nothing more shameful than being an American in Paris. That is, there is nothing more shameful than being an American and meeting people from all over the world who know just as much, if not more, about your nation as you do.

    I’m spending the year as an exchange student in Paris, where I’m studying at Sciences Po, France’s leading institute of social science. Forty-two percent of the student population here is foreign, representing more than 100 countries. With so much diversity, one might expect students’ discussions here to be just as multicultural as the students themselves. Yet most of our conversations concern a single nation, the United States.

    My fellow students watched the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and they watched the latest season of “How I Met Your Mother.” They can point to Arizona on an unlabeled map, and they’ve heard that breakfast burritos can cure a hangover.

    As for me, the American, I know relatively little about my classmates’ nations. This might be excusable if I possessed expert knowledge of my own country, but I don’t think I can even remember all of the provisions in the Bill of Rights. I am the stereotypical American, completely unaware of other countries and hardly familiar with my own.

    Despite globalization, this stereotype remains accurate. When Newsweek asked 1,000 Americans to take a citizenship test in March 2011, 29 percent of the participants couldn’t name the vice president and 73 percent couldn’t explain the reasons for fighting the Cold War.

    While Americans themselves are partially to blame for upholding this stereotype, there are other culprits — our public schools and universities.

    Let’s begin with K-12. Rather than capitalizing on children’s ability to acquire languages when they are between the ages of 1 and 12, most public school systems, excluding perhaps only charter schools, do not offer foreign language classes until the ninth grade. Americans may be lucky to reach fluency in one foreign language, while Europeans may learn to speak four or five.

    If that isn’t enough of a disadvantage, American high school students take mostly math, science and English classes rather than history and geography classes. California State University, for example, only requires high school students who are seeking admission as first-time freshmen to have taken two history courses — U.S. history courses. At the same time, it requires four years of English classes and three of math. Students entering California State University may be excellent writers and mathematicians, but they will be lousy ambassadors to the rest of the world.

    This ethno-centric attitude in the public K-12 system prevails in public universities as well. To earn a bachelor of arts degree at the UA, students need to take only four semesters of a foreign language. Studying a language for four semesters is enough to learn how to say, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” Perhaps language deficiency is the reason only 350 UA students study abroad each year.

    Or maybe it’s because institutional awards like the Wildcat Excellence Tuition Award and the Regent’s High Honors Endorsement Award cannot be used to study abroad or participate in an international exchange program. At my university here in Paris, every student is required to study abroad for the entirety of their third year.

    The academic expectations and institutional regulations of America’s public schools and universities enable students to be narrow-minded. By maintaining a negligent attitude toward foreign countries, our education system discourages multiculturalism, cultivates ignorance and perpetuates a negative stereotype of the United States.

    The result is a lagging American public that cannot compete, or even interact, with the rest of the world.

    It is easy to say that the reason people from other countries know a lot about the United States is because the United States is a leading world power. America’s job is not to be educated about other nations; its job is to lead them. But the world order is shifting, and the U.S. is slipping from its pedestal.

    Unless we transform our public schools and universities into multicultural institutions, Americans will continue to grow up ignorant and small-minded, leaving them unable to fully engage in the globalized world. If today’s typical American is uneducated, tomorrow’s typical American is infantile.

    — Savannah Martin is a junior studying journalism and political science. She can be reached at or on Twitter via @SavannahJual.

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