American Education

Teaching international relations at a public liberal arts university, I’m constantly surprised by how little most students know about the world outside the US.   There are always a few who had teachers that opened their eyes to the cultural and historical diversity of the world, but few really comprehend much about what goes on outside our borders.

Conversely, there is generally pretty good knowledge about American history and US politics.   Education majors planning to teach high school civics and social science need to take courses in US history and American government; if they take world politics or comparative politics it’s as an elective (and state requirements leave them little room for electives).   Thus the bias against teaching about the world outside the US is shaped in part by how we educate future teachers — and that’s influenced by state requirements, what’s tested for the ‘no child left behind’ program, and political pressures to focus on knowledge about the US.

If I could choose three things I would  like students to understand coming out of high school it would be:

1.   A general understanding of the intellectual history of western civilization.

2.  Comprehension of political geography — how the world is divided, and the wars, colonialism, and agreements that shaped the basic structure of the world today.   This need not be detailed, but at least a framework into which knowledge in college could be plugged.

3.  An understanding of cultural diversity to work against bigotry, knee jerk phobias, and cultural chauvinism.

Recognizing the difficulty in adding to what students already have to know, I’d even argue that this could be taught in a semester course titled something like “Global Studies.”  Each of these proposed ‘units’ could be one or even two courses.  I’m suggesting a broad overview that prepares them for detailed work in college, and awakens an interest to keep learning and growing also among those who don’t go on to higher education.

Unit One:  Who we are.  A brief look at the themes and conflicts in western thought harkening back to Plato and Aristotle.  Students should understand a bit about the history of Christianity as that religion shaped western thought, including the ethics and core values of people who are now atheists or follow other beliefs.  The influence of the reformation, the themes of the enlightenment, and the rise of secularism would follow.   These are complex topics, but in an intellectual history one need not learn all the details of the philosophies and intricate disputes.   Again, at this level students would only need a basic understanding that “who we are” is the result of 2000 years of cultural history.   What seems “natural” and “self-evident” to us comes from deep cultural biases that have shaped the West.   Understanding that “who we are” isn’t “the one people who see reality as it truly is” will make it easier to understand and appreciate other cultural perspectives.

Unit Two:  Political Geography:  This would start in Europe (and could mesh with unit one) and focus on core concepts that would be spread to the rest of the planet.   I’d suggest Napoleon and nationalism, colonialism, the causes of WWI and WWII (avoiding the simplistic ‘blame Hitler the madman’ crap) and the Cold War.  Included would be an emphasis on each continent and its own development.   After this unit students would know “where we are” globally, and have a sense of how and why the world is as it is.

Unit Three: Cultural Perspectives:  Given current events, it is fundamental for students to understand at least the basics of Islamic and Chinese culture.   These are two great cultural civilizations that are not going to go away and will not be defeated by the West.   The fear that some people have, or the ‘enemy image’ the media often promotes are counter productive.  We’re going to have to co-exist and cooperate with people of other cultures.   I’d go into some depth on China and the Islamic world, enough for students to recognize that those cultures developed much like ours, only with some different traditions and core beliefs.   They’d also grapple with cultural relativism — we need to understand other cultures on their own terms, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up value judgments.  How to do that is difficult, especially since we can’t simply assume our superiority.   I think there should be brief considerations of other cultures — Latin America, an overview of the diversity of Africa south of the Islamic world — but there isn’t a need at this level to learn everything.   As long as students understand how to look at different cultures and have a sense of global diversity, they’ll be able to build on that in college.

In terms of standardize tests I’d recommend they cover basics of Islamic and Chinese culture/history, key historical developments of the planet (outside US history) and some of the major concepts of western intellectual history.  It probably would not be difficult to develop a template of core concepts and facts that high school students should know before continuing on to college or joining the workforce.

Right now the country reacts to events and problems with uncertainty, easily swayed by demagogic rhetoric and emotion.   Fear of others, envy, anger, and blame fly easily.   People grasp for simple answers.   It can be expressed as hope for a better future, such as that which elected President Obama, or a desire to return to a simpler past as put forth by the tea party.    But clear thinking is impossible without knowledge.

Some might question whether one high school course or inclusion on a standardized test would make a difference.   I think if done well, expanding peoples’ knowledge about the world will quite often spur people to become interested in learning more on their own — to travel, read about other places, and become life long learners.   Ultimately we can’t create an educated society by simply changing how schools or universities function.  Rather, schools and universities have to awaken a desire by students to want to continue to learn and grow, consistently questioning their beliefs and ideals.    Knowledge is what makes life interesting and enjoyable; if people stop questioning and rethinking/expanding their beliefs, they stagnate and become bitter.     When people keep learning, life becomes a joy.

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  1. #1 by thenakedlistener on September 8, 2011 - 18:19

    I like what you are saying and I agree with you. But I happen to think that it may all turn out to be an uphill struggle, given the contradictory and even self-contradictory policies of the education authorities in the USA right now.

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