In a crucial political year when candidates’ knowledge — or ignorance — of international affairs and foreign policy are topics among public debate in the United States, a new survey of what young Americans of college age, many of them first-time voters, really know about the world produced some sobering findings.
The joint survey, commissioned by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic, found that only a minority of college-age young people or recent graduates had much grasp of American treaty obligations abroad, the status of Mexican immigration into the US or what country had the largest majority Muslim population in the world, among other gaps in knowledge.
On the environment and climate change, however, many young people seemed most plugged in, which the survey considered an encouraging sign.
“American citizens are affected in fundamental ways — in legislative bodies, boardrooms, and the environment — by what happens in the world,” Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Gary E. Knell, president of the National Geographic Society, said in a preface to the survey.
“At the same time, the United States has considerable influence over international events. It remains the world’s foremost military power. Even with robust growth in some developing countries, the US economy retains enormous heft, and the US dollar continues to play a central role in international finance (a subject poorly grasped by our survey respondents).
“All of this makes an educated public essential for American economic competitiveness, national security, and democracy,” the co-sponsors said.
The survey was conducted by ARC Research among 1,203 people aged 18 to 26 years old, who currently attend or have recently attended a two-year or four-year college or university in the US. Among the extensive findings captured in “What College-Aged Students Know About the World: A Survey on Global Literacy” were these:
• Asked if they knew whether more Mexicans have left the US than entered over the past five years, 34 percent answered correctly. Forty-nine percent said that wasn’t true. The rest did not know.
• When given the names of four countries shown on a map — Armenia, India, Indonesia and South Africa — and asked which one was a Muslim-majority nation, only 29 percent chose the correct answer, Indonesia.
• Fewer than half the students questioned knew that the US was treaty-bound to protect Canada (47 percent), South Korea (34 percent), Japan (28 percent) and Turkey (14 percent).
• In the same vein, 30 percent of those questioned knew that only Congress has the constitutional authority to declare war; 48 percent thought the executive branch of government had that power. Others said the defense department or the justice system did.
• Yet when asked to rank the importance of knowledge on a list of seven topics, 81 percent chose current world events as extremely important or very important. But knowledge of foreign cultures and geography ranked lowest, at barely 50 percent.
The dearth of international knowledge among Americans — not only college students but also the general public — has been the subject in recent decades of many conferences, symposiums, books and articles. Numerous reasons have been suggested as causes behind the gaps in knowledge and understanding of the world: little emphasis on teaching geography for its own sake, curricula built around social issues and not chronological history or current events, a lack of intensive language training and little teaching about international institutions, such as the United Nations.
At the same time, more American students are spending time abroad on international programs for weeks, months, a year or more.
Some leading educators have long recognized the anomaly of an increasingly diverse American population and comprehension of the world from which many students now come. Back in 2007, Vivien Stewart, writing in Educational Leadership, a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, said: “The future is here. It’s multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual. But are students ready for it?”
Stewart, senior adviser for education at the Asia Society, was critical of the “soft” approach to the world. “Teaching about the rest of the world in U.S. schools has often focused on the superficial: food, fun, and festivals,” she wrote. “Today, we need deeper knowledge, such as understanding significant global trends in science and technology, how regions and cultures have developed and how they interconnect, and how international trade and the global economy work. . . . [Our] challenge is to hone students’ critical-thinking skills and to familiarize students with key concepts that they can apply to new situations. In this way, they can make sense of the explosion of information from different sources around the world and put factual information into perspective and context. Only then can this information become meaningful.”
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.