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Americans Need to Expand Their View of the World
29 January 2002
Today, many Americans are experiencing a newfound sense of solidarity. But the promise of national togetherness without a sense of its limits is hollow indeed. That's why many, while recognizing the importance of banding together now, have been pushed toward a renewed sense of internationalism. Across the nation, there is a thirst for knowledge about Islam, the Mideast, Afghanistan, foreign policy, even germ warfare and an answer to that vexing question: Why do they hate us so?
Yet few of the institutions Americans rely on for knowledge of the world beyond our borders are seriously up to the task. American media are notoriously local. Most Americans get their news from television, where coverage rarely extends beyond local crime and human-interest stories. Even those who watch network news usually receive little about life beyond our borders. Many of our best newspapers have scant resources to cover international news adequately and, when they do, they rarely give us enough context to make complicated foreign policies truly understandable.
American parochialism begins early. I can count on one hand the number of books I read by or about non-Europeans in college and graduate school. Few Americans speak non-European languages, let alone European languages other than English. (Sheepishly, I count myself among them.) Now, as a college professor, I feel ill-equipped to teach about subjects beyond the United States and Europe.
The cycle perpetuates itself. And, when we do expose ourselves to life outside our borders, we too often bring with us defensiveness. I'll never forget one American tourist's reaction upon checking into a hotel I was staying at in southern Spain years ago: "They don't speak English - can you imagine?"
Last year, I taught U.S. students studying in London on their year-abroad experience. While reading the newspapers and speaking to locals, these fresh-faced 19- and 20-year-olds often found themselves confronted by resentment of American power, affluence and complacency. Their discomfort was compounded when they traveled on the continent, where anti-Americanism is often even more vitriolic. Most of the students responded with a sense of confusion and defensiveness. Few were able to step back from their own experience to figure out why others resented them.
It's no wonder my students felt this way: Never before had they encountered reasonable, critical arguments that questioned America's place in the world. Few, for example, had even heard that the United States alone refuses to combat global warming - despite being the biggest contributor to it - a fact that stuns millions of Europeans. Rarely, if ever, had my students seen programming on television or taken courses in college that would have permitted them to see these resentments as principled responses, rather than knee-jerk leftism or xenophobia.
That's because our most respected institutions have retreated from their responsibility to inform and educate the American public about our place in the world. Yet, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni - founded by Lynne Cheney, the wife of the vice president - in a recent report titled "Defending Civilization," proclaims that the problem is inadequate teaching of Western culture and American history, which is undermining the "defense" of civilization.
In fact, it's the opposite: We do an inadequate job of teaching about cultures other than our own.
Getting to know the world better is a rather daunting prospect, to be sure. Often, it's difficult enough to figure out what's going on in our own backyard. We're a vast country, and sometimes the differences that divide us seem as great as the differences that separate us from the rest of the world. Sure, we share a common language and a flag, but anyone who has ever traveled the breadth of this country knows that it defies easy characterization.
When we do travel or do business abroad, the dominance of the English language, the dollar and American corporations - not to mention Madonna, Michael Jackson and the latest Hollywood releases - means that it's easier than ever to insulate ourselves in our American bubbles.
But we lose much in the process. We become oblivious to how harsh life is for most of the world's inhabitants. And we lose a sense of how, in a rapidly globalizing world, we are - for better or for worse - deeply involved in the lives of millions of people we will never meet.
In England, perhaps our closest ally in the battle against terrorism, television programs - news, documentaries and dramas - daily document life outside of the British Isles. A good deal of the evening news, for example, is devoted to reports of happenings in distant lands - and not exclusively places where their national interests are located. Britons clearly have a stake in knowing about life outside their borders. And so do we.
How strange that today our "nation of immigrants" often defines its interests ever more narrowly. But it's in our own self-interest as Americans to better know the world - not simply to control it, but understand who we are in relation to it.