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Insights and Analysis

American Foreign Policy and American Education

May 13, 2015

By John J. Brandon

Two reports with ungainly titles and ostensibly nothing to do with each other were released by U.S. federal agencies last month. Together, these two reports should provoke a moment of reflection by anyone interested in the future of U.S. foreign policy.

The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) is the State Department’s blueprint for U.S. foreign policy. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the Education Department’s periodic assessment of America’s eighth graders, often called “the nation’s report card.”

John Brandon

John Brandon

What American policymakers and legislators on both sides of the aisle should understand is that there is a link between these two reports, because how well we teach the next generation about history, civics, and geography will shape our efforts to strengthen our democracy and maintain America’s standing in the world.

One of the QDDR’s four policy priorities is “to promote open, resilient, and democratic societies” by investing in democracy and governance programs, expanding anti-corruption initiatives, supporting civil society, protecting the open Internet, and defending human rights. Promoting open, resilient, and democratic societies is key if the U.S. is to be successful in achieving the report’s other three priorities: (1) preventing and mitigating conflict and violent extremism, (2) advancing inclusive economic growth, and (3) mitigating and adapting to climate change.

But the U.S. will struggle to achieve these objectives if it fails to instill a strong knowledge of American history, civics, and geography in the next generation of citizens. The NAEP found that just 18 percent of a nationally representative sample of eighth graders scored proficient or higher in American history. Just one percent were rated advanced. Civics and geography didn’t fare much better, with just 23 and 27 percent, respectively, scoring proficient. Most eighth graders did not understand time zones, and 25 percent thought Canada was a dictatorship. Even more disturbingly, just 32 percent of students tested knew that “the government of the United States should be a democracy” is a political belief shared by most people in America. The majority of eighth graders answered that “the U.S. government should guarantee everyone a job.”

What does this say about the United States? We are a country whose foreign policy values the promotion of open, resilient, democratic societies, yet America’s children lack the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for America itself to be a healthy democracy. This comes at a time when Asia is beginning to wield greater international influence and play a larger role in world affairs. If Americans remain ignorant of emerging trends in Asia and elsewhere, it will undermine the ability of the United States to meet many of the global challenges it faces, including how to effectively address violent extremism and advance inclusive economic growth.

In a little over two weeks, we have seen two massive earthquakes in Nepal, the discovery of a mass grave of human trafficking victims in Thailand, continuing violence in the Middle East, and violent demonstrations against police killings in U.S. cities that have drawn international scrutiny. If Americans are to understand and address issues such as human rights abuses, violent conflict, terrorism, race relations, and poverty, they will need to have an informed, historical, social, and geographical context for doing so. The failure of Americans to understand their own history, their civic culture, and world geography will compromise America’s standing in the world as well as our democracy at home.

John J. Brandon is senior director of The Asia Foundation’s regional cooperation programs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Nepal, Thailand
Related programs: Regional and International Relations
Related topics: Education, Foreign Aid, International Development


  1. The rot in our educational system began with Proposition 13 in California years ago when the ultra-rich convinced the rest to vote in favor of depriving the schools of funding by the people who could afford it (property owners) and made the people whose income was already low by comparison with the past and getting lower (the 99%) pay for it all.

    California thereby managed to take one of the world’s best educational systems pre-K through university and bring it down to levels no Scandinavian country would tolerate. Congratulations!

    At this rate, “the world’s only indispensable country” in foreign affairs is slated to have the shortest ride at the top of any great power in history. Foreign policy problem solved.

  2. How true and how sad is what Judith Heimann writes. But are Californians unable to reverse this losing proposition? Up to you, Californians.

  3. Greetings – I enjoyed reading this article and thought it raised some vital issues. It’s long been an article of faith that you can’t have a truly functioning democracy without an informed citizenry, and for various reasons, our country has not done all that it could to ensure this is the case in the area of foreign affairs – ironically, given our country’s prominence on the world stage. I was involved in putting together the QDDR, and wanted to draw your attention (and that of your readers) to a section of the report, entitled ‘Engaging Americans as Partners in Foreign Affairs.’ We propose involving diaspora and faith-based communities among our public-private partnerships in making connections with non-governmental groups form other countries. But in addition to that, we also propose a new program, called Engage America, in which Foreign Service personnel will be required to spend time engaging directly with the American people (via classrooms or civic groups). This can be done in the U.S. or virtually, while serving abroad. We envision a radically increased level of engagement; we want young Americans to become more informed about global issues, and to consider a career serving their country abroad.

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