American Foreign Policy and American Education
May 13, 2015
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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