It was hard not to chuckle when I read that the National Geographic Society and the Council on Foreign Relations had released the results of a new global knowledge survey. There has been little evidence of such knowledge anywhere since the US plunged into one of the dirtiest and least literate presidential races in recent memory.
The survey gauged the global knowledge of 18-26 year old adults who currently attend or recently attended a US school of higher education. Yet only 30% of those surveyed answered 2/3 or more of the questions correctly. And only 1% got 91% or more of them correct.
Some of the questions were admittedly a bit tricky. China, for example, is not the US’s largest trading partner, as most respondents believed. Nor is Mexico, despite all of the political rhetoric about NAFTA’s impact on the US economy. The US’s largest trading partner is Canada, a fact that only 10% of the respondents got correctly, although the US does import more from China than any other single country.
Less than one third of the respondents knew that more than half of the population of Indonesia identify as Muslims, while an equal amount incorrectly believed that the majority of the citizens of India do. (Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world.)
Perhaps most concerning, however, given the US pivot to Asia, the destabilizing impact of North Korea’s relentless efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and the potential for military flare ups over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, only 28% of respondents knew that the US is bound by treaty to protect Japan in the event of attack. And only 34% knew that the US has a similar obligation to South Korea, a country that North Korea has threatened to use its budding nuclear arsenal against on numerous occasions. Military flare-ups in Southeast Asia, in other words, could easily lead to the loss of US lives.
Why the disconnect? How can issues that are this important to a shrinking, interconnected geo-political world be so misunderstood?
Some of the blame, of course, can probably be laid at the doorstep of social media, which many people now rely on as a primary source of ‘news.’ These are not topics that people are tweeting about, or issues that are generating likes on Facebook.
Even our traditional hard news outlets devote much of their news coverage to pop culture and celebrity. In their defense, of course, this is what people want to hear. And, as a result, what advertisers are willing to pay for.
Nonetheless, the lack of international news included in US news broadcasts stunned me when I returned to the US four months ago. I believe the Chinese, despite frequent Western political accusations to the contrary, are exposed to far more international news than their American counterparts when adjusting for access to media.
And, of course, geo-politics and global literacy just don’t lend themselves to the ten-second sound bite or the high impact graphic. It’s just not the stuff of chat rooms or viral video. Who wants to learn more about the population of Indonesia when you can watch cute cat videos instead?
How can we have a meaningful debate about global trade when two-thirds of respondents believe that the Chinese economy is bigger than the economy of the US? (China’s is the world’s second largest economy. It remains dwarfed by the US.)
Perhaps, however, it is the disintegration of the family dinner that deserves the most blame for our lack of global knowledge. Much of what I learned about geo-politics as a young person was acquired at the family dinner table. My brother and I came of age during the height of the Vietnam Conflict, so the family dinner conversation tended to be quite lively and informative. There was a lot at stake.
And maybe that’s the key. Perhaps we simply need to convince people that there is a lot at stake. Or that learning can, in fact, be both empowering and fun.
If we can’t convince people of the gravity of the issues, I fear, history may inevitably make the case on our behalf. It always does.
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