So says President Obama, who is working with Chinese officials to ensure that the US sends 100,000 students to China over the next four years. The number of Americans studying in China has been rising steadily on its own, but what is the point of this? That’s a vast generalization, of course, but take it from someone who spends all day every day with American kids — they know nothing about the world outside the US.
When I say “nothing” I want you to understand exactly what I mean, so here are some examples. I asked my students what language they speak in Australia. Less than half of them knew for sure, several thought “Australian”, and one of them said French. I asked them what continent China was on, and only around half of them got it right. Several of them wrote “China”. I could go on, but you’ve heard these statistics before. That’s because they are true. American students are woefully, woefully ignorant of the world outside their iPods.
As some of you know, I teach Chinese and History at a boarding school in New England, so my students tend to be privileged. They have grown up with more and better access to education than the average American. Many of them have traveled abroad with their parents before. By all accounts, they ought to be performing better than the average American on simple questions like the ones I asked them, which makes their abject failure even more worrisome. Obviously, my “study” was not at all scientific and my sample size far too small, but this is a blog, so I’m going to make the point anyway: Americans don’t know anything about other countries.
More worrisome than that, though (after all, as a teacher, isn’t that kind of my fault) is that at least among my students, I believe there is a complete lack of empathy for those outside the US’s borders, especially those in faraway places like Asia. Students act as though historical events were plot points in a movie, and their writing further betrays that conceptually speaking, they do not perceive the places we are talking about as real.
I probably don’t have to explain why that’s a problem in the long term. Now, maybe kids are all like this, or have always been like this. I wouldn’t know. But I do think I understand why Obama wants to send 100,000 Americans to China. They aren’t all going to come back speaking Chinese fluently, ready to join the CIA’s China analysts pushing desks in Virginia. But they are all going to come back with a real sense that there is a world outside the US. They’re going to come back with friends, business contacts, and experiences — real life experiences, not classroom knowledge — that turn the Sino-American policy debate into something that seems real and important. Say what you will about Obama, but at least when it comes to China, it seems like he’s not planning to throw the whole “mutual understanding” thing under the bus.
But I am extremely tired, and it’s possible this line of reasoning makes no sense, so, what do you think?