If my students in introductory college classes were any indication, Americans in general are ill-equipped to understand our world and American policies. Just as bad, most students evidenced little understanding of or interest in American history and the nature of our political institutions. A significant number didn’t know how to analyze a map. All of these are essential skills for citizenship in a globally connected world—and especially essential to act as an informed citizen who can parse competing political claims that affect American policies.
It is also important to remember that the majority of American students never attend a post-secondary institution; the knowledge these students possess on leaving high school is what they bring to their responsibilities as citizens. It is true that American students must have STEM skills in order to have the freedom to select higher educational and career pathways leading to STEM employment. Too many don’t have the basic math and science skills necessary to major in these areas in college. Unfortunately, it is just as true that without adequate preparation in history, geography, and culture, students can neither understand nor effectively respond to issues and events that affect their daily lives.
Here are a few of the areas of ignorance that these students brought to my college introductory classes, skills and knowledge that I had assumed they had mastered in high school:
- The causes of and participants in the American Revolution. France was often identified as the nation the US had fought. Students were sometimes as much as a century off in dating the revolution. This ignorance was also tied to that of being able to identify the issues and debates that have characterized American history ever since.
- The nature of American society and its stresses at the time of the Revolution. Those students who could accurately identify the two combatants and relative time period of the revolution sometimes labored under the false sense that America was primarily British and Christian, with little appreciation for its diversity in terms of origin, language and religion that represented the global reach of the early modern period—and therefore brought diverse peoples to American shores. These cultural stresses challenged founders to unite and lead the nation; these same stresses continue to potentially divide us as a people today. The threat of division and destruction from within has been part of us as a people from our start.
- Geography and how to read a map. Too many students had to be taught to read a map and many could not place on a map the nations of the world. In class after class, students would identify the Arabian peninsula as the location for Afghanistan and Pakistan. If these were majority Muslim states, they had to be on the Arabian peninsula, didn’t they? One exchange student actually banged his knee with his fist in frustration at this ignorance, saying, “Every student in my country can place every nation in the world on a map. America is the world’s global power, and you don’t even know the countries of the world! How can America lead the world if you know nothing about it?”
- Current events. This is less surprising. Since none of these students would ever be drafted to fight, a significant number didn’t have the urgency to understand US policies and their effects on the world that earlier generations experienced.
- Comparative political process. From the point of view of a citizen, what effects on one’s life do the legislative, administrative, and judicial branches of government have? How does one understand these effects? What can citizens do about them?
- Islam and other religions. Many students assumed all Muslims were Arab and all Arabs were Muslims. They had no sense that Islam spread through Africa, Asia and parts of Europe by a variety of means to become a major world religion (one of five) with complex relations with the cultures that the religion had encountered along the way. These relations produced a diversity of practices. When European nations began their colonial expansions, Muslims found their ways to the Americas. Some fought in the American Revolution and have served in our wars ever since. These students didn’t realize that, before recent conflicts, the Middle East had been one of the most religiously diverse regions in the world. They also didn’t realize that this region had served as the repository for the knowledge of math, philosophy, and medicine that crusaders brought back to Europe. It was this body of knowledge that had fueled the Enlightenment in Europe and contributed to development of science and technological innovations of today. But then again, history was a weakness in general. The network of connections among thinkers in Southern Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa as that had contributed so much to the development of western understanding was virtually unknown.
In short, too many of the students whom I experienced had few of the skills necessary to understand their own political history and civics in order to make use of that knowledge. They also lacked a basic understanding of the world in order to read the news critically. Today information is “weaponized.” Propaganda (fake news, manufactured news, fake research by fake think tanks) is used to arouse and manipulate people. It is spread instantaneously and amplified by tweets, bots, and trolls. If STEM is essential for providing students with the skills for employment in emerging sectors of the economy, then it is just as important–in fact, it is critically important–to provide students with the knowledge of geography, history, and culture that will provide them the resources with which to think critically and act insightfully in the turbulence of globalization processes in the 21st century.