THE BLOG
11/29/2012 03:36 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

Geo-Illiteracy

Recently, President Obama flew to Myanmar and described the United States as a Pacific nation. Asia, he said, represents the future. Secretary of State Clinton traveled to Israel to assist a ceasefire agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The United States officially expressed dismay over Egyptian President Morsi's decrees leading his country away from democracy. In Qatar, international climate officials and environment ministers expressed hope that the United States will step forward to take a larger role in addressing global climate change. American leaders fear that the deepening European fiscal crisis will drag the U.S. economy into another recession. Daily, our news is filled with foreign affairs: important situations and relationships that affect the future of the world. How do global events impact the citizens of this democratic republic? What is the citizen's responsibility toward these unfolding events?

George Washington, in his 1796 farewell address, warned "against the insidious wiles of foreign influence" and reminded his "fellow-citizens" that "the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government." Even Washington, however, was aware of his country's international impact. In 1790, Lafayette sent Washington a key to the Bastille, a symbolic testament to the way American ideas had helped to set the stage for revolution in his homeland of France. But in those early years the future of America was yet uncertain. With France and Great Britain, the great warring powers of Europe, trying to maneuver the United States into an alliance against the other, at a time when the speed of transatlantic communication was measured in weeks, Washington urged a neutral course.

Washington's advice was sound counsel for his time. Throughout much of our history, the United States has had the luxury of closing ourselves off from problems elsewhere in the world. But since World War II, Americans have occupied an important role around the globe. United States foreign policy and military forces were essential to defeating the Axis powers. Then we turned our attention to a Communist enemy, and for nearly half a century the United States led and fostered democracies through the Cold War. The world changed dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century. Today we live in a "flat world" with lightning-fast communications, with international travel calculated in hours, with decreasing restrictions on international trade and commercial transactions, and in which the United States is the world power.

Even as the United States' international role grows, however, our knowledge of the world we live in lags behind. Since 1994, geographic literacy -- understanding of places and cultures of the world -- declined among American twelfth-graders, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Even educated adult Americans are uninformed and unsophisticated about geography. Perhaps that ignorance helps fuel an increasing fear of the world and of other cultures. And yet, Americans seem hyper-concerned when it comes to our nation's competitiveness in the world. Can our educational system compete with those of China and India? Will we have the innovators and workers to be competitive in a 21st-century world economy?

According to the World Economic Forum, the United States is losing global competiveness. It dropped from fifth to seventh in their 2012-2013 rankings. The number-one solution to this issue, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for a Competitive Workforce, is to increase "the focus on science, technology, engineering and math education" (a.k.a. STEM education). But STEM education will do little for the nation's future if our scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians have no clue how to find China on a map, or if they misunderstand the cultures of India (the most populous democracy in the world), or know nothing of the resources -- natural and human -- of the African or South American continents. We need to teach our children geography. We need citizens who are versed in world history. We need citizens who understand world cultures. These and other humanities disciplines are essential tools for us -- citizens of this republic -- as we struggle to comprehend the fast-paced conditions of our world. Understanding how we arrived in this situation, at this place and time, is essential for finding a path forward.

The foreign policy journey of our nation has been an exciting one full of variety, intrigue, challenges, disasters and successes. It is not, however, a journey reserved for a few professional diplomats hidden away in our national bureaucracy. It affects us every single day. It is time to get engaged. Discuss world issues with your children. Locate with them on a world map the news stories you see and hear. Investigate the history and cultures of the peoples involved. What are the cultural differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims? What is the Chinese governance system? Who is their new president, and how is his regime and its policies likely to affect your community and your family? Who are our nation's free-trade partners? Do those free-trade policies help or hinder your community, and in what ways?

"Foreign influence" does not have to be the threat to the republic that George Washington described. But there is still a need for the "jealousy of a free people . . . to be constantly awake." A free people are informed. A free people -- the citizens of the United States -- must shoulder their responsibilities and engage the world.