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Why the Future of American Intellectualism Depends on Study Abroad

04/03/2015 11:57 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

Remember that one time when Khloe Kardashian posted this photo of herself with Scott Disick and Chris Reda for Halloween last October, and had no idea why it was "culturally offensive?"

This, um, lack of global awareness is exactly what inspired author Susan Jacoby to publish her book, The Age of American Unreason, in 2008 -- which echoes similar criticisms made by a circle of new writers towards the state of American culture. Jacoby feels that, in the United States, there is a "general hostility towards knowledge," and that anti-intellectualism (the attitude that "too much learning can be a dangerous thing") and anti-rationalism ("the idea that there is no such thing as evidence or fact, just opinion") are fusing together in a particularly insidious way.

She points to a 2006 National Geographic poll that found that nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. don't think it's necessary -- or important -- to know where the countries in the news are located. Now, let me be the first to admit that throughout the course of my young adult life, I have absolutely been guilty of this "way of thinking" on a variety of occasions. The amount of times that I chose to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians over CNN last summer is embarrassingly high.

However, to my mother's relief, this all changed when I decided to participate in an SIT study abroad program in Argentina for the spring semester of 2015. For the first time in my entire life, I am being forced to think about the U.S. from an outside perspective -- and it has been an eye-opening experience to say the least. After recent visits to different "Dirty War" memorials located in the city, I realized just how much I don't know anything about anything.

For example, I can vaguely remember brushing over the surface of the Argentine "Dirty War" in one of my Spanish classes last year, but by no means did I truly understand the detrimental impacts this "Holocaust-like" movement had on Latin America. Or that, even though the war ended in 1983, the aftermath from this monstrosity is still affecting Argentine citizens today -- such as the 298 Argentines who have still yet to recover their true identities stolen from them as newborns. Let alone that the U.S. played a key role in teaching these oppressive, anti-communist dictatorships different torture techniques at the School of the Americas.

I couldn't help but feel embarrassed by how little my home country felt the need to teach these crucial global topics. Were my schools to blame? Or was it my fault for not taking it upon myself to develop a deeper curiosity for global learning? After taking a look at the following statistics, I realized that the answer is both.

  • The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs commissioned a civic education poll among public school students; 77 percent didn't know that George Washington was the first president, and only 2.8 percent actually passed the citizenship test
  • According to a Gallup poll, 18 percent of Americans still believe that the sun revolves around the earth
  • In a 2002 National Geographic Society survey, 85 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Americans were unable to locate Afghanistan and Iraq on a map, 69 percent were unable to locate Great Britain, and 29 percent were unable to find the Pacific Ocean

It looks like Jacoby really is on to something after all. Critics like Jacoby are claiming that these embarrassing statistics are a result of an egocentric educational system and an increasing trend of anti-intellectual attitudes promoted via social media.

Referring to the fact that only one in three American seventh to twelfth graders study a foreign language, Michael F. Sullivan, Director of the Agency of Instructional Technology, believes that "the world has indeed accommodated Americans. Of course, America hasn't bothered to accommodate anyone else."

Author Ray Williams blames American culture and the media for exalting the "athlete and good-looking cheerleader," while intellectual students are depicted as characters from The Big Bang Theory. John W. Traphagan, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas, parallels Williams' attitudes on American culture, and found that the majority of Asian countries tend to have core cultural values more akin to a cult of intelligence and education. Which is probably why students in many other countries are consistently outperforming American students in science, math, and reading on comparative tests.

Lastly, in a piece for The New York Times, journalist Bill Keller blames U.S. anti-intellectualism on the online universe that "skews young, educated and attentive to fashions." How else can we explain the successes of the Kardashians or Paris Hilton, when neither of them has contributed anything worthy of discussion?

Yes, the United States may be the wealthiest and most powerful nation -- why should we care about a plane crash in India if no Americans were on board? But in the words of Sullivan, that merely gives us a greater obligation to help others.

I am grateful for my time here in Argentina, because I believe that international experience is a great way to learn how to work with and understand people from other cultures (and because Dulce de Leche is life). It's also crucial to building relationships between different communities around the world, in which we can then utilize towards solving global challenges together. Let's try and bump that study abroad statistic up.