THE BLOG

Seeking a More Cosmopolitan America

09/07/2011 04:44 pm ET | Updated Nov 07, 2011

During the first class session of my introductory course in cultural anthropology, I always ask how many students speak a foreign language. In some classes a few students raise their hands, but more often than not, my introductory classes are filled with monolingual college students. I then ask how many students are majoring in a foreign language. Again, only one or two students raise their hands.

"Don't you want to be able to speak a foreign language?"

"It's too hard," a student says.

"It takes up too much time," another student states."

"It's not going to do me any good."

I teach at a public university at which students can receive a quality education at a reasonable cost. Most of my students come from middle and lower middle class suburban households. Many of them have never traveled outside of the United States. Some of them think that once you leave America, the living conditions deteriorate and the world becomes dangerous. In January of this year, according to the State Department, 114,464,041, or 37 percent of Americans, held passports, meaning that about 2 of 3 Americans can't even go to Canada or Mexico--or anywhere else beyond our borders.

The lack of volition to travel overseas corresponds to a shocking ignorance about other parts of the world. Contemporary students are notoriously ignorant of world geography. Many of them think that Africa, for example, is one country rather than a continent of 53 sovereign nations. The complex social and political reality of the politically, religiously and cultural diverse nations that comprise the African continent is reduced to superficial images of famine and war. The Middle East, which, like Africa, is a socially and culturally diverse region, becomes the space of Muslim terrorists who want to destroy our way of life.

"But does he study of foreign language, world history, or anthropology make a difference to me?"

I try to explain that knowledge of languages and cultures opens new and wondrous worlds of experience. If you speak French or Spanish, just think of the wide range of fascinating people you'll meet. Just imagine, I say, the sites you'll see--something you'll never forget, something that will broaden your world and make it more meaningful. Using the case of the war in Iraq in which our decision-makers woeful ignorance of Islam and the dynamics of tribal politics, I try to explain the how cultural ignorance resulted tragically in the egregious loss of life and national treasure. Is there not a connection, I ask, between using borrowed money to wage an ill-conceived war and our current economic plight? Do you know anyone is out of work today?

Many of my students fail to see the relevance of these questions. They sometimes have a difficult time connecting a distant cause to a near-by effect. A diet of Reality TV, celebrity culture, and inane text messaging contributes little to the growth of the imagination. How can you learn a foreign language or travel overseas if you can't imagine ever doing it? How can we as a people solve our problems if we, too, lack the imagination to construct creative solutions?

Imagination, innovation, and creativity, of course, are cultivated through education, which is one of first areas that our politicians like to cut from their shrinking budgets. In my university system, state officials look at the "weak performance" of foreign language programs (number of students taught, number of majors, number of graduates) and threaten to discontinue them out in the name of "efficiency." Such efficiency, I'm afraid, compromises our future.

Many professors dislike teaching introductory courses, which tend to be filled with students who have little interest in the subject. They need introductory courses to fulfill graduation requirements. That means introductory students often show little appreciation for the instructor's expertise or the topics under discussion. As for me, I find teaching introductory courses an important challenge. The vast of majority of my students will never take another course in anthropology. But if I can say something that flips an invisible switch that sparks their imagination, they may think a bit differently about world. If I can show them that remotely situated exotic groups have complex economic systems and religious beliefs, they might take a broader more nuanced approach to international relations and world politics. If I inspire just a handful of my introductory students to think a new thought or feel a new feeling, my course will have been a success, for those students will have discovered the power of imagination. Their newly found open-mindedness will help to construct a more cosmopolitan America.

Who knows, maybe one of two of my introductory students will learn Spanish, French, Russian or Chinese? Who knows, maybe one or two of them will apply for a passport?