America isn’t the world. The world is not America.

I was going through some of my old files yesterday and found a report I’d written right after visiting a high school in Iowa. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. And I’m sorry to state that these experiences aren’t just representative of Iowan highschoolers, they pretty much reflect the narrow worldview Americans have.

May 17, 2004

My first reaction after the questions started pouring in was, “American kids need more global education!”

I had gone to Tipton High School as the first of many visits to make a presentation on India, the country I hail from. This excursion was part of the International Classroom Journey (ICJ) program, sponsored by International Programs at The University of Iowa. ICJ is a resource for internationalizing eastern Iowa’s K-12 classrooms by exposing students to different world cultures through interactions with study-abroad returnees and international students and scholars at The University of Iowa.

Perhaps, my expectations were too high from the 10th graders I spoke to. But I had imagined they’d know much more about the largest democracy in the world than they did. Unfortunately, they thought Mahatma Gandhi was the first prime minister of India and that it took six hours to travel from my country to the States. Barb Carey, the class teacher, expressed her sadness on the ignorance of the students and blamed their limited knowledge of the world on the way the curriculum was designed. “I think the media are also to blame for this narrow perception of the world. We don’t get as much international news as we should,” she said.

Amy, a 17-year-old, enthusiastically asked me if we celebrated birthdays in India and was surprised when I replied in the affirmative. Britney, a shy 16-year-old, wondered aloud if Indian women waxed and I had to show her my legs as proof that we did!

I realized that children here grow up with certain images of India. The Taj Mahal, poverty stricken villagers, dirty overcrowded streets, impoverished illiterate children, caste system and spicy food, being the most common.

With little or no global education being incorporated in their syllabus, they rely on prevalent stereotypes and the limited information their teachers provide them with. “There is no actual percentage of international education mandated in our curricula,” said Carey. “It is difficult to expose students to international cultures in this small Iowa town but not impossible.”

I showed them a Power Point presentation which included the images they readily recognized and a lot of other cultural icons they gaped at in amazement.

It was never so for Vitalis Torwel, a journalism student at UI from Nigeria. Torwel said that he studied American history and music in his school. “Globalization has permeated one way into cultures the world over; for Americans, though, their world is restricted to their national boundary only,” he said.

Jenna Kashou, a student in the Liberal Arts College, who went to Spain on a study abroad program for an entire semester said, “I was so excited about spending four months in a country I didn’t know much about. I wish we were taught more about countries like Italy, Jamaica, Japan or Sri Lanka while we were younger.” Kashou added that Spanish was the most popular foreign language students learnt in American colleges and inclusion of other languages in the curriculum would go a long way in piquing interest in other cultures.

What surprised me most during the two hour presentation was that I knew more, about not just the U.S. but many other countries at their age, than they ever would. I had comparison studies of the U.S. and Indian parliamentary and legal systems in ninth grade; I watched American soap operas to the extent that Oprah Winfrey, Friends, The Bold and the Beautiful, and Baywatch were part of daily school gossip; we ate Dominos pizzas and Mc Donald’s burgers and wore Nike apparel and Reebok shoes; we, as children, were exposed to so much more.

I came away from the school with an invitation to pay a second visit. “Students here need international ambassadors to give them real time first hand information,” said Carey.

I could not agree more.

Jason Jones, a reporter on The Daily Show, had a similar experience rather recently when he found out how knowledgeable Iranians were of American history and how ignorant Americans (at least, New Yorkers) were about Iran.

Is it really just a question of blaming the media? Or is it more of a cultural attitude of ignorance is bliss? Or is it that Americans think they can’t be bothered with the rest of the world? Californians are probably more aware of globalism but they certainly don’t represent the average American.

Thoughts?

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