Americans don’t understand the world, but it’s not too late to learn

Our president’s latest mean-spirited slur shows that, when it comes to understanding the world, many Americans simply don’t.

In disparaging African and Haitian immigrants with his “shithole countries” comment, the president not only demonstrated his ignorance and contempt for people who don’t look like him, but also proved that he is clearly living in his own made-up reality.

In Trump’s twisted world, immigrants from “shithole” African countries are bringing us down. In reality, these immigrants are lifting us up. As reporter Ann M. Simmons pointed out in a Jan. 12 L.A. Times article about African immigrants, these new Americans are “significantly more likely to have … a master’s degree, medical degree, law degree or a doctorate” than the average citizen born in the U.S. They also are more likely to work as doctors and surgeons.

The fact that so many people blindly believe Trump’s inflammatory and racist proclamations about people from other cultures is sickening, but not exactly surprising. As a group, Americans are severely lacking in knowledge about world affairs: A 2016 survey conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Geographic Society found that the majority of college-educated young Americans age 18 to 26 failed basic questions related to geography, current foreign affairs, world economics and trade with other countries. Most had no idea where our military troops are stationed. Few realized that, from 2010-2015, the number of Mexicans leaving the U.S. to return to their home country was greater than the number of Mexicans entering the U.S.

This ignorance of the world takes its toll. As Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass pointed out in a National Geographic article about the survey, not understanding foreign affairs leads to a population that is susceptible to populist appeals — like Trump’s — and is “simply not well grounded.”

The survey’s foreword is more direct: “To contend for jobs, assume leadership positions … and hold elected officials accountable, young people must understand the global context in which they operate as citizens and professionals. Yet our survey shows that many individuals educated in this country do not. This constitutes a major national challenge.”

Our education system is failing us by not including classes aimed at broadening Americans’ understanding of how the world operates and how we can find our place in this global system.

But it’s not just the education system that is to blame for this lack of understanding. American life does little to encourage exploration or travel. Unlike other “first world” nations, the U.S. does not require employers to give paid vacation time. A full 25 percent of Americans have no vacation, and the majority have two weeks or less each year. Compare that to Australia, where they have a minimum of four weeks of vacation time or France, where it’s five weeks.

Most of us here in the U.S. have no time to travel outside our own little corner of the world. We never get the chance to experience that thrill of immersing ourselves in a different culture, and of dispelling the close-minded stereotypes about “other people” that we’ve grown up with.

There aren’t any quick-fix solutions for this lack of knowledge. To catch up with the rest of the world, we are going to need to undergo a massive shift in our priorities. Are we going to push for foreign affairs curriculum in our public schools? Will we encourage our young people to, as they do in places like New Zealand and the United Kingdom, take a year between high school and college to explore the world? Will we as workers fight for more vacation time and then use it to travel? Will we call out leaders for their lack of global affairs knowledge or just blindly follow them?

Here in Camas, there is one small thing you can do. A new foreign affairs discussion group is starting up (see page A1 in this issue of The Post-Record for more information). They plan to be a nonpartisan, informal group that follows the expert-written Great Decisions foreign policy book and discusses issues going on in the world today. Joining that group — or starting one of your own — is a great first step to conquering the vast amount of misinformation out there, and to becoming a better, well-rounded citizen of the world.