News: CJ Exclusives

Gap Persists in Knowledge of Asia

Reports question whether schools adequately teach about region

North Carolina’s history and geography curriculum have been revamped, but one group is saying that American schools aren’t doing enough to fill the huge gap in young Americans’ knowledge about Asia.

That’s not only ignorant, it’s dangerous, according to the Asia Society in its Asia in the Schools report “Preparing Young Americans For Today’s Interconnected World.” U.S. military involvement in Iraq, and international focus on the Middle East, make understanding present-day Asia essential, they say. Instead, American social studies classes often present Asia as more of an ancient curiosity, purely in terms of remote civilizations or world exploration.

They have a point. According to the “National Geographic-Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey,” for young Americans between 18 and 24, “only one in seven can find Iraq (13 percent) or Iran (13 percent) on a map of Middle East/Asia.” The state of Israel is mentioned daily in most major U.S. news markets, but only 14 percent of those surveyed could find Israel on a map.

The problem is, it would be hard to fit another special focus into North Carolina’s social studies lineup. The curriculum contains separate sections for African-American, Latino-American, and American Indian issues. “Every group wants a special focus,” said Penny Maguire, social studies curriculum consultant for the middle-school grades. Middle school, specifically seventh grade, is where the substantive instruction about Asia, Africa, and Australia is placed in the standard course of study.

Schools “can’t be comprehensive,” Maguire said. But increasing American knowledge and understanding of an area that contains 30 percent of the world’s land mass, and at least 60 percent of its people, is no small task. There is simply too much material, Maguire said, to study every country or region across all three continents in a single year. So schools pick and choose. As a result, only a few countries get detailed attention.

The North Carolina standard course of study includes what educators call “strands,” or connections to international topics, in grades as early as elementary school. But the Asia report stresses the need for a more comprehensive approach, woven throughout the curriculum, and strongly urges Asian language study beginning in the earliest school years.

North Carolina has a stake in this knowledge game. Exports to Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and China via North Carolina already total in the tens of billions of dollars annually, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce.

The Roper/National Geographic survey revealed that knowledge of geography facts about Asia and the Middle East were weakest among American, Mexican, and Canadian subjects. Nine countries in all — the United States, Mexico, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Italy, France, Japan and Great Britain — participated in the survey.

Asia studies in North Carolina schools

The “strands“ approach to social studies topics is widely used across the United States. It is part of what Frazee and Ayers refer to in the Fordham Foundation’s Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? text as the “expanding environments” approach. In a gradually widening circle, students are exposed to concepts that flow from the home outward.

The problem with this approach, Frazee and Ayers say, is that it lacks meaningful content. Students are not prepared to deal with substantive subject matter, so they are asked to see “connections,” beginning as early as kindergarten. These “strands” are supposed to stay with them and become a unified and sophisticated whole by the time they finish high school. Frazee and Ayers argue that these “baby steps” are also “deeply boring.” That’s another reason that students discard them along the way, they say.

The North Carolina social studies curriculum exhibits all of the hallmarks of the “expanding environments” approach. It is non-chronological, tends to be repetitious, and focus topics tend to be narrow and arbitrary.

The Roper/National Geographic survey documents the result of years of this approach. Young Americans don’t know how the United States compares to other countries. On one question, for example, Americans estimated that the U.S. population is about 33 percent of global population. They didn’t know enough facts to form an accurate perspective.

The Asia in the Schools report recommends an integrated approach to history and geography, just as Fordham does. Fordham would use the United States to anchor modern events, presented in chronological order. Asia in the Schools suggests adding Asian language, geography, and history to the current plan. Early access to language instruction is a central theme of the Asia report. From K-12, all students should be able to study at least one Asian language.

Neglecting urgent concerns?

The Asia report, along with the results of the National Geographic survey, make a good case that young Americans are severely lacking in knowledge of facts related to international geography, history, or culture and politics. But North Carolina revisits content in the standard course of study once every five years. The 2003-04 school year begins a five-year cycle for the social studies curriculum approved in March 2003.

Some argue that students need to improve their understanding of Asian cultures, geography, and political issues now. “The nation urgently needs to improve the way students are prepared for the world awaiting them. Enhancing teaching about Asia is central to this task, “Preparing Young Americans” argues. Asia is home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world. According to the report, Korea, Singapore, and Japan have a nearly 100 percent literacy rate. Vietnam has a 97 percent literacy rate, and “a rich base of natural resources.”

With huge potential markets poised to grow, Asia represents a substantial opportunity for American business, as well as a gigantic potential competitor. “However, the vast majority of Americans know very little about Asia, let alone the individual nations and cultures that make up this region.

“With ignorance comes weakness,” the Asia report says. “American ignorance is our critical vulnerability, one which may lead to bad public policy or business decisions that can harm us as a nation, as citizens, and as workers.” Investing in capital and assessing risk in Asian countries will become critical skills, the authors note.

The emphasis in North Carolina on reading and math, because of No Child Left Behind, is squeezing social studies content, Maguire said. Social studies doesn’t get tested until high school, so it’s hard to make it a priority. “One of the biggest problems in K-8 is getting social studies taught on a par with other subjects,” Maguire said.

Palasek is an assistant editor of Carolina Journal.